The reason we don’t want to feel is that feeling exposes the tragedy of our world and the darkness of our hearts. No wonder we don’t want to feel. Feelings expose the illusion that life is safe, good, and predictable.
—Dr. Dan B. Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman III, Cry of the Soul
Only two months after fighting for my life, I drove to a speaking engagement.
The day before, I was too sick to get out of bed, concerned I might need to cancel. But by the next morning, I mustered my notoriously stubborn will, put on dress slacks, a blouse, and makeup, and drove to make an audio and video recording for an inter-national radio program. Determined to press forward as if nothing had happened, I swallowed all the fear, pain, and loss and put on my best faith-filled smile, complete with gloss. This is what faithful Jesus- followers do, right? They keep pushing through, no matter the cost.
I still have a picture of that day in my phone. My clothes hung off my frame, black shadows circled my eyes, radiation burns still flared red on my neck. I looked like an ad for the walking dead. I still have no idea how—or why—I did such a thing. I wasn’t being faithful, I was being foolish. Although my determination and stubbornness have served me well at times, in this case they were nothing but denial.
Although I fulfilled my speaking engagement, my grief would not be ignored. In the months that followed, the weight of cumulative loss soon bubbled to the surface and demanded a reckoning. For close to two years, I walked through a deep and dark abyss of lament. Some days it looked like weeping. Other days it looked like anger. Often, I feared I was going off the deep end. But soon I came to learn that my brain and body were doing what they were made to do: process- ing trauma and loss. I needed to stop trying to stiff-upper-lip my way through (which made it far worse) and instead allow myself to tell the truth about my pain.
I needed to practice lament.
To lament is “to express sorrow, mourning, or regret for often demonstratively . . . to regret strongly.” To lament is to give expression to the sorrow in your soul. In a sense, it is to make a formal complaint, but to take that complaint to the only one who has the power and authority to do anything about it: God Himself.
For a long time, I avoided lament. Reading Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4:4–6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, I thought the Christian life meant perpetual positivity. It’s true that we who believe in our one-day resurrection have good reason for joy. But the Bible also talks about the practice and worth of lament.
- In Genesis 50:10, Joseph and his brothers practiced lament “loudly and bitterly” at the death of their father, Jacob.
- Exodus tells us “the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. . . . So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Ex. 2:23, 25).
- In 2 Samuel, when David learns of the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, he pours out a lament (1:17–27).
- Psalm 102 is titled “A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.” Many additional psalms are lamentations, not praise. (See Psalms 6, 10, 13, 22, 38, 42, 43, and 130, among others.)
- The book of Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” is a book of complaints. It is also the longest book in the Bible, containing more words than any other book.
- And I can’t fail to mention the book of Lamentations, which is exactly what its name implies: a book of lament.
This is a small sample of lament throughout Scripture. And yet in our modern worship experience, the practice of lament is notably absent. I believe we’re missing an essential building block of our faith.
What is the purpose of lament? N. T. Wright, author and senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, England, wrote an article for Time in which he claims that…
“The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.”
First, lament gives voice to both our grief and our guilt. Like any open wound, neglect and disregard put you at greater risk for infection and scarring, even death. When we don’t give it voice, grief festers, ultimately consuming us with misery. But when we acknowledge our sorrow in the presence of the Savior, healing begins.
And second, the practice of lament not only allows us to identify and name our grief but also directs us to the source of our hope. Our grief and guilt can find redemption only when we turn to the one who holds the power and authority to redeem. As author Michelle Reyes says, “Let your lament be your declaration of hope in God in the midst of hard things.”
To complain to anyone else may bring temporary comfort, but they hold no power to heal. And often we end up deeper in despair. But to voice our complaints to God tells the truth about our circumstances and acknowledges who is able to deliver.
Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III, in their book Cry of the Soul, discuss at length the role emotions play in our growing knowledge of God. “A determination to resolve our emotional struggles inevitably subordinates God as a servant of our healing rather than a person to be praised. Rather than focusing on trying to change our emotions, we are wiser first to listen to them. They are a voice that can tell us how we are dealing with a fallen world, hurtful people, and a quizzical God who seldom seems to be or do what we expect of Him.”
“I wait for the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. . . . Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption” (Ps. 130:5, 7). When we pour our tears out before the Lord, we will discover full redemption. Not partial. Not temporary. Full.
“It is finished,” Jesus said as His body gave way to death (John 19:30). And with that, my lament, however deep, ultimately ends in redemption.
Yours does too.