The Healing Power of Lament


It's hard for us to admit that things aren't going well in our lives.  When we see a friend or neighbor, they ask, "How's it going?" and we instinctively answer "Great!" without giving it a moment's thought, even if things in our lives aren't actually that great.  There's an unspoken cultural pressure for us to put on a front that our lives are happy, successful, and fun. 

But often that's just not the case. 

One of the common themes we see throughout the pages of scripture is that of lament.  A lament is an emotional and visceral response to the often sad state of reality in our lives.  Of the 150 psalms in the Bible, dozens of them are classified as "lament psalms," in which the author of the psalm mourns the ever present reality of living in a fallen world where difficult things happen.  The author asks big questions, like "Why did this bad thing happen, God?" and "Do you even still love me?  Do you care about me?  Are you really watching over me?  Because sometimes it doesn't seem like it."  In our society (and especially in the church) there's an unspoken pressure to come off as a happy, successful, fulfilled person, in which there isn't much room for lament.

But the reality is that bad things do happen, and we do have big questions about life and God and how he orders things because, sometimes, it just seems unfair and even malicious.  I was visited by a friend recently and he expressed to me that he was questioning God's love for him, because lately in his life, it sure didn't seem like God actually did love him.  He had been through the wringer, to put it mildly, and he was lamenting his circumstances.  He was lamenting that it seemed like God's love had been cut off from him, and that God's mercies weren't actually new every morning, as scripture says.  It was a difficult conversation, but I was so glad that he felt able to come and express these feelings to me.  Even though we all have questions and feelings like these, I think it's common for most of us to bottle them up and put on our happy face (especially when we go to church) and pretend that everything is great.  Lament allows us to put down our guard, admit that the smile we put on when we come to church is phony, to be open and honest with each other and with God. 

We need to make room in our Christian lives for lament, because when we lament we ask good and deep questions about God and life.  Some people are afraid of asking those hard questions, because they feel that to ask them is to expose doubts in their hearts.  But the writers of scripture knew that God was big enough to handle their questions, their complaints, and even their doubts, and so they laid them all before God.  We should learn to do the same.  And in the process, we will discover that lament can be a healthy and even healing thing in our lives because, when we ask deep questions, we find satisfying answers in God's word. 

A year or so ago, my friend Pam died of cancer.  She had been diagnosed a year previous, and went through the usual treatments and the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy.  She was miserable.  About a week before she passed away, she told me she had some questions for me and would like to talk, so I went to see her.  As we talked, she very honestly lamented to me, "Why me?  Why did God give me this cancer?" 

Have you ever been asked that question?  It's not an easy one to answer. 

All I could do was reaffirm to her what scripture tells us: We don't know the exact reason why God does what he does, but the Bible tells us that he is wise, kind and good.  It tells us that he watches over us, both in our best times and in our worst times.  It tells us that he cares for us, and he uses all things - even cancer - to make us more like Jesus. 

Pam rejoiced and found peace in this answer.  To be clear, this wasn't my answer to her question, but it was the answer that God gives us through his word.  And in this answer, Pam found her hope.  She had lamented that it seemed that God was far from her, but in turning to scripture she could stand firm on the truth, even in the face of death.  We ended our visit together by singing her favorite worship song, "He Will Hold Me Fast," which she sang loudly and with a newfound confidence in her God.  A confidence which she may not have had, had she not brought before the Lord her lament.  We need to make room in our Christian lives for this kind of lament because it can lead us to truth and healing. 

My favorite biblical example of the healing power of lament is in Psalm 77.  The first nine verses of this psalm are the author's lament.  In these verses he says things like, "I remembered you, God, and I groaned" (wow!), and "Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again?" and "Has God forgotten to be merciful?"  Those are pretty serious complaints.  Obviously the author of this psalm has been through something difficult, and he feels that God just simply doesn't care.  And so he honestly, openly, offers his lament. 

But the psalm doesn't end there.  The psalmist's lament leads him to the healing truth of the testimony of what God has done.  In response to the deep and significant questions the psalmist has about life and God, he turns to the record of the testimony of what God has done: "Then I thought, 'To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.  I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.'  Your ways, God are holy.  What god is as great as our God?  You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples." 

The answer to the psalmist's deep questions was the truth of God's word.  The healing to his pain came in the knowledge of what God has said and done throughout history, and the faith that he would act again. 

It's OK to be sad.  It's OK to have questions.  It's OK to be angry (as long as your anger doesn't lead you into sin).  It's OK to lament.  And not only is it OK, but it's a good and healthy Christian practice.  So make room in your Christian life to lament.  Maybe the next time someone asks you how you're doing, instead of the usual "Great!" answer you can lament, and use that as a way to be a witness of how God has been working in your life.  Or maybe instead of wearing the typical "Perfect Christian Smile" the next time you go to church, share about the difficulties you've been struggling with.  Lament.  And be healed.