The Lost Art of Lament

Psalm 130: 1-2

Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord. Lord hear my voice! Let your voice be attentive to the voice of my supplications! (Psalm 130: 1-2)

“Princeton Seminary Professor and theologian Dan Migliore is worried that Christians may be neglecting their prayers” writes Alexa Smith in Worldwide Faith News. “Not their prayers of praise or thanksgiving, but their prayers of lament – those that articulate anguish, or, like the psalmists of old, take God to task for being silent when the world is hurting so deeply.” His basic concern is “…for freedom and honesty of prayer, and all that this freedom implies for our understandings of God and of ourselves. If in the Christian life we cannot express our doubts, our faith will be half-hearted. If we cannot shed tears over loss and waste, our laughter will be hollow. If we cannot express our outrage against injustice, our commitment to God’s reign will be lukewarm. If we cannot argue with God, we cannot be brought to deeper understanding”of God and others.

Not everyone agrees that we should bring our laments to God. According to Migliore, Augustine and Luther found the book of Psalms with its prayers of lament to be somewhat suspect. Along with Calvin, Augustine and Luther believed much more in the patient, quiet endurance of suffering than on outward expressions of despair and loss. The Christian was to put on a stiff upper lip and endure, not lament. But the book of Psalms, one-third of which is Psalms of lament, remains not only one of the most loved and helpful books in the Bible but also one of the most honest and expressive. It is in the Psalms of lament that people brought before God their deep-seated fears and frustrations and their sense of aloneness and abandonment that often overcame them when they were in distress. They cried to him for help in their grief and were confident of being heard. In a lament “…real life is confronted with a ruthless honesty and the painful experiences of betrayal, sickness, loneliness, anxiety, anger and hatred are recognized as crises of faith which present opportunities for purifying and deepening [our] understanding of and [our] faith in God,” writes Michael Neary. Laments model for us what a flat out honest and open relationship with God would look like in the midst of distress and the challenges of our daily life.

Psalm 130 is an example of a Psalm of lament. So please take out your bibles  and turn to page 536, and as we look at Psalm 130, we can decipher the  structure of a Psalm of lament. The first component is typically a direct address to God which we see in verse 1. The second element is frequently a petition that asks to be heard and to be helped. Then the third component of the Psalm sets  out the present need of the petitioner – the need for forgiveness that has thrown him into the depths where he is about to be overwhelmed and without a secure foothold. He laments his predicament and then petitions God for God’s help. Finally, the Psalm of lament ends with praise for God and confidence that God has heard him and will come to his aid as we see in verses 7 and 8.

The specific message of Psalm 130 is a succinct but powerful expression of the theme that is at the heart of scripture: the human predicament and its dependence on divine grace. It acknowledges what we all know to be true: that we all live in danger of the depths. We know, in this time and place, that life can turn on a dime and any moment we could find ourselves in over our heads in what feels like bottomless waters of trouble. Our problems can be of our own making or inflicted upon us by others but nevertheless we must face them and find a way through them.

The way out for the Psalmist was to lay out his problems and griefs before God and to wait with hope for deliverance. He tells God what is on his mind without reservation, believing that, in the telling, he will find relief and healing. “Putting human pain and complaint into words,” Migliore continues, “gives God an opportunity to work with impulses that could be destructive if they were not acknowledged, such as the desire for vengeance.” Being able to speak, putting our anger, fears, despair and disillusionment into words, expressing our deepest feelings is key to our developing a capacity to wait and hope and praise God in the midst of our suffering. Old Testament scholar Beth Tanner states that the church is at risk of presenting a “false happiness” as the main purpose and normal state of the Christian church and our personal lives when the church ignores lament.” Walter Brueggemann warns of the damage done to worship from this perspective. “Worship in such objectivism may be happy, positive and upbeat. God seems easily available. Life is good, or is said to be good for those who gather in front of the cameras. …Such worship, however, is mistaken, dishonest and destructive…because it requires persons to engage in enormous denial and pretense about how life really is.”

Barbara was a young lady in her 20s who had returned to school to finish her education One day her professor, Dennis Bractcher, gave a devotional from a lament psalm about dealing with grief. She hung around after class and said she wanted to talk, so we set up an appointment for later that afternoon. ”She had not been in my office five minutes before she began to weep.” He said. “One of the first things she said to me was, ‘I hate God.’ I had heard it before from others so it didn’t shock me. I simply asked her if she wanted to talk about it.

She poured out a story of grief and pain that I could not have imagined. Among  other things, she had been abused for years as a child. To get out of a horrible home situation, she had married at 16. Her first child had died as an infant two years later. Not long after that her husband simply walked out one day.

At 20 she had known more hurt than most of us will ever know in a lifetime. Did she really hate God? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I don’t really think it mattered. Hate is an emotion, and she was full of emotion. She felt as if God had forsaken her.

As we talked it became clear that she did not know what to do with her anger, grief and hurt. She thought that to be a Christian meant that she was not supposed to have the feelings she had. She thought that serving God meant that she should somehow just be happy because she was a Christian. But she was not happy. She hurt too deeply. So we sat and read Psalm 22, the Psalm Jesus spoke from the cross, which begins:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me,

from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.

Barbara’s healing did not come at once. Over the next months there were many talks, many prayers, many tears. There were other friends, and a caring pastor, to help. Still, Barbara needed professional counseling to help her deal with her past. But healing came because in the depths or her hopelessness and grief she found the freedom and willingness to be open and honest before God and another human being.”

Many of us, however, learn early on, not to share the messiness of our lives. We grow up believing that the last thing we want to do is to expose our innermost and vulnerable self to others. We keep our grief hidden and our pride intact. In her book Cry Pain, Cry Hope Elizabeth O’Conner observes that we live “in a society that teaches us to wear masks, to pretend to have feelings that we do not have, to be ashamed of our human nature, to hide our true selves….To the extent that we have had to repress and suppress feelings, our capacity to feel atrophies. Our lives are either volcanoes waiting to explode or, more likely, frozen ponds where everything fiery in us has been put on ice.” In his book an Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins summed up the feelings of inadequacy, fear and pride that come upon us when we are in distress as he went through a devastating illness: first there were feelings of helplessness, then a fear of things never functioning normally again; there was the reluctance to be thought a complainer or to add to anyone’s burden; there was the conflict between the terror of loneliness and the desire to be left alone; there was the lack of selfesteem and inadequacy; and there was the utter void created by the longing for warmth of human contact.

God, however, has given us rich and complex emotional lives that are meant to serve us in ways that are healing for ourselves and for others if we own up to them. The core of the Christian message, says Henri Nouwen, is not a “movement from weakness to power but the movement in which we become less and less fearful and defensive and more and more open to the other.” “When we do not share the poverty of openness” says Johannes Metz, “our lives are not graced with the warm fullness of human existence. We are left with only a shadow of our real selves.”

How fascinating is it then that today, one of the places where people seem to be the most willing to share openly is on social media sites on the internet. The simple question that Facebook poses to it users every day – “What’s on you mind?” – encourages users to open up and share not only what is going well but what is difficult and challenging. And people do share at a profound level. Lenora Rand, in an article entitled The Church and Facebook in Chrsitianity Today writes that, “The popularity of social media sites seems to testify to the fact that many people miss what the church used to provide: a place to know others and be known, a place to weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh, a place to bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s joys – not just once a week or once a month or at Easter and Christmas, but daily….Tidbits of honesty, introspection and vulnerability, confessions of hurt, need and sin – you’ll find them all in your news feed on any given day…With whatever tone they are served up, the truths about our lives that we often mask with polite smiles and the superficial “I’m fine, how are you?” are leaking out in this online world.”

Almost any day of the week we can turn on the TV and watch people expose the most intimate details of their lives to millions of viewers. “In our world full of strangers,” Nouwen writes, “estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.” Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) In the same way we are to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. As Christians we are called to be a community where we can all come together without fear and share the best and worst of our lives with one another. Those who do not turn away from their own pain or the pain of others, who are willing to lament and hear the laments of others and touch them with compassion bring strength and healing to one another. Mother Teresa wrote:

There is a light

in the world, a healing spirit,

more powerful than any darkness

we may encounter.


We sometimes lose

sight of this force,

when there is so much suffering,

too much pain.


Then suddenly,

the spirit will emerge

through the lives of

ordinary people who

care and answer in

extraordinary ways.


May our church always be a place where the spirit can emerge in extraordinary ways as we listen to and care for one another. Amen.