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Biblical lament: An appropriate and necessary practice in a season of turmoil and loss
June 2020

By A.B. on SEND’s member care team — It seems like the world has gone to chaos. Not only are we facing a lethal pandemic, but in response to the horrific and senseless killing of a black man by a white police officer in the US, many worldwide have taken to the streets in protest and to demand change. 

In addition to the chaos around us, inside of us there are strong emotions that can make us feel restless and distressed. Each of us has experienced many losses over the last few months, and we will continue to experience more. This summer we will remember that we couldn’t go on our family vacation or celebrate SEND’s 75th anniversary at conference. Weddings and graduations are being cancelled. Loved ones are dying while we are apart, and we are unable to mourn together as we normally would.

In a SEND-wide survey, we asked our missionaries to summarize the pandemic. Though some mentioned an opportunity to think creatively about ministry or to trust more deeply in the Lord, many of the top responses reflected distress: Exhausting, overwhelming, frustrating, stressful, lonely.   

Our minds want to understand the “why” in all of this. But what if that is not what is most important? In Job, we see 30-some chapters of trying to figure out the “why” of Job’s suffering. But God’s answer is, “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) 

Perhaps God has a deeper calling for our hearts as we experience this intense time of loss. As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright wrote in a recent article, “In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”

I believe that God is calling us to a time of lament: lament for a world that is full of injustice and pain and lament for the loss of joys and loved ones. Though lament might not feel familiar in North American culture, it runs through Scripture: 

  • “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." (Gen. 6:6) 
  • When Jesus’ beloved friend dies, though he knows the plan means resurrection, he weeps. (John 11:35) 
  • Jeremiah wrote an entire book recording his sorrow over the destruction of Jerusalem. In Lamentations, this servant of God says, “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’” (Lam. 3:17-18) But just a few verses later, we read a moment of hope: “’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” 


In “When Steeples Cry,” Dr. Jaco Hamman records six aspects of biblical lament, a process that requires both time and courage to delve down into the aches of your soul. 

  1. Address to God (often in the form of a cry for help). 
  2. Description of one’s present circumstances/complaint. 
  3. Confession of trust in God despite the circumstances. 
  4. Petitioning God for deliverance and/or help. 
  5. Affirmation that God hears and is trustworthy. 
  6. Vow of praise. 

Can lament really help? 
You might wonder what good lamenting will do. When confronted with uncomfortable feelings of loss, we can be tempted to turn away from them, to attempt to cover them up and forget. This could mean turning to Netflix, alcohol, food, video games, shopping, etc. 

But unrecognized or unaddressed grief can come out in many ways. We may feel cranky or tired; we may even be explosive with others, and we are really unsure why. We don’t realize all the losses that we are grieving until we start to list them out. 

Matthew 5:4 says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We do not experience comfort by covering up our pain. We experience comfort by bringing our mourning to the Lord. 

We can also be comforted when a friend joins in lament with us. When my closest Turkish friend passed away unexpectedly in March, I could not be in Turkey to mourn with her husband and our former church. I wrote a letter of things that I wanted to say to her before death robbed me of the chance. As I shared this with my husband and he cried with me, it was an opportunity for the Lord to put a comforting balm on my wounded heart.

As we follow the example of the Psalmists and Jeremiah, who were honest in how they felt, asked for God’s help, and also affirmed God’s character while praising him, we remind ourselves who God is. In the midst of chaos, we remember that he is sovereign. In the midst of pain, we remember that he suffered and understands. When we are disappointed, we remember that he works all things for good because he is good. 

Not only does God change our hearts, but God works with great power when we pray. We may feel powerless in the face of racism. We may feel powerless watching a virus threaten and kill while medical professionals are baffled. But, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16) God has not left us helpless. He has given us a great weapon to stand up against the evil one.

A few ideas for lament 

Maybe this week, you could take time to work through Dr. Hamman’s six steps of lament. Reading Lamentations or some of the Psalms (22, 88, 89) might be a good idea as well. Sometimes it helps to know that others have felt the same things, and it can give you courage to pour out your heart as these Scripture writers did. You may feel that you want to share your lament with someone else. 

If you are asked to join in someone’s lament, do just that. Join in the pain and sorrow of your friend and minister to her heart by “Mourning with those who mourn.” If we do this, I anticipate the blessings of comfort as the Lord comforts us, and then we are able to comfort others with the comfort that we have received (2 Cor. 1:4). Our pain leaves a vacuum for the love of God to fill. And the love of God is just what we and our world need right now.

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A.B.
A.B. served in the Middle East before she joined SEND’s member care team.