Updated: Apr 19, 2021
Writing at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, theologian NT Wright says:
We are simply to know that when we are caught up in awful circumstances. apparent gross injustices, terrible plagues- or when we are accused of wicked things of which we are innocent, suffering strange sicknesses with no apparent reason, let alone cure- at those points we are to lament, we are to complain, we are to state the case, and leave it with God.
Lament is a common form of prayer in the Bible. Over one third of the Psalms can be seen as psalms of lament. Job and many of the prophets express lament. The whole book of Lamentations- aptly named- expresses the suffering and pain felt by the people of God after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. Jesus himself can be seen to lament in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words of Psalm 22 are on his lips as he hangs upon the cross.
Yet lament is hard for us in today’s society. Much of our culture is built on the need for success, self-improvement, and having a positive attitude. Even during the pandemic lockdowns, the pressure was there to learn a new language, take a class, or better oneself in some way. Christian circles are not much different. Many Christians, claiming that they are “more than conquerers” decree and declare new levels of prosperity and spiritual breakthrough that can leave little space for authentic emotions that may be quite different, for Christians who are experiencing loss or suffering, and for that most basic of all questions, “Why?” It is the assertion of this brief paper that lament is a valuable spiritual practice that is not contrary to faith in Jesus, and one that every Christian would do well to have in the spiritual toolbox. In his work, The Message of the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes:
[Lament] is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus…[the Psalms of Lament] make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all life.
How can we lament properly? How can we get to the place of lament when both culture and church exert pressure to be motivated, positive, and- perhaps- in denial? We will look at three ways: liturgically, via journalling, and in conversation.
The Book of Psalms was the prayer book of both the people of Israel and of Jesus. The recitation of the psalms also forms the basis of the monastic liturgy of the hours today. Certain portions can still be used profitably to pray out feelings of lament. The ancient words can speak for us as well. Traditionally, the psalms of lament are considered to be (in Hebrew numbering): 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, and 90. If the cause of suffering is a personal failing, the penitential psalms can also be used. They are: 6, 31, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 142. Try reading them slowly- and preferably aloud- as you let your own circumstances sink to the complaint and sorrow the words express.
If you prefer, the organization 1517 has a podcast, Hidden Streams, that provides a psalm, commentary, and a musical adaptation in about 5 minutes for listening. The first 2 seasons are on the psalms of lament and can be found at: www.1517.org/podcasts/hidden-streams
Perhaps you might prefer to write your own lament in a journal or letter. The pattern of the lament psalms can guide us here as well. Start by addressing God, then name your “why?” or complaint. It is good to be thorough here- get it all out. Next, place in an affirmation of trust in God (“Nevertheless, you are the God who…”). Ask God to deliver you, and be specific about the kingdom hope you have based on the Biblical story- how is it that God will, to paraphrase JRR Tolkien, “make everything sad become untrue?” The Beatitudes, parts of Isaiah and Revelation may be of help with this. Close with praise of God. You may then want to use this devotionally for some time.
Sometimes what is really needed is someone to talk to. A Christian friend, counselor, pastor or spiritual director may help, provided they are comfortable with the notion of lament themselves. We should be sure to speak to someone if our personal crisis or loss of hope is leading to depression or other unwanted emotions or thoughts, but it can be of benefit anytime, provided we are willing to be vulnerable.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 - Wright, Tom, God and the Pandemic, p. 14.  - Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, p. 52.  - if you need help uncovering your complaint, try this: Write out the words “I feel [then put in your feeling], because [state why], because[state why the first “because” matters], because [state why the second “because” matters]. This may help you uncover the deeper nature of just what is wrong.