The Bible commands believers to rejoice in all circumstances.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, ESV)
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” (James 1:2)
It’s clear that Christians should not allow the pains of life to steal our joy in God. We should embrace the brokenness in the world with a hopeful confidence. That’s true and biblical.
But do you know how to “get there”?
I find that most Christians strongly believe that a joyful response should characterize their suffering. But they don’t know how to reconcile their deep questions, honest struggles, and nagging doubts with the command to “give thanks in all circumstances.” The gap between their internal struggles and what they believe can feel like the Grand Canyon of a faith crisis.
The result is often two extremes. On the one hand I’ve seen people fake their way through pain. They tell people, “I’m fine,” when nothing could be further from the truth. On the other hand, the enemy can use this struggle to cause them to doubt either the substance of their faith or even the legitimacy of Christianity.
The Language of Lament
Like a few pieces missing in a puzzle, adding the language of lament completes the picture. This historic minor key language creates a pathway to praise. It bridges the gap between a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. Lament is a divinely-given liturgy for processing our pain so that we can rejoice.
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It is not only how Christians grieve; it’s the way Christians praise God through their sorrows. Lament is a pathway to praise when life gets hard.
The Psalms are full of laments. Over a third of the official song-book of God’s people uses this minor-key language to wrestle honestly with the complicated contours of pain. The journey, however, does more than struggle. Laments use the honest rehearsing of grief in order to deepen our confidence in God’s grace.
Most laments include four key elements. They are not always in a linear order since laments are poetic and musical expressions. But there is a pattern that can not only observed, but it can also be practiced when “rejoicing always” feels far away. The elements of lament are 1) turning to God in prayer, 2) bringing our complaints, 3) asking boldly, and 4) choosing to trust (or praise).
The Psalms, however, are not the only place where lament is sung. Throughout the history of God’s people, they’ve used this historic prayer language when dark clouds rolled in. The entire book of Lamentations mourns over the destruction of Jerusalem. And yet Jeremiah refuses to allow his heart to crumble.
The thought of my suffering and homelessness
is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease. (Lamentations 3:19-22, NLT)
Lament enters the complicated space of deep disappointment and lingering hurt. And it boldly reaffirms the trustworthiness of God. It’s a helpful and life-giving language that transforms our pains into platforms of praise instead of pits of despair.
Learning to Lament
Unfortunately, I don’t know many contemporary Christians who know how to lament. Our celebratory singing, while not wrong, doesn’t usually lead us through our sorrows. It just drowns out the struggles with invitations to rejoice. But embracing joy without wrestling with tough questions can feel incomplete – even fake.
We need to learn how to lament so that we can truly rejoice. Let me briefly highlight the four elements of lament so that the next time grief enters your world, you’ll know how to walk the path toward trusting praise.
Turn to God
Unfortunately, pain creates a strong temptation to give God the silent treatment. Confusion, exhaustion and disappointment can cause us to retreat from the one who knows our sorrows. Even worse, the poisonous mist of bitterness or anger can sweep in, creating a fog of unbelief.
Lament talks to God about our pain even if it’s messy. It takes faith to lament. Silence is easier but unhealthy. Lament draws upon what we believe, and it talks to God as we walk through hardship. Consider the gut-level honesty of Psalm 77.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. (Psalm 77:1-3, ESV)
Even though comfort feels distant and God seems far away, the Psalmist reaches out to God. Laments invite us to do the same – to keep crying out in prayer through the ups and downs of hardship.
The second step in lament is candidly talking to God about what is wrong. Biblical complaint vocalizes circumstances and feelings that do not seem to fit with God’s character or his purposes. While the Psalmist knows God is in control, there are times when it feels as if he’s not. When it seems that God’s purposes aren’t loving, lament invites us to talk to God about it.
Instead of stuffing our struggles, lament gives us permission to verbalize the tension. Psalm 13 begins this way. The Psalmist wrestles with why God isn’t doing more.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-3, ESV)
Biblical complaining is not venting your sinful anger toward God. It’s merely telling God about your struggles. And the more honest we can be, the sooner we are able to move to the next element.
Christians lament because the events of life seem to be incompatible with God’s promises. Lament not only acknowledges this tension, but it invites struggling believers to keep calling upon God to act. But lament seeks more than relief; it yearns for God to bring the deliverance that fits with his character. Godly lamenters keep asking even when the answer is delayed.
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. (Psalm 13:3-4, ESV)
Lament affirms the applicability of God’s promises by asking again and again for divine help. In so doing, these requests become hopeful reminders of what God can do. Asking boldly serves to strengthen our resolve to not give up. But it also encourages us to embrace the destination of all lament: trusting praise.
Renewed confidence in God’s trustworthiness is the destination of all laments. Turning, complaining, and asking lead here. Laments help us through suffering by directing our hearts to make the choice – often daily – to trust in God’s purposes that are hidden behind the pain. In this way, laments are some of the most theologically informed activities of the Christian life.
Laments lead us through our sorrows so that we can trust God and praise him.
This is how Psalm 13 concludes. Notice the pivot on the word “but” and the direct decision to trust, rejoice, and sing.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5-6, ESV)
It is a powerful ending to a blunt and honest Psalm. Every lament is designed to become this kind of pathway to praise. This minor-key song expresses the full range of human emotions so that we draw the right conclusion: “hard is hard, but hard is not bad.”
Conduit for Praise
Once you learn the language of lament, you can begin to understand what was happening in the past. I’ve had many conversations with tear-filled people as lament explained their messy journey. Still others felt relieved because they wondered if they were being sinful because of the complicated emotions they battled. Lament gave them a voice and a process for their pain.
Lament can become a conduit for our praise. We can lead our sorrows, fears, and doubts through this historical prayer form. Our prayer times can mirror the inspired struggles in the Psalms. We can offer our own prayers using the turn, complain, ask, and trust process. There are over forty Psalms that reflect this sorrow-to-praise language. We should take heart that the Bible gives us this quantity of songs to sing.
Knowing you should rejoice without understanding the path can be disheartening – even leading to despair. Laments provide the way for moving through loss to hope.
And by learning this language, we receive the grace God provides through this minor-key melody. We can discover a path to praise when lament is the song we sing.
Mark Vroegop is the Lead Pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, and the author of a new book entitled Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.
This article was first published on Crosswalk.com.