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Strong Churches Speak the Language of Lament

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On a frigid day in February, I lowered the tiny casket of my daughter into a newly dug grave. A few days earlier, my wife had given birth to our stillborn daughter, Sylvia, after carrying her for nearly nine months. Her due date was just a few days away. And then Sylvia’s heart stopped beating with no explanation.

Family and close friends huddled around us. After gently placing the casket in the ground, I gathered my wife and three boys. We walked away from the graveside, our hearts pierced by unfathomable grief.

It was the beginning of a long journey.

Our road led us through conflicted emotions, nagging questions, and additional disappointments. We suffered multiple miscarriages and a blighted ovum (a false-positive pregnancy). And while we finally conceived and gave birth to healthy daughter a few years later, we fought every day not to yield to the crushing grip of anxiety and fear.

Through this painful odyssey, it seemed something was missing.

Missing Element

My wife and I firmly believed in God’s goodness. We knew he was going to work in our pain for his glory and our good. We treasured his sovereignty. But daily life was still hard—very hard. Grief wasn’t tame. Through our dark moments, we talked to God about our pain, our questions, and our fears.

When I occasionally shared the struggles of my soul, however, some responded uncomfortably or oddly. They often tried to find something positive to say. Others stumbled by attempting to make a personal connection with our pain. When I was honest with the depth of our wrestling or doubts, people usually wanted to move on—quickly.

It became clear that most people didn’t know how to walk with us in our grief. I know every person had good intentions. I don’t blame them or hold resentment. But it was as if they didn’t speak our language.

The missing element in our grief was a familiarity with lament—the heartfelt and honest talking to God through the struggles of life.

Looking back, I can now see that the missing element in our grief was a familiarity with lament—heartfelt and honest talking to God through the struggles of life.

Lament was a new language for us, too. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, even though I was a seminary-trained pastor. Somehow I missed the fact that laments are found in more than a third of the biblical psalms. Lament just wasn’t familiar terrain to me, and my pain made that gap plain.

Re-Tuning My Heart

Loss tuned my heart to yearn for the candid honesty of lament. I longed for others to understand the tension of knowing that hard isn’t bad, but it’s still hard.

As I read books on grief, I noticed that most attempted to either explain the psychological process of sorrow or provide a defense of God’s allowance of suffering. Lament was virtually ignored. As I listened at funerals and Sunday services, it struck me that they were lament-lite. Celebration and songs of triumph were the norm. And while I have nothing against either, the absence of lament was noticeable.

My heart longed for the minor-key tune of lament—a song for when you’re living between the poles of a hard life and trust in God’s sovereign care.

Grace of Lament

As I started to talk about lament and preach on it over the years, I witnessed an interesting response. Hurting people came out of the woodwork. When I asked someone why we were meeting for counseling, he said, “What you said on Sunday made me think you really understand.”

We were speaking the same language. I started to see lament as a gift.

My heart longed for the minor-key tune of lament—a song for when you are living between the poles of a hard life and trust in God’s sovereign care.

Instead of giving God the silent treatment, falling into either despair (“I can’t do this”) or denial (“everything’s fine”), lament encourages us to talk to God about our struggles so that we can reaffirm our trust in him. Simply stated, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.

I discovered there is grace available if we learn the language of lament and even re-order our prayer life around this divinely given liturgy for loss. There are at least four steps in this painful journey:

1. Turn to Prayer

When pain creates struggles or hard questions, lament invites us to talk to God about it. Even if it’s messy or awkward, lamenting is better than faking it or not talking to him.

2. Bring Our Complaints

Lament invites us to bluntly tell God our questions, fears, and frustrations. There is grace in this minor-key song as we get honest with God, knowing that biblical laments ask gutsy questions: “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” (Ps. 77:9).

3. Ask Boldly

Calling on God to act in accordance with his promises runs parallel with our complaints. Pain can create disappointment, but lament provides the language that dares to hope again. Lament invites us to ask for help—again and again.

4. Choose to Trust

The destination for all laments is an affirmation of trust in God. Gut-level, honest prayers provide a pathway for hurting people to move through their pain. Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faith.

Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faith.

For example, Psalm 13 begins with the question of why God seems so far away: “Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). But it ends with this hope-filled statement: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Ps. 13:5).

This is where lament leads us—back to trusting the grace of God.

Faith-Filled Laments

Life is filled with sorrow. It seems we should be more familiar with this inspired expression of grief. Even Jesus poured out his heart to the Father by quoting a lament Psalm while on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).

My personal and pastoral journey taught me that it takes faith to lament.

God has given us this minor-key song because of the grace that comes as we turn, complain, ask, and trust. More than formulaic stages of grief, this prayer language invites us to keep talking to God about pain, even when the dark clouds linger.

Simply stated, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.

Lament is more than tears and sorrow. It turns to the Savior who promised to return. Lament vocalizes the longing for the day when “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 21:4). Christians believe in the goodness of God, and they know the arc of the plan of redemption: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

In the meantime, as we long for the completion of that glorious plan, we lament.

That’s why lament shouldn’t be missing from our praying, singing, teaching, or counseling. We should allow it to bring grace to small group meetings, grief recovery groups, or pastoral prayers in the midst of a national crisis.

Recovering the historic, biblical language of lament can be a ballast for the soul as we journey through a broken world.