Lament. Finding a path for your grief

Last updated on June 11, 2024

When we face suffering and difficulties, this can be a severe test of our faith. But our very faith in God can also give new hope. The Bible shows us a way from sorrow to trust, when we bring our distress to God in a lament.

Everyone experiences some kind of suffering and hardship. Christians are no exception. We wrestle with strong emotions when we face pain and grief. This becomes even worse when our painful circumstances seem to contradict the character of God as we know Him. After all, He is good, sovereign and almighty. So why does He let evil and sorrow happen to us? Where is God in all this?

We are not the first generation to struggle with these questions. The Bible contains many examples of believers who went through difficulties. The Bible also shows us a way to cope with this: lament. Many Psalms are songs of lament. They contain an address to God, a complaint, a request for help and an expression of trust or praise. As such, songs of lament are a biblical way to move from pain to promise and from brokenness to God’s mercy. It is not an easy fix, but a way to give room to our emotions and find hope in God when we feel overwhelmed, shaken and hurt. Lament gives us the opportunity to reorient our hurting heart toward what is true.

Part 1: Addressing God

If we do not understand people around us, if they disappoint us or have not responded to our attempts to connect for a while, we tend to ignore them. We don’t feel like putting any more time and energy into those relationships. If you are struggling and disappointed in the Lord God, you may have the same tendency. After all, if He doesn’t answer, if He doesn’t seem to be doing what He promised, then we might as well stop praying…? No. This thought is a dangerous trap. Several Psalms show us a better alternative. Psalm 77:1-2, for example, “I cry aloud to God… In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord”. Or Psalm 22:2, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

This last example makes it clear that the poet did not receive an immediate answer. And yet he continued to pray. That is a sign of faith, even if that faith is sometimes weak and besieged by doubt. We may cry out to God in confidence that He will hear us – in His time. We believe that He is there and that He hears us, even if sometimes we do not see Him respond (yet). Do not give up!

Part 2: Complaint

Complaining to God seems inappropriate at first. He is so much greater and so much more holy than we humans are; how could we reproach Him? Isn’t that too bold and audacious? It is indeed good to keep our place before God in mind. Yet a complaint is, at the deepest level, an expression of faith. For only when we believe that God is good and mighty does it make sense to present our burning questions to Him. We may tell Him about our painful or unjust situation that is not in line with God’s Kingdom and with His character. We may lay our doubts and our confused emotions before Him. He already knows deeply what is going on in us, because He can see straight into our hearts. But it is good to lay our hearts open before the Lord.

Several Psalms give examples of this:

  • Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)
  • I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’” (Psalm 42:9)
  • O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14)

Part 3: Request

In Hebrews 4:16, we are encouraged, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”. We can do this even before our questions and complaints are answered, because we base our requests not on our present circumstances, but on God’s character and promises. That helps us to call upon Him confidently, even when struggling. Pain and belief can coexist, as we see in many Psalms. For example, Psalm 80:6-7 reads “You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!

There are many different requests to bring to God, depending on the believer’s needs and circumstances. We can cry for rescue, ask the Lord to intervene and restore what’s wrong in this world, ask for forgiveness when we have sinned, or request the punishment of the wicked who make life so hard for others. Or we can simply ask God to listen to us, or teach us the right way through our difficulties, as is expressed in Psalm 86:11.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
unite my heart to fear your name.

Part 4: Expression of trust or praise

It is easy to get stuck in complaint mode when we address God. However, various Psalms show that suffering can also lead to trust, and that songs of sorrow can offer a way from complaint to confidence in the Lord. That does not come automatically. It is a choice of faith to recommit ourselves to believe in God, even though our difficulties are not resolved. By doing this, we are “preaching to ourselves”, which can be defined as “self-consciously and intentionally reminding ourselves of the person and presence and provisions of our Redeemer.” This can be the final step that concludes our lament and turns it into a statement of trust and faith. We find an example of this in Psalm 10: “The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart” (Psalm 10:16-17).

This is not to say that this is a step we take only once! We may need to enter into lament over and over again to travel the path emotionally from pain to trust. Songs of sorrow usually aren’t perfectly structured and eloquent. On the contrary, our prayers often reflect the inner turmoil we experience. And that’s totally acceptable! If you read the Psalms carefully, you’ll also notice that the various elements of lament can be repeated and mixed up as people pour out their hearts before God.

Supporting fellow-believers in their grief

It is healing to pour out your heart before God; to tell Him what is on your mind, to lay your questions before Him and beg Him for help. We have seen how this can pave the way to new hope and renewed confidence. But sometimes people are barely able to do that. One may be so overwhelmed by grief, or so discouraged after years of hopeless suffering, that they can hardly pray. Then it is very difficult to comfort or help such a person. After all, we too have no solution and often no answer to the agonizing questions of why God allows all this to happen! Perhaps we feel so helpless when confronted by the other person’s overwhelming sorrow that we would rather stay away….

Especially in such situations, it can be a blessing to lament together with – or on behalf of – the suffering fellow believer. We can use our own words or words from the Bible; we can lament individually or as a group. We may lay our complaints before God and boldly ask Him to intervene. We may express our trust in Him, even if the other person cannot at that moment, in order to support that person in his or her need. Are there people around you who are suffering intensely? Could you lament with them?

Read more

If you want to learn more about the topic of lament, I can recommend the book “Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy”. It is available for free as an e-book on the website of The Gospel Coalition.

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