Why we need the language of lament

Home for Good’s Theologian in Residence, Tim Davy, shares some reflections on being honest with God, for our own sake and for others.

One of the most important lessons in prayer is that God wants us to bring our whole selves to him: the ups and downs, struggles and fears, joy, anger, confusion, awe, disappointment. You name it, God wants to hear it all. I’m not sure, though, that this message has always been embraced in contemporary church life. We tend to keep our prayers neat and tidy, polite even.

But how about we take the book of Psalms – the prayer book of the people of God for literally thousands of years – as a model for engaging with God? What would that teach us?

The Psalter begins with two beautiful poems setting out a choice in life: follow the ways of the LORD rather than the ways of the world. But what strikes me as I continue to Psalm 3 and beyond is the prayerful insistence that God pays attention to all the ways life isn’t working out as it is supposed to:

‘O LORD, how many are my foes!’ (Ps. 3:1)

‘Answer me… Give me relief… be merciful to me…’ (Ps. 4:1)

‘… consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help…’ (Ps. 5:1-2)

‘My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long? … I am worn out from groaning, all night long I flood my bed with weeping… My eyes grow weak with sorrow…’ (Ps. 6:3-7)

Perhaps surprisingly, the most common type of Psalm is one of complaint, or ‘lament’. The Psalms assume that life – and a life of faith – can be hard to navigate. This really isn’t news, is it? If we are honest about our own situations or paying attention to the lives of those around us, or even the news, there is much to wrestle with God over.

There needs to be ways of getting these questions and struggles out into the open but, it seems to me, many struggle to find the space and language to do this necessary, faithful work of honest engagement with God. It feels so uncomfortable to face our difficult questions, or we somehow feel we shouldn’t talk to God that way.

One of the resounding messages of the Psalms is that we are allowed, even encouraged, to bring painful situations to God. God takes our hurt and pain seriously and, without providing any easy answers, has given us a way of handing them over to God. Lament is not a denial of the many good things God brings into our lives but is a way of carrying our grief along with the joy we have in Jesus.

Psalm 13 is often used as an example of a ‘typical’ lament Psalm, moving from complaint and plea for deliverance (vv. 1-2), to reasons why God should act (vv. 3-4), to resolution and a statement of trust (vv. 5-6). But the assumption is that psalms like these will be prayed again and again. Lament enables us to sit in those uncomfortable spaces where there are no easy answers, and gradually move towards hope.

When I was studying for my PhD on Job people often thought it must be miserable being immersed in such a ‘negative’ book. Sure, it deals with some hard questions, but most of all I came away with a sense of gratitude that God saw it fit to include in the Bible such a deep exploration of how to live in the midst of suffering we don’t understand. During my studies I came across a very moving idea by the theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff, who writes about the grief of losing his son: ‘I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.’ (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son)

Lament is important, then, not just for us but because it sensitises us to the pain of others. Being honest with God is not just a solitary activity; after all, we are broken people placed in hope-filled communities of broken people. Lament is a way of joining together in the ‘I’m-not-OK-ness’ of life and entrusting one another to God.

As you love and raise children and young people with an experience of care, perhaps this is a year to lean in to lament – with and for them, for their wider context and society as a whole? And in those places and moments of grief, to entrust all those we love back to God. And as you do, to invite the God of all comfort, to stir hope again in our lament.

Author:
Tim Davy


Date published:
9th January 2024


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