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October 18, 2022

The Process of Lament

No sanitized prayers enter this space. God wants it all and wants nothing held back. Lament starts to look familiar---it sounds and feels just like prayer, but honest prayer.

Many Christians are confused about the topic of lament. Lament is becoming more fashionable now in some circles and continues to be a bit misunderstood in most. It’s hard to do it well, and it’s hard to convince others that it is necessary in the Christian spiritual life. “Sure, you can go there, but you can’t stay there!” says the person who has never lamented before. And I know, because if one has lamented before, and I mean truly lamented, one knows it is a natural progression to be moved from invocation, to protest or complaint, to petition, to trust. Artist and scholar Michael Card describes the mystical engagement of lament as a pair of two wrestlers refusing to give up: one being God and the other being God’s child. Jacob wrestled the Angel, refusing to let go until God blessed him, and this is much like the practice of lament.

Lament is an act of faith, stepping up into the circle of God’s presence, boldly approaching God with an address that something is not right. The scenario can have several variations of grievance, and as human beings we have plenty of them and can insert at will. “But with lament, where is hope in this part of complaint?” one particularly chipper Christian, who dare not think of sad things, asks. The great news is the lamenter already has hope. Lament never lacks it. The whole point of coming before God in the first place is an act of faith and hope because the lamenter knows that God is the only one who can fix the problem. Even the hopeless who approach God with lament have a little hope.

The experience of lament unfolds. No sanitized prayers enter this space. God wants it all and wants nothing held back. Lament starts to look familiar-it sounds and feels just like prayer, but honest prayer. Talking to God about the real things like he’s not going to hurt the lamenter for doing so. And it is exhausting. It is so exhausting, in fact, that sometimes it takes an inordinate amount of time to get it all out. Like Job wearing himself out with his friends and talking incessantly about his condition, the lamenter has stepped into those very shoes, waiting for God, who is there already, to show up. Words start to falter and drift into nothing, and this is when the lamenter shifts to petition. Petition and complaint often merge into the same sentences from “why can’t you” to “please will you” to “Wait. I know you. I remember what you did last time. I remember your promises. You promised these things. Your character is trustworthy.” All that is left after the emptying out, is God.

It’s like an argument with a loved one. Grievances are aired, the words are many, the tears are many, and there’s a moment where there is nothing more but the person standing there, hearing it all. But in lament, this Being is the Triune God, whose steadfast love is the anchor to the faith that gave us the courage to enter the circle of his presence in the first place. The grievances are part of this process of lament to bring the lamenter to the place of vulnerability, to hear from God if he will speak, or to just sit in his presence as his presence is enough. The lamenter desires a God who sees and hears.

Often the problem is not fixed during the process of lament. So why lament at all? God desires relationship with his people. To grow in relationship with Jesus, the wrestling, questions, sorrows, protests, and confrontations are necessary to engage with him with the whole self, keeping nothing from him. God is not a God who only wants the pleasant parts of his children while the unpleasant parts can go to their room. God is a God who invites his children freely to express themselves before him, mature emotions, or immature emotions. This Good Shepherd of our souls disciplines us and fashions us into his likeness if we will be honest enough to let him.

Confident now that the lamenter is in the presence of the One who hears, the lamenter shifts to praise and thanksgiving. This comes as a relief. The soul has been formed ever closer to the likeness of Jesus, and so the soul cannot help but praise the One who has been there all along. There is an understanding between God and the lamenter that God is holding it all, and everything that dumped out onto the ground was put at the feet of Jesus, the Bearer of burdens, the Lifter of heads, the soul’s true Object of satisfaction. This is how a person lays their burdens down. It takes time, it takes faith, and it takes courage and honesty.

More from Reformed Worship

In the northern hemisphere the longest night of the year falls on Wednesday, December 21. Churches will sometimes include a service for those who are grieving during what for others is a time of celebration and family gatherings. These services are also referred to as “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” services. If you are thinking about incorporating such a service in the next few weeks consider adapting one of the following.

Blue Christmas: An Advent Candlelight Service for All Who Grieve
Longest Night: A Service of Christmas Mourning

If you want to give more thought of the place of lament during Advent, consider reading the following articles.

A Time to Weep—During Advent
Real Joy, Genuine Faith: Biblical Lament During Advent

Rachel Wilhelm is the Minister of Music and Worship Arts at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and Associate Movement Leader at United Adoration, an organization that helps the local church build their creative community by facilitating worship arts retreats around the world. Her recent lament album, Requiem, was released last year in 2021.