On Tuesday, September 29, 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, my grandfather went to be with his Lord. He helped to raise me and played a huge role in my life. I didn’t realize the hole he’d leave in my heart even though he lived in my home country, Trinidad, and I have been living in Canada for almost a decade now. Due to the travel restrictions, I was unable to go to the funeral in person. I’ll spare other details, but this loss combined with a year that felt full of many other losses to our “normal” lives did something to me that I didn’t quite understand at the moment. I found myself – not depressed, but perhaps more melancholy, unmotivated and numb. It was during what some might call a dark season of the soul, when the clouds would not lift, that I was given a book by a dear friend and mentor which turned out to be just the help I needed.
It was the book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament by Mark Vroegop. It’s a book about Biblical lament, and this article is a little of what I learned from it that helped me get through that season. I pray that perhaps in a season where many are suffering much loss and pain that this may be helpful to others as well. Maybe it’s not relevant for you now, but it is through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22) – so one day it will be.
What is Lament?
Many of us don’t really know what to make of lament. Though a third of the Psalms (Israel’s worship songbook) were lament, they are mostly absent from our worship set lists. We’re unfamiliar with the tune. Perhaps this is partly because our social media age of selfies, tweets and tik tok challenges tends to centre around the amusing, the trivial and the chipper motivational posts that clutter our feeds. Perhaps this has left us tone-deaf and robbed of one of the Bible’s most powerful tools for enduring suffering in faith.
Vroegop defines lament as the Bible’s minor key for suffering. It is a divinely given liturgy that leads us to God’s mercy. Lament is different from depression. Lament is ultimately a prayer of faith. It is the honest cry of a heart wrestling with the pain of life and the promise of God’s goodness. Only believers can truly lament. If we did not trust or believe in God’s goodness and mercy, there would be no reason to lament. It is the unresolved tension that causes us to lament. To cry is human. To lament is Christian.
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It asks: where are you God? If you love me, why is this happening? However, the end of lament is drastically different to depression since it ultimately leads us on the path to praise – moving us from focusing on the world’s pain to God’s promise.
We live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. I don’t take it for granted that many of us have had to endure some very hard times this past year – cancelled life events, losing loved ones, frustrations over restricted freedoms, estrangement from community, political corruption, societal unrest, job loss, mental and emotional anxieties and a host of other issues. Our theological rubber has had to meet the road and been tested for what it’s worth. I’ve seen that trying to find a quick solution for sorrow, changing the subject or being overly triumphalistic can circumvent the grace of Biblical lament and stunt the grieving process.
Vroegop notes that lament functions like a memorial – it opens our eyes to the reality of a broken world. Memorials help us remember by making us stop to contemplate and feel the weight of a tragedy – otherwise, we’re prone to forget the past or neglect to linger on it for any time. I know for myself, with the increased challenges and busyness, perhaps I had not given myself time to process (or maybe subconsciously avoided it). But these ‘memorials’ remind us that there are lessons to be learnt. After all, the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning (Ecclesiastes 7:4). And so lament helps us to linger there long enough to remember, learn, grow and heal.
Lament is the language for loss, the solution to silence, a category for complaints, the framework for our feelings, the process for our pains and ultimately a way to worship.
Ultimately, we lament because of sin
Sin is the real problem. Our sorrows point us to somber realities. Not that behind every suffering is a directly correlated personal sin, but behind all the brokenness of our world is sin as its ultimate source. Death and the brokenness of this world remind us that sin’s entrance has marred God’s good creation. Lament helps to wake us up to the pervasiveness of sin in a post-Genesis 3 world.
Sometimes we become too accustomed and desensitized to the brokenness of our world. Sometimes, we attempt to cope by numbing and distracting ourselves. Lament helps to move sin’s bankruptcy to the forefront of our attention so that we can see through its hollow lies. It exposes its empty promises and tragic consequences that are normally masked by the distractions of short-term dopamine hits. This can lead to renewed eschatological longing for Christ to vanquish sin and its effects once and for all.
4 Key steps to Lament
Vroegop lays out four steps or movements in biblical lament:
- TURN – address God
- COMPLAIN – state your case earnestly
- ASK – boldly make your request(s) known
- TRUST – express trust or praise
1. TURN – Address God
Oftentimes in our low points, we feel the least motivated to turn to God. However, a prayerful lament is better than a silent despair that has given up hope in God. By addressing God in faith instead of resigning all hope in faithlessness, we turn ourselves to face the One who we desperately need.
Lament does not bring immediate resolution or even necessarily quick comfort. Instead, it says, “one day God will bring resolution to this.” In lament, we honestly pray our questions, recognizing that pain and suffering produce difficult emotions that may not always be based on truth yet feel real nonetheless. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 77:7-9,
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Selah indeed! As we stop and pause to consider, this type of prayer turns us around. It leads the heart of faith to say, “I WILL remember” (see Psalm 77:10-12). We choose this way instead of hopeless resignation.
2. COMPLAIN – state your case earnestly
Complaining in prayer can sound improper… even irreverent. However, complaints, as used here, are not just being whiny. Biblical complaints are expressions of faith insofar as they come from the tension produced by believing in God and His Word, yet struggling with currently being unable to reconcile them with the present situation.
The Psalms are full of complaints. These complaints seek to make their case against God. They throw God’s promises in His Word back at Him. They are based on who God is and what we know He can do. Biblical complaints express that part of the problem is that you actually believe the promises of God but the present situation makes it hard to make sense of things. For example, in Psalm 74:10, the heart-wrenching question, “How long?” Rings out because the Psalmist knows that God could intervene, but there are many times when He doesn’t.
God can handle our questions and fears. So, we should not be afraid to bring our frustrations. So often we vent our frustrations at other people or even just pollute the atmosphere with our grumbling. But this is not the type of complaint in mind here. We’re not just being grumpy at no one in particular but everyone in general. A good example is in Psalm 10, where the Psalmist lays out his frustrations against the proud. His specificity helps sharpen his prayer. By listing out our complaints, it can help us see where our vision is actually too myopic: “God, I know you’re not …, but today it feels like you are…”
However, there is a right and wrong way to complain. This complaint we are talking of here is the complaint of faith. We must come humbly. It is also very useful (and safe) to pray the Bible – find passages that give words to your complaint. We need to be honest and not try to pretty up our complaint with how pious we think we should sound. Finally, we should not get stuck in complaining – express it to God and let it help you move on to the next step.
3. ASK – boldly make your request(s) known
This is about confidently calling upon God to act according to His character. This is how our lament moves from the “why” of the complaint to the “who” our request(s) are aimed at. These requests seen in Scripture can often have a confidence that seems like they are commanding God. Yet this bold petition eclipses the complaints because we are asking Him to act according to His character. Thus, the “why” (complaint) becomes eclipsed by “Who” God is as we recite his character and attributes.
We see this in Psalm 22 – the very Psalm Jesus prayed on the Cross (see Matthew 27:46). In verses 1 and 2, there’s the “why” (complaint):
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.”
Then the turning point focusing on “who” (reciting God’s character) – comes in at verse 3-5:
“Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises[a] of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”
Then again we see a “why” (complaint) at verses 6-8:
“But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!””
Followed by the “who” (reciting God’s character) in verses 9-10:
“Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”
The “yet” in each of these sections mean that we choose to continue to cry out to God even though the pain of life is raw. It reminds us that sorrows don’t have to yield before we come to God.
Here are 9 Biblical requests that Vroegop points out that we can make:
- Arise/Rise up, Oh Lord! – Psalm 3, 7, 9, 10, 17, 74 & 94
- Grant us help – Psalm 60:11-12
- Remember your covenant promises – Psalm 25:6
- Let justice be done – Psalm 83:16-18
- Don’t remember our sins – Psalm 51:1; 79:8-9
- Restore us – Psalm 80:3
- Don’t be silent – Psalm 28:1-2; 86:6
- Teach me – Psalm 143:10, 90:12; 86:11
- Vindicate me – Psalm 35:23-24
Ultimately, we can ask boldly because we have a Great High Priest, the risen and ascended Jesus Christ, who can sympathize with us and thus perfectly intercede on our behalf (Hebrews 4:15).
4. TRUST – express trust or praise
Suffering can often refine what we trust in and how we talk about it. In times of comfort it may be difficult to see what our hearts are truly trusting in. Pain can bring much needed clarity and loss can often end up affirming our trust.
Psalm 13 beautifully illustrates this last movement. We see four “how longs” in the first two verses giving the address and complaint to God:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
Then we see the requests in verses 3 and 4:
“Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”
Followed by a “but” – expressing trust in verses 5 and 6:
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
Here we see three affirmations of trust:
- “I have trusted in your steadfast love” (v.5) – every Christian has a record of God’s steadfast love. This reinforces what we know to be true.
- “My heart shall rejoice in your salvation” – suffering does not mean that God has forgotten us. The ultimate lament came from the lips of Christ on the Cross and led to our ultimate redemption (see Psalm 22, Romans 8:28 & 31, 37-39). This reminder to rejoice in God’s salvation helps to point our hearts God-ward.
- “I will sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with me.” (V.6) – this move from pointed questions to God-entered worship is the end goal of lament. It tunes your heart to trust the Lord (e.g. Job 42:4-5; Psalm 28:7 & 56:8-11). Sometimes songs can turn our emotions to trust more effectively than anything else.
Learn to sing the minor key
While these are essential elements to Biblical lament, it is not a simplistic formula that can be applied as a quick-fix, one-shot remedy. Oftentimes, as I experienced, we have to go back over some steps or end up returning to it after feeling like we’d made some progress. Life throws more things at us, something triggers a memory, many things can puts us back into the minor key of lament. In the end though, what we’re doing as we move through these steps of lament is saying, “Lord, I’m trusting you to keep me trusting.” So, let’s trust the one who keeps us trusting. He is able. He is faithful.
The minor keys often provide the backdrop to make the major movements of the song ring true. It’s like the shadows that pop the highlights on a painting. However, one day, Jesus Christ will come back to remove the curse of sin and we will dwell in the New Jerusalem where there will be no more need for lament. The minor key and dissonance will one day resolve to glorious praise for all eternity. And so we long…
Even so, Lord Jesus, come.
Mark Vroegop’s book was incredibly helpful for me. If he ever reads this article – I owe him a huge thanks! You can follow him at his website.