By nature, I am a cheerful person. When I am sick, for example, I never want to talk about how I am feeling because I loathe dwelling upon distressing details. One co-worker actually described me as “pathologically optimistic.” I am still unsure if that was a compliment.
So you can imagine my initial discomfort when I read the lament psalms and felt the sorrow found there and elsewhere in the Bible. Believing the entire Bible is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), and mindful that Jesus himself quoted psalms of lament (for example, Psalm 22:1 in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34), I began including confession and lament into our worship service plans. But you can see how it resonated with me when one of my church members came to talk to me. “When I don’t feel sad,” they asked, “why should I sing sad songs?”
What Is Lament?
Lament is the result of recognizing two truths. First, lament recognizes that evil exists and it causes suffering. A lamenter testifies that evil is a perversion and not the way God’s good creation is supposed to be. “Woe to those,” Isaiah writes, “who call evil good” (Isaiah 5:20). Lament sees evil and calls it evil. It refuses to ignore or downplay evil or trivialize the resulting suffering.
Second, lament recognizes dependence upon God because evil is beyond anyone else’s power to fix. Lament is a vigorous and faithful testimony that looks to God as the only one who can conquer evil and ultimately alleviate suffering. At its root, it is a form of struggle and protest. “Laments,” Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman says, “are prayers of sufferers who do not simply acquiesce to their suffering.”
Why Should Christians Lament?
To answer my church member’s question, I wanted to meditate on why it is appropriate, and even necessary, for Christians to lament, whether in a corporate worship setting or in private prayer. Here are four reasons.
1. Something in your life is sad.
Our emotional lives are too complicated to either be entirely happy or entirely sorrowful. At every moment of our day, thoughtful review reveals reasons to either rejoice or mourn. When you grieve over circumstances or mourn over sinful tendencies, lament responds by recognizing those evils and bringing them to the only One who can help.
2. You live in a broken world.
The author of Ecclesiastes writes, “I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4:1).
Simply watching the daily news or interacting with the cities in which we live provides innumerable opportunities for lament. While each circumstance differs in proximity to you, every instance of sin should make us grieve. Expressing sorrow is a part of being a faithful witness to the current brokenness of our world. In this sense, we are grieved because we are caught between Eden and New Jerusalem. Lament brings that sorrow and grief to God.
3. Someone in your church family is weeping.
No matter the size of your church, it is almost certain that someone (or perhaps several people) have had a week of particular difficulty. Perhaps that difficulty is acute and their reason to mourn just arrived in the form of disease, joblessness, or loss. Or perhaps that difficulty consists of an ongoing trial through which they are struggling to persevere. The apostle Paul calls us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Corporate lament encourages Christian sufferers that their church family stands with them as they await the Lord’s rescue.
4. One day all weeping will be turned to laughter.
Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21). In ways which transcend our ability to imagine, God has promised to restore this broken world. He has promised to heal his people and bring their sad tears to an end. Sorrow, therefore, is never the believer’s ultimate destiny, but rather our temporary experience.
And so why should we sing laments when we don’t feel sad? Put simply, because a lament is not merely expressive, the effusions of a melancholy heart. And lament is certainly not disobeying Paul’s double command in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” Lament takes up simple grief and adds protest. It knows who to protest to — the only One who can do something with the evil that grieves us. And in doing so, it rejoices in him.
Because of the sin and brokenness of our hearts, we have reason to lament. And because of the sin and brokenness in our church and world, we have reason to lament. Most of all, because of the love of our rescuing God, we have an invitation to bring our mournful sadness as protest and appeal to our God. The God who invites our laments can rescue us. And he most certainly will.