The Case for Lament
Posted by Jill Carattini on January 27, 2017
Topic: A Slice of Infinity
“Lamentation” is not a word that is heard very often. Words like sadness, regret, sorrow, or mourning are far more common. But I wonder if something is not lost in the dismissal of lament from our language and our lives.
The Christian hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is for me a song of lament. Because of certain associations, it is a song that immediately evokes a sense of grief, and yet it is the sort of mourning for me that is somehow both held and expressed in worship. Whether the Christian story is one you embrace or not, the connection of these two ideas—worship and lamentation—may seem even more foreign than the word itself. What could lament possibly have to do with worship? Surely if not opposites, they are words and postures diametrically opposed. While this may be true in many popular applications, which use the word worship to denote passion for something, worship in the Judeo/Christian vision and experience of the world once considered lamentation a significant element. It is a thought worth considering, particularly on behalf of those who dismiss the possibility of God’s existence out of a conviction that a world of so much pain is incompatible with a God worth loving.
In her honest memoir No More Faking Fine, Esther Fleece admits between court hearings, restraining orders, and the harrowing dynamics of a shattered family that it was shaping her suspicions about God. “I was learning a dangerous lesson: that love can end abruptly, that the support that was there in the past can sometimes be swept up suddenly like a rug under your feet, leaving you stumbling. What’s worse, I couldn’t help but worry if God’s love was like this too.”(1) The book recounts her ability to successfully fake being fine; she went from competent student to accomplished professional, all the while reeling with anxiety and battling debilitating despair. But discovering the language of lament offered a kind of merciful undoing. “A lament saves us from staying stuck in grief and rescues us from a faith based on falsehoods,” she writes. “It was a false belief that told me I would always be incapable of being loved. It was a false belief that led me to believe I was the reason for my parents’ divorce. It was a false belief that told me I would never find my way out of despair… While a lament may not change our circumstances, it will help clear up our misunderstandings about God… A lament is a pathway; it serves a purpose. But a lament denied turns into a lie.”(2) Fleece discovered that the God who not only gives permission to lament but considers it worship was far more capable of reaching a crumbling world of pain than she ever imagined.
Certainly hope is a needed expression, a gift not afforded by every worldview, and lamentation in this sense is similar. But more so, lamentation is a vital aspect of a life in relation with God. Seventy percent of the psalmist’s words are words of lament. “Hear my prayer, O LORD,” the psalmist pleads. “Let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers.” Sadly dissimilar to many public and private expressions of grief, as well as many worship services today, the writers of Scripture identify with the pain of the world and do not hold back in addressing it before a God they believe needs to hear it. For these voices, lament is not a relinquishing of faith, but a cry in worship to the one who weeps with them.
At a funeral once, a fellow mourner caught me with tears in my eyes and told me that neither God nor the one we mourned would want me to cry. Her intentions were good; she meant to encourage me with the powerful hope of the Christian story, which holds at its center a crucified and risen Lord. But I desperately needed permission to lament, permission to look up at the cross with the sorrow of Mary and the uncertainty of the centurion. I needed to be able to ask why with the force that was welling up in that moment of grief, even as I tried to cling desperately to hope in the Son, trust in the Father, and life in the Spirit who holds us.
For anyone who needs permission to mourn, the Christian language of lament invites us to walk the labored steps of Jesus toward the agony of the cross, the reality of its injustice, and the despair of human death and suffering. This is a profound gift for a world in need of permission to ask why, to cry out in pain, and to know there is one hearing and moving toward us. While songs of hope are essential in a world that is not as it should be, lament is often the honest, needed pathway there, just as the iniquitous sufferings of the cross and the darkness of a cold tomb were the way to resurrection. Neither our worship nor our journeys can deny this if they are truly to lead us to hope.
The Christian story holds a unique capacity for tears because the story itself is filled with tears. And thus the Christian can offer the world a place to stand through the disorienting sting of cancer and unemployment and injustice, even as we fight for justice and reach out to those who are suffering with the love of one who will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes. It is this God who answers the pain of the world by giving us permission to utter the words in the pits of our stomachs, the Spirit to help us groan them, and the company of the risen one who once cried on our behalf: “I am deeply grieved, even unto death.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Esther Fleece, No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 139-140. Esther Fleece is an international speaker and writer, who has been named by CNN as one of “Five Women to Watch in Religion.” She is founder and CEO of L&L Consulting, Inc. She is also a recent graduate of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.
(2) Ibid., 34-35.