“Of all the people on the planet, Christians know the arc of redemptive history. We know what’s going to happen at the end. We know of the One who makes all wrongs right. And so it just seems to me that, of all the people on the planet, Christians ought to be the ones who master the language for the in-between world, and that is the language of lament.” — Mark Vroegop
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
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Mark Vroegop: Let me open in prayer. Join me, please.
God, we thank you that in the midst of the sorrows of life that you are there and present with us. We thank you for a language that allows us to talk to you, a language that can give us an enormous amount of grace if we will but learn it. And we pray that our time of learning and even question and answers today would be helpful for both growth and learning, and the experience of all that you have for us, and the sovereign rule that you have over the universe, including that which is hard and painful.And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
What I’m going to do during this breakout session is just to walk through some material on the subject of lament for about 30, 35 minutes or so and then leave some time for questions that you may have. One of the beautiful things about this subject is its breadth of application. But I found it to be very helpful to dig into particular arenas, and frankly, your questions help me to further refine my thinking and how to help serve the church with this important language.
I want to start, though, at the end of the story of redemption in Revelation 21, where the Bible says this, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. And He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.'”
I can hardly wait. You too? No more mourning, no more tears, we’ll sing lots of songs, I imagine, in the new heavens and the new earth.
I don’t think, though, that we’re going to sing a third of the Psalms, which are laments, because that day will be over. But in the inner-between time, where we are right now, we’re followers of Jesus who live between, life is really hard, and Jesus is going to come. I don’t understand, but I know that you’re good.
And I’m going to suggest to you that lament is the language for that journey. It is a gift that God has given to us. So among all the things that Christians are to do in this interim period, is we are to figure out how it is that we can keep trusting God, keep looking to Jesus when the bottom of life falls out.
You know, of all the people on the planet Christians know the story, we know creation, fall, redemption, restoration. We know the arc of redemptive history, we know what’s going to happen at the end, we know of the one who makes all wrongs right. And so it just seems to me that of all the people on the planet, Christians ought to be the ones who master the language that is for the in-between world, in between life, and that is the language of lament.
You know, it’s interesting, all of us entered the world the same way. When we entered the world, we entered with a loud cry. It’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s the way how life begins, we enter into a broken world and the first sound we make is a wail. It’s a loud protest that something is wrong, something’s wrong with the world. And lament is the language that Christians express, that’s different than just human emotion and crying.
So, think of it this way to cry is human, but to lament is Christian. And the reason for that is because lament, by definition, is a prayer that people offer to a sovereign God when life doesn’t fit with what they know to be true about Him, or the coming of Jesus, or the coming of justice, or the coming of God’s promises seem to be delayed.
And in that moment, Christians talk to God about their sorrow. This book that I’ve written, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, has been born out of my own journey both pastorally and personally.
2004, my wife and I experienced the tragedy of a stillborn daughter just a few days before delivery. She was nine pounds. She “counts” in our hearts. Her name was Sylvia. And God then sent us on a long journey of thinking and praying through elements of grief. It felt like there was a hole in my chest, and yet I’m pastoring on a regular basis and how to teach people and believe in the promises that I know that are true, but at one level, feel so distant and both of the nearness of God and sometimes the inexplicable distance of God in the midst of our suffering, created deep questions.
And I found that most people in my Christian circles were not either comfortable with those questions or even knew that it was okay to have them. And as a result, as I began to talk about the sort of missing element in our grief, people started to come out of the woodwork as I kind of candidly shared some of my questions, if people weren’t sort of tempted to retreat or to backup, they ended up coming out of the woodwork and saying, “I didn’t know that Christians could actually ask those questions.”
And then when I would read the Psalms, I’d see phrases and statements that just were stunning to me, words that kind of became my own. Like, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever? How long must I take comfort in my soul having sorrow in my heart all the day?” And I find great comfort in those difficult and pointed words.
I began to conclude that something is missing in Christianity, at least in 21st-century American, particularly, white-American Christianity. There’s something missing in our music. There’s something missing in our pastoral prayers. There’s something missing in our preaching, and I’m not saying that lament should take over, but I am suggesting that if a third of the Psalms, a third are laments, then maybe, just maybe, this language needs to be recovered in the conversation of what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus.
So, my book traces lament through the book of Psalms as trying to help people learn how to lament, and also the book of Lamentations, which is designed to be a memorial of what happens when suffering takes over an entire community of people, some of whom were to blame for the suffering, others who just were innocent, Godly people swept into divine discipline.
And so, how do you think about both the lessons that can be learned from lament and also how to learn to lament personally? So let me first just define what lament is. Here’s a simple definition. Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. So, a prayer in pain that leads to trust.
Every one of those words is important. It’s a prayer, so I’m not just feeling sad, or I’m not just mad, I’m not just hurting, but it’s a prayer. In the Psalms and Lamentations, it’s a statement to God. So, it’s a prayer. That’s why I say that to cry is human, but to lament is Christian. It’s a prayer in pain.
So rather than taking my pain and giving out the silent treatment because I’m upset with Him, or rather doing what many Christians do, they live in two ditches, which is either the ditch of denial, everything’s fine, or the ditch of despair, I can’t do this. Instead, we take our sorrows to God and we talk to Him about them. And that’s what a third of the Psalms do, they talk to God when it seems as though life doesn’t make sense.
So, it’s a prayer in pain that leads, so think of lament not as an end of itself. Lament is a language that’s meant to create a divine liturgy, something that leads us towards something else. So think of it as a pathway to praise. And then it’s a prayer and pain that leads to trust. So, it has a destination in mind, so don’t think of lament as a cul de sac of sorrow.
Like, you’re just kind of commiserating and thinking it’s designed to lead you to a reaffirmation of trusting in God’s sovereignty, singing about His graciousness, re-anchoring your heart to what you know to be true. But, in the moment of sorrow, it doesn’t feel like it’s true. So, you know that God is good, but the circumstances in front of you do not fit with that promise.
And what do you do with that? And I find that many Christians want to believe what they do believe, but they don’t know the language that helps them to believe it. Some of you are immediately thinking in the back of your minds, Mark, what about the command in the New Testament in particular, to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing, to consider it all joy when we fall into various trials?
My statement would be, “It’s inarguable that that’s where we are to land, it’s inarguable that that’s where we are to get to.” My question is not if that’s true, my question is, “How do you get there?” And that’s, I think, where many Christians don’t know how to get to that point of not resolving their tensions, but taking their tensions and saying, “Even though this is true, it’s also true that God is good.”
So think of it this way. Hard is not bad, but hard is hard. And I think the Christian life is simply living by having those two realities be equally true in the exact same moment. And many Christians think it’s an either-or choice. It’s not. The title of my book, Dark Clouds and Deep Mercy, comes from two texts in the book of Lamentations that essentially say, “The Lord has put us under a cloud, and the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
Now, Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, sees the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. He sees that divine discipline that God is bringing, and he has the boldness to proclaim over that moment, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end” on a scene that most people in their culture would look at and say, “God’s abandoned you. He doesn’t like you. He hasn’t kept His promises.”
Jeremiah has the unbelievably faith-filled confidence to say, “No, no, no, no, this scene says something. But my faith says something as well. And over this scene, I will say the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” and that changes how you see Lamentations 3.
I was at a Christian conference center not too long ago, and I saw a painting of a nice little cabin in the Smokies and it looked like sort of a Thomas Kinkade sort of painting. And it had Lamentations 3 underneath it. The text, Lamentations 3:22-25, about the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. And actually, I saw that picture and I smiled, because I thought, “This is how most Christians see Lamentations 3. The fact of the matter is it should look more like a tsunami in Indonesia, or Homs, Syria, and that changes how you see the book of Lamentations.
It also changes how you sing, how you think about God’s promises, and what you do to anchor your heart when the bottom falls out. So, lament is the language of sorrow when you live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty.
Laments usually involve four key elements. Now, it’s poetry, it’s music, so those of you who are sort of analytical people, don’t look at this and be like, if you have this, then this, then this, then this. These overlap sometimes, not all of the elements are there, but in general, laments involve these four key elements.
A turning to God in prayer. So, in my pain, I choose to keep talking to Him, I lay out my complaint, I ask boldly, and I choose to trust. Or, very simply, turn, complain, ask, trust. Turn, complain, ask, and trust. And I found, from my own life in pastoral ministry, this is a very helpful prayer language that I can pull and redeploy into my life when I’m struggling with God.
“This does not make sense to me and I want to be thankful, but I don’t know how to restart my heart towards thankfulness this morning.I know I’m supposed to rejoice in all circumstances, but today, I don’t know that your promises are as true to me in my feelings as what they were yesterday.”
So what lament does is it allows us to do a couple of things. Lament allows us to vocalize our sorrows, we’re able to talk about the rumblings of our souls, lament helps us to be able to empathize with other people, to be able to come alongside them, and to weep with those who weep. And lament also allows us to memorialize particular lessons so that we will not forget.
So, vocalize, empathize, and memorialize. So the book of Lamentations is a memorial. Think of Lamentations like the Vietnam Memorial. It’s meant for you to walk in to see the names and to remember what that moment was all about. That’s what the book of Lamentations is because here’s why. Because the book of Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting.”
Why? Because you learn more at funerals than you do at parties. And Lamentations is meant to remind you there are big important lessons that you ought to learn because of sorrow. So, here’s the deal. I think that Christians could serve their communities, their small groups, their churches really well by helping people interpret the brokenness of the world through a lens of God’s goodness, if they would yet choose to lament.
I think lament is the language that helps a culture to understand, “We know the problem, we know the king, and we know what to say in this moment.It’s lament.” So, four key elements, I’ll cover them quickly, turn. Laments take faith, where we choose to turn to God when we are hurting. In that respect, to pray a lament prayer is one of the most faith-filled things that you can possibly do.
Here’s why. Because if you’ve ever walked through a difficulty of season of sorrow, and you’ve asked the Lord and the answer has been no or wait, it is really hard to keep praying. You may not have given God the complete silent treatment, but some of you may have given God the silent treatment about a particular issue. Because if you’re honest, it’s just too painful to pray about. And what lament does is it acknowledges, “This is really hard, and yet I’m still going to talk to God about it.”
Listen to Psalms 77:1. I’m going to just give you a couple examples of some lament Psalms. I have a listing of the various laments and they fall into various categories in the Psalms, personal laments, corporate laments, imprecatory laments desire for justice, or repentant laments.
Here’s one, Psalms 77, just listen to what he says, “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.”
Just think of that. Here’s a man in sorrow, who’s praying intentionally. And while he prays, he says, “When I think about you, God, my heart moans.” So lament calls us to keep talking to God about our pain instead of allowing pain to become a pit.
We talk to God about our pain so that it can become a platform for renewed trust. And I think one of the ways that the enemy uses pain destructively in our lives is to convince us that we should stop praying to God. And as a result, many believers fall into this resolved silence where there are some things that they can pray about, but the real honest things, “No, I can’t talk to God about that at all.”
And then they come to church, where everybody, it seems, has it all together. And then they sing celebratory songs about how everything’s awesome. And I have nothing against celebratory songs. The challenge, though, is that they don’t often speak to the heart language of a very significant number of people who are grieving and wondering, “Does this even work?”
So turn, complain. Complaint is central to lament. It’s being brutally honest with God about what we feel. Complaint is not only the central piece of lament, but it’s Christian, because we believe in God’s promises and yet life often doesn’t fit with what we know to be true.
So there’s the tension. I know that you’re good, but this is really hard. I know that you promised to be with me, but I don’t feel like you’re near me. Laments in complaint ask God, “Why? How is this possible? How did this happen?” In fact, the book of Jeremiah is the kind of book that begins with the word “how,” chapter 1, “how” chapter 2, “how”, in fact, in the original Hebrew the title of the book wasn’t even Lamentations.
It was How. The idea is that how in the world did this happen? Now, if we’re honest, the idea of being a complainer isn’t necessarily a very positive one. And so you can complain sinfully, don’t get me wrong. But there is a language within the Bible where we are allowed to take our complaints to the Lord, we are allowed to talk to God in a way that’s humble and heartfelt to say, “God, this is what I’m feeling.”
And, by the way, God is not surprised when you tell Him what you’ve been feeling all along. It’s a crazy thing about complaints. I find it so hard sometimes to tell God I’m feeling only be reminded that that wasn’t news to him that I was feeling that way. Listen to Psalm 13, it says, “How long, oh Lord, will you forget me, forever?How long will you hide your face from me?How does I take counsel in my soul having sorrow in my heart all the day?How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
So complaints, take our sorrows, take our frustrations, take our disappointments. Here’s another one. Psalm 77. Psalm 77 has 6 rhetorical questions beginning in verse 7. Listen to these. “Will the Lord spurn forever? Will He never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?Are His promises at an end for all time?”
Listen to this one. “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Imagine if somebody in your small group, “Hey, brother, would you lead us out in prayer?” And he starts out, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” You know what people in your small group would do. Maybe like, “Hey, someone’s got to talk to Jim because he’s, like, off the rails.” Well, Jim just quoted the Bible.
He says, “Are His promises at an end for all time? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Now, here’s the thing. Does the Psalmist truly believe that God has forgotten to be gracious? Does the Psalmist really believe that God has shut up his compassion? Well, if you read rest of Psalm 77, you’ll see that it bears it out.
Absolutely not. He does not think that. But here’s the thing, and you know this to be true. There are things that are in the Bible promises that God has made that you know are true, but they don’t feel true in the moment. And the question is, what do you do when that happens? And the answer is, you talk to God about it, that God can handle your humble, heartfelt complaints.
Complaints are how we talk to God so that we can be as hopeful as we are honest. And the beautiful thing is that God can handle our struggles, He can handle our complaints. If you’re still not convinced, I will tell you that Jesus complained. Hanging on the cross, he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He quoted a lament psalm, Psalm 22:1. So complaint can be sinful, but complaint, biblically, is when we tell God about our sorrows, again, for the purpose of moving us along in this divine liturgy that then moves to ask.
So again, turn, complain, ask, laments invite us to keep asking for God’s help, even while we are still in pain. So, just so you know, lament is one of the most theologically informed things that you can do. You have pain and difficulty, and you say, “Yes, this is hard, but I know God is good, and I’m going to call Him to act.This does not make sense, but I know that I can trust Him.”
And Christianity is not having either of those be true at the same time. It’s having them both be true at the exact same time. Again, hard is hard. Hard is not bad. Dark clouds, deep mercy. This is really bad, but I will dare to hope. In fact, that’s what Lamentations, in the New Living Translation, Chapter 3:20-22 say this, “I will never forget this awful time as I grieve my loss.”
And then he says this “Yet, I still dare to hope when I remember this, the faithful love of the Lord never ceases His mercies never cease.” I love that. I still dare to hope when I remember this, and that’s what grieving Christians do. They walk through the sorrows of life, saying, “I still choose to believe.”
And so, asking is the way in which we call the promises of God to account, we ask God to do what He promises in the Word to do. We release our control on the timing, but we say to Him, “I’m asking you to move, I’m asking for you to help me. I’m asking, again, for you to be true to your Word.”
When we ask, it’s not only that we’re asking God to act, but it is also that we’re reminded that these promises are really the things that we do believe. It’s remarkable that as you ask, you’re not only pulling the promises into your world, but you’re reminding yourself that, “I do believe this because I’m asking.”
I don’t have to believe and then ask, I have to ask so that I’ll believe. See, that’s what lament does, it helps us, strengthens us, and then moves to the final, which is trust. So turn, complain, ask, and trust. This is where all laments are designed to lead. If you don’t end in trust, you have not lamented. You’ve just been sad.
Every lament has a pivot, has words like and, or but, or even so. In the Hebrew, it’s called a vav adversative]. It’s the turning point. Psalmist 13, makes this incredibly clear when it says, after saying, “How long will you forget me?”
“Consider and answer me,” verse 3. And then verse 5, here it is, “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.” So what does true Christianity look like then? It means that as we walk through sorrows, that we’re turning to God in prayer, we’re laying out our concerns, our complaints, we’re asking him boldly to help us and it is that we are saying, “I’m going to make the choice to trust God again, and again, and again, and again.”
And I think Christianity is essentially a regular rhythm that through the sorrows of life, we in effect, say to our soul, “This is hard, but I will trust the Lord,”and lament is the language that helps us to get there. Listen to Psalm 9:9-12.
“The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in time of trouble.And those who know your name put their trust in You, O Lord, for you have not forsaken those who seek you.So sing praise to the Lord who sits enthroned in Zion. Tell among the peoples His deeds, for He who avenges blood is mindful of them, He does not forget the cry of the afflicted.”
So through all of the pain, through all the frustrations, through all the unfair treatment at the hands of others, through all the injustice, lament leads us to a place of worship, where we choose to trust, and in so doing, God helps us in our trusting. So whatever you do, if you consider lament, do not make the mistake of not making this turn to trust.
Learn to live in the tension of pain beyond belief, and divine sovereignty beyond comprehension, where you choose to put your trust in God. So, life is often hard. There’s often many tensions and lament is how you live between a life that’s hard while knowing that hard is not bad.
In the book, I talk about a concept called active patience, this has been helpful for me to understand that sometimes waiting or trusting feels like I’m doing nothing. And the reality is, is that lament helps us to embrace the fact that trusting is I’m actively waiting. I’m actively waiting for God to move, and in so doing, I am regularly putting my confidence in God’s ability to be God.
So again, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust and involves turning, asking…or turning, complaining, asking, and trusting. That’s how you learn to lament. Let me quickly just address the book of Lamentations. The book of Lamentations serves as a memorial of what it is like when the bottom drops out in life and Lamentations is designed to help the people of Israel both interpret the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, and also for generations to remember how we got here, so that they would not forget not only the faithfulness of God, but also the fact that they live in a broken world and God is holy.
So one of the helpful things that lament does, even if you’re not in the midst of grief, is it tunes your heart to the brokenness of the world. So, by understanding what happens in Lamentations, there’s two chapters that reflect on the destruction of the culture. Chapter 3 is sort of the climax of the book. The middle part of the chapter is the ultimate summit, where it says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”
And then what’s interesting, and I love that Jeremiah does this. Chapters 4 and 5 are also dark. I mean, this is no Hallmark movie, right? This is no Hollywood happily ever after kind of a situation. The fact of the matter is Jeremiah is proclaiming a statement of biblical confidence in God’s purposes over a situation that, from the world’s perspective, would scream, “God has forgotten you.”
And Jeremiah says, “No, he hasn’t, although it certainly looks like it in this moment.” And I think that is where Christianity is at its best. When it seems as though the world has crumbled, when it seems as though disappointment has rained, lament gives us a language to communicate, that brokenness is right in front of us.
And as a result, it tunes our hearts to the brokenness that’s in the world, it tunes our hearts to the brokenness that is inside of us, and allows us as Christians to speak into the brokenness of our culture. So not just to speak into your own brokenness, but once you learn this language, to speak into the brokenness that’s around you. I’ll give you an illustration of this.
There was a home invasion and a murder in Indianapolis a number of years ago, with a man and his wife who moved to the city to plant a church, and a couple of armed men broke into a home, they killed and murdered the wife while the baby was sleeping upstairs. And while the police were searching for the suspects, and this neighborhood was just shocked beyond measure, there were a few people in our church who lived in that neighborhood.
We were walking through the book of Lamentations, and what they did is they opened their home every evening for a period of time in order to help their neighbors lament. They used Psalm 13. They introduced to them the language of lament, they showed unbelievers that God can handle sorrows, he can handle pains, he can handle difficult moments like this. And actually the Bible is filled with these kind of words that say, “God, this doesn’t make any sense.”
And so they opened their home to be interpreters of the brokenness that was around them. And as a result, that led to a Bible study using Tim Keller’s book on suffering, and helped to platform the gospel as believers stepped into the space of brokenness. And so one of the things that I hope that happens by Christians understanding this language of lament is not only that they would know how to deal with their own pain, not only that they would become a better friend and a helper when someone is walking along in grief, but also that they’ll know what to pray when they see a mass shooting in their city, or they see the murder rate in their city climb, or they learn about sex trafficking that’s happening in their city, and they wonder, “What do we pray in these moments? What do we say? And how can we help the world know, of all the people on earth, Christians know what’s wrong with the world and we have a language that speaks into the brokenness that is both inside us and around us?”
So, for instance, about six months or so ago, a shooting happened. A school shooting happened here in Noblesville, Indiana. And it was a scary thing and I wrote a lament prayer and I published it because I wanted my people to know how to think about how do you process? How do you pray into this kind of moment?
And here’s what that lament prayer sounded like. “How long, O Lord, must we lament shootings at schools? How many more lives will be needlessly lost or scarred at the hands of other children? Our souls are weary of seeing panicked parents, fleeing students, and bewildered teachers. We’re tired of the senseless violence in places like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Santa Fe, and now, Noblesville, Indiana. We mourn the brokenness of a culture where children kill children. We grieve that a 13-year-old would bring guns along with books to school, we weep over the pain that must have dwelt in his heart, and we groan over the rage that led him to harm others.We lament the isolation and madness that leads to days like these. Or to where do we go when our fears, our concerns, and our frustrations are like this? We feel powerless to prevent this kind of tragedy. We feel unable to protect our children even at school. And so, God, we turn to you and ask you to help. We cry out to you in our pain. Would you bring comfort to students, teachers, and parents traumatized by this shooting? Would you give wisdom to counselors, pastors, and friends as they care for those who are hurting? Would you help our children know that they are loved and allow that love to be demonstrated in kindness and compassion? Would you bring peace to the hearts of the troubled children who feel isolated, lonely, and desperate? Would you provide healing to the student and the teacher who were injured? Would you bring wisdom to those in authority to know how and what justice should be brought? Would you turn the hearts of children towards your son, Jesus, so that they could find their meaning in him? And would you give the city of Noblesville a resolve to be united in the care and love of our children? Lord, moments like these shock our hearts and we are deeply grieved over another school shooting. We cry to you for help. We feel the weight of our brokenness today. And we need your grace to find the healing we cannot discover on our own and so as we lament this shooting in Noblesville, we look to you. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Since that time, I’ve written other lament prayers as a means of both pastoring our people and even pastoring the community. This particular lament prayer was picked up and I even ended up doing an interview on a local TV station, and was able to explain. It’s crazy, I’m talking about the language of a lament to the entire city of Indianapolis.
And yet it just fits because, of all people who know this language, Christians should, because we’re all of the people who know what is wrong with the world and the King Jesus who can make it right. And so, I’m arguing that we ought to be interpreters of pain as best as we come and comforters, and then lament helps us in that language.
So finally, let me just give you a few additional application points of how you might use lament. First of all, you could use this in your personal life. One of the things that I’ve seen has been incredibly helpful for me is when I’m struggling to pray a lament prayer, to put aside maybe the traditional model of, you know, adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. That’s a great model for prayer, good standard way to pray in a regular basis.
But when the bottom drops out, or I’m really frustrated, I need to pull out a different language that sounds more like turn, complain, ask, and trust. Sometimes, I’ve listed all the things that are bothering me, I actually write out my complaints. And you know what’s crazy, when I get specific and write them out, it’s amazing how they lose their hold on me. Sometimes it’s almost laughable. I look at my list and I’m like, “That’s all I’m worried about? Oh, man, Lord, you got this. I’m done. I’m trusting you right now.”
In other cases, those are more intractable complaints that aren’t going to go away easy, but in me talking to God about it, it reminds me that I believe that He’s good. He does indeed care. I’m choosing to talk to him about it. I’m not going to be silent because somehow through this process, God’s going to help me in my sorrow. If you don’t know what to pray, what you might do is just pray one of the lament Psalms, just pray it.
There’s all kinds of great language in the Bible that will give you the right words to say. I found it particularly helpful in counseling to take a lament psalm. I have this in some worksheets in the back of my book that go through turn, complain, ask, and trust. And then, like, study Psalm 13. Where do you see turn? And where do you see complain? And where do you see ask?
And where do you see trust? Write out the verse and then right next to it, there’s a space that you could write out your prayer. Now, what would Psalm 13 sound like coming from you today? So I’ll give you an example in the book, Psalm 86, what it sounded like for me a day when I just needed to talk to the Lord about something that was wrong and how it would sound if it came from my own soul. And I’ve seen great fruit as grieving Christians have not only been given permission, but also have an opportunity to talk to God about their sorrows.
We used this lament form in a civil rights vision trip. So I took 50 leaders on a bus tour down South and we visited all sorts of civil right locations in history, and historical spots. On the bus, was a third minority brothers and sisters, and two-thirds white brothers and sisters. And every morning we studied the lament Psalm together. And then in light of what we were seeing, we wrote our own laments.
And then we began to pray them. And I’m telling you, it leveled the conversation about racial reconciliation and it allowed brothers and sisters to hear one another talking to God about their pain, their hurt, their frustration, their regret, their remorse, and it changed the conversations that happened next. Because when you start from the framework of, let’s lament together, it changes both the tone and your approach to conversations.
If you have a friend who’s grieving, understanding lament will help you to know not to step in when they’re really, really, really sad, and will also give you the confidence that they’re really sad today, but they’re still clinging to Jesus. And in the midst of their grief, you might be able to help them and know what it is to come alongside them.
From a pastoral ministry perspective, those of you who lead regularly in elder prayers or pastoral prayers, consider adding laments into a regular rhythm. There’s plenty of things to lament in the context of your congregation, from health issues, to events that are happening in your culture, in your society. Remember that when you watch the news, you watch the news to know how to pray, but you also watch the news to know how to lament.
And you can help your church to get outside of its walls by bringing those sorrows in and reminding them of what’s broken in the world, but you also have hope and trust in Jesus. Additionally, if you’re a musician, the church needs to know how to sing songs of lament. Over a third of the Psalms songs are songs of lament, but a recent study was done and the number of CCLI-licensed songs that characterize lament was less than 5%.
In fact, some artists from our church took up the challenge to write some lament songs, and if you’d like, they did five of them, they’re amazing. Just trying to capture, “What would Psalm 13 sound like in 2019?” So there’s five songs under a title called “Dare to Hope.” You can get that on iTunes.
You can hear it and you’ll hear how some people in my church have tried to express what lament sounds like. And also there’s an opportunity for a level of community engagement for you to enter into the space of people’s brokenness, for you to be able to speak into what’s wrong in your culture, in order to help demonstrate that Jesus has an answer for this.
If you lead in funerals, I have no squabble with it being called a celebration of life. Although I would just suggest that we ought not be afraid to add laments into our funerals. We ought not to be concerned so much that we don’t sorrow as those who have no hope. We think of that verse, we’re so concerned about, let’s not be overly sorrow because we want to give people hope.
That’s true. But if we don’t sorrow, then the hope that we give them, frankly, is rather thin, maybe even incomplete, maybe even shallow. So, lament needs to be added into the mix so that we can fully demonstrate what it looks like for us to be faithful followers of Jesus when life is really hard. So, lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. Turn, complain, ask, trust are the four key elements.
And what I’ve seen and discovered is that there’s an unbelievable level of grace that God can give us as we use this biblical language to help us to traverse a difficult pathway when we know, “I believe God is good, but my life is really hard right now.”
And when we deal with the fact that grief is not tame, and life is really difficult, this language enters into that space and says, “Here’s how you talk to God and to one another when it seems as though life is falling apart.” When dark clouds roll in, there’s divine mercy, deep mercy available to you, if you’ll simply talk to God about your sorrows.
And so my hope is that you’ll learn to lament, because I think the church needs good lamenters. And I think the world needs good lamenters. So, learn this language now because we won’t be using it in the new heavens and the new earth. When that day comes, we will no longer be singing these songs, praise God.
There’ll be no books published on lament, no studying of it, because that day will be over. And until that day, I can hardly wait, but until that day, we need to learn to lament. With that, I’ll take a few moments for some questions that you have or things that you would like to dial into. All right, so we’ve got about 15, 20 minutes for good time for dialog and questions. So, yes.
Man 1: Thank you. I really appreciate your talk, thank you. Can you talk about the specific expressions of grace that God offers in response to each of those steps that you’ve talked through? What is God doing in this person, you know, in response? To me, that’s an important piece of doing this well as having some sense of, how is God responding to this? [inaudible] and be patient, what’s God doing as we walk through each of those steps?
Vroegop: Yes. So the question is, what is God doing through each of those steps? The first answer would be, I don’t know. I can tell you that my own experience just what I have felt and sensed. So, I think that’s what you’re asking. There is a sense of safety and refuge when I come to God when I’m really sad. And I’m thankful that I can come to Him and I’m really grateful, in the same way that some of the most tender moments as a father are when my kids are really grieving.
I’m really glad they call me. I’m really glad that they come to me. I think God is the same way. In relationship to complaints, I think complaints offered in a humble, God-centered heart are actually affirming of our belief in God, not that sending us the other direction. So, I have to believe that the reason that we have Psalm 22 quoted by Jesus in the New Testament is there for a reason.
And I think, when we’re telling God, “Why have you forsaken me? Why does it feel like you’ve forsaken me?” I think in that moment, we’re following in the footsteps of Jesus. Asking God to fulfill His promises is this beautiful act of faith. I think God must be thrilled that we’re willing to enter in to seeing the promises of God at that level.
And then, you know, when we trust, we’re reaffirming what we believe to be true. So that’s what my experience has been, I can’t point to a text or tell you, “This is what the Bible tells me that is happening.” But God must be pro-lament because a third, one out of every three Psalms has this language in it. And I think that’s really, really helpful and really comforting.
One out of three, just think of that. One out of every three Psalms reflects difficulty. And frankly, if you think of your life, you’d be like, yeah, that fits. About one out every three days, it’s not so good, right? And so I think the Psalmist was just living in the world that we lived in, and God’s given us a helpful language for that. Okay, over here, yeah.
Man 2: About a year ago, our church started instituting a regular time] of confession lament in service. And because the area that we’re in, a lot of people in the church are kind of used to inspirational Christianity and just really positive and happy all the time. Members in our church, but also visitors who come to our church have questioned, you know, “It seems like you’re being really negative all the time.” Do you have some ways to make a quick apologetic for lament? Because, obviously, you can’t always have sustained conversations about that but just, some things that you say to help without doing an hour long presentation.
Vroegop: Right, yeah. So the question is, when doing lament, some folks think it’s just too morbid, and is there a way to make that clear quickly to people? I think there needs to be a level of… if you just jump into this without helping people know what it is they’re going to be like, “Whoa, what’s wrong with Pastor today?” You know, like, those questions…you’re not supposed to ask those questions, you know, even though you just read the Bible.
So I think helping people understand it as a category and then also be sure that in your early experiences with lament and laying it out for people, that you balance, you weight the complaint with the ask and trust. Like, if you’re like…let’s say you have, you know, percentage-wise, and you’re like at 70% complaint, and then you’re at like 20% ask, and 10% trust, you know, it’s just going to be off kilter.
Now, some of your churches could handle that because it fits the need of the moment, but you have to be pastorally wise in sort of helping your people to understand that. And you might find other ways just to give people some resources on the subject of lament, even just doing a series on a couple of the lament Psalms so they can be conversant in the language, or having some people give testimony of how laments have been helpful to them.
Because if we’re honest, grief is scary. And when you hear somebody pray a lament prayer that asks really tough questions, it can trip you out a little bit. I mean, I had a guy in my small group who was going through a really hard time with a son who had cancer, and he was slumped over an ottoman during one of our small group prayer times and he was wailing, saying, “God, why, why why?”
I mean, I’ve written a book about this. I’ve studied this, and his grief made me really nervous. I wanted him to stop. I was just like, “Please stop, please stop, please stop, please stop.” Because the grief, there is something about it that just reminds me I am limited, I am human. This is out of control. What if this doesn’t stop?
And I think that’s a normal feeling for people when we’re walking through grief. And as a result, you need to help people understand this language so that they can be okay with wherever they are in the journey for the kind and depth of lament maybe that they would put into practice and embrace. So yeah, be careful if you go back to your church and you’re just like, boom this Sunday, you know, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Amen.”
You know, people will be, like, “Whoa, time to call the search committee, you know, we need a new person,” so, all right? Good question. All right, another one. Yes, sir. all the way in the back. Nice and loud. –
Man 3: Hi, Mark? It seems, given lament, that the biggest part of would be just presence. That we don’t allow people….That we do what Job’s friends did wrong. They started out right when they sat with him, but then they gave him bad advice. How do we stop ourselves from giving advice? How do we stop others from giving bad advice?
Vroegop: Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s lots of reasons that we do that. I’ll just give you a few as it relates to the subject of lament. I have found that people who study lament and are proficient in the language, they know what to do intuitively, because they know what’s happening. And they’re less inclined to go to fix-it mode, like so many…or identification mode. That’s what we do. So grief happens, and immediately because we’re scared, we want it to be over. So we offer solutions, or we want to identify because we want to join in them and then we offer really, really bad connection points.
Yeah, I’ll give you an example. There’s a family in our church that had a teenage special needs daughter who died and in the receiving line of the funeral, somebody said, “We’re so sorry for your grief.” And they said, “Thank you.” They said, “Yeah, we know exactly how you feel.” They said, “You do?” They said, “Yeah, yeah. You know, our dog died last week, and we’re just really, really sad today, you know.” So I mean, if you’ve had that happen, and you just want to be like, “Hey, security,” you know, they’re out. And what’s happening, and it’s [inaudible] if you’re grieving, like people will do that all the time, because they genuinely want to help. The problem is grief is scary. They don’t know what to do. And they don’t know that it’s okay to be silent, to be there and simply to say, “I’m sorry, let me walk with you in the midst of this grief.” And so one author says, “Let me come and sit beside you on the mourning bench.”
I love that. So I’m going to sit beside you and just just be there. And so, it’s okay for you to say to your friend, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m really sorry. I mean, I just want to stand here and just weep with you.” The hard part for us who are not in the middle of that is that grief is so scary. We want it over, we want it fixed, we want to move on from it. We want to do something, we got to do something and that’s the problem with grief.
You can’t do something. It’s why it’s in the world, because it indicates something’s wrong, and you need Jesus to come back to ultimately fix it. And that’s part of the power of what… why grief is a good reminder and a good teacher in that respect. So, Garrett?
Garrett: So you mentioned you brought up how your congregation, how this has helped you in the racial reconciliation, racial harmony conversation. How do you maybe help someone who doesn’t think that there’s really something to grieve about? So this could be a really hard conversation, especially when someone else is looking at a situation and says I don’t understand why you’re grieving. I don’t see it. We know we’ve got to educate and all of that. Cause that can hurt all the more. How are you trying to navigate that?
Vroegop: Yeah, that’s a bigger subject that I’m going to explore even further. I will tell you this, that when Ferguson, Missouri happened, I was silent pastorally for two, maybe three weeks. And a African American brother came up to me and he said, “Are we going to pray about Ferguson or…?” And to be very honest with you, I didn’t know what to pray and so I chose to say nothing, which is a really hurtful thing.
So this is what I would say, to pray nothing is not safe. And that’s sometimes the mistake that those of us in majority culture tend to make. And at the same time, what lament does, if done well, it helps different groups of people with different perspectives, even on the same issue, to be able to weep with one another to say, “I may not understand, but I know that this is really hard for you. And I would like to understand, so I’m even lamenting the fact that I don’t even know what to pray.I’m lamenting that this divides us. I’m lamenting that we have people on both sides of this issue. I’m lamenting that even as we pray together, we may be nervous about what this prayer is going to do.”
And that’s a sign of that we’re lamenting our lamenting prayers in this moment. And I think it’s imperative, though, that the church, at some level, goes into that particular arena. And the reason that I think that’s the case is because of all of the entities on the planet, it seems to me like the church ought to be the one place that could be able to go there because we know the language of lament, we know Jesus who died for all peoples.
And I think it takes pastoral wisdom, in light of where your congregation is, to know what to pray and how to pray. But I’ve seen it bring people together to the table that you wouldn’t think that it would have. And so, I would encourage you just to be pastorally wise, when we get a majority brother and a minority brother and say, “How would you pray about this?” And then maybe pastorally can figure out how to be able to thread that needle.
If we had an easy answer for it, we could solve the problem entirely. And that’s part of the issue. My point is that not praying about it is just as bad as praying the wrong thing. So yeah.
Vroegop: Yep. So the question is, if someone’s stuck in complaint, how do you move them along? You know, one way you can do that is just take a lament Psalm and say, “Hey, let’s study this together. And let’s kind of walk them through and, you know, there’s this four-fold steps. Let’s kind of see this in the Bible,” and allow them to see it for themselves. If you just kind of lay it on them, “Hey, you need to move on,”that’s not going to be helpful.
But if they can see it and realize that the Bible is as honest as they want to be, and that’s okay for them to be honest, that tends to suddenly be like, “Oh, like the Bible understands, and it’s okay to be this way.” And then they’re able to kind of move on. In fact, the most emotional times when I’ve been leading someone in that kind of exercise is in the complaint. It’s like, finally, somebody gave me permission to be straight up honest with God.
And it’s remarkable how very few people end up…they don’t want to stay there. They want it to have some sort of resolution. And so the sort of helping them to see it in the Psalms could be a helpful way or for you to demonstrate that. I’ve had people pray over me when I could barely ask God for His promises, because I knew they were true, but I could hardly even muster the strength to pray that, and having someone else pray over me actually bolstered my confidence and my ability to pray.
We had some folks who prayed over prodigal children as parents came down during a prayer meeting, and to hear other people pray for prodigal children to come home, they prayed with a boldness that the parents could not have prayed. But it helped the parents to have boldness because their friends had boldness. And I think that’s what community does in the context of prayer. And I’ve had that happen like, “Man, I believe this promise now because you’re praying it.”
Like, “I didn’t believe it if I was praying, but because you’re believing it and you believe it, and you believe it, and you believe it, all right, well, I guess I believe it too.” And I believe it, but having people around me believe it. That’s what congregational singing does, by the way. You ever had that happen, where you’re kind of mouthing the words and all of a sudden, you catch somebody and you’re like, “Man, they’re really into this song. I’m into the song now because…” and it’s like, we all help one another re-confess what we believe but, independently, our strength would tend to leak.
So I think that’s where a good friend, a good community can be enormously helpful if they understand the language of lament. If not, you can either shut them down or allow them to wallow, or be impatient with their struggles. Again, this is not a linear process, in some folks it takes longer than others. Chris?
Chris: What are some ways that we can practically memorialize the lessons from lament?
Vroegop: Yeah. How do you memorialize lessons from lament? Well, one thing is just to pray lament prayers more regularly, particularly over things that you see in culture. So we had somebody, during a series on lamentations, we prayed and lamented abortion. So just a mile or so from our church is the largest abortion clinic in the state, and it’s easy to forget that it’s right there.
And when you lament it, you’re like, “That’s right.” We had somebody pray and lament over the opioid crisis that’s happening in the Northern suburbs. We hear it, but by praying into it, it helps to remind us that’s a problem. We need to ask… Or we lamented over sex trafficking and Indianapolis is a hub for sex trafficking in the Midwest. And so just by laying that on the table, it helps people to be reminded of the brokenness, and that the church cares about how the gospel relates to these issues. And on a personal level, I had a guy stop me in the gym when we were in the middle of this series, and he was like, “So lament’s helping me with temptation.” And I was like, “Awesome. Tell me about it.”
And he was like, “Man, I’m taking time to lament my sins, like I’m going there reading lament Psalms about repentance, I’m just lamenting the brokenness. So I get done with my lament prayer. I go out. I’m like, ‘Why would I want that?’ I just lamented that.” I mean, that’s like giving him some new level of freedom. And I just thought, “Wow, we shouldn’t lament our sins after the fact. Maybe we should lament about sin before the fact.” And so that’s another way is to be reminded…sort of tunes your heart as you go out into the world to be reminded, “I’m about to enter a world that’s really not safe for my soul, but I can trust the Lord.”
But this lament is something that tunes my heart to understand what’s really wrong with the world. It’s time for one more. Way in the back. Yes, sir.
Man 4: In the complaint part of the lament, I think I heard you say it could be sinful. And I’m wondering, How do we know if what we are complaining has crossed the line and become sin? And as long as we follow up with the trust part, are we fine?
Vroegop: Brother asks, how do we know if our complaints are sinful and why everyone’s laughing here is because he just suggested that if we just ask and trust that it clears the deck on our complaints. So, here’s the thing. I want to say that complaining can absolutely be sinful. The hard part is it relates to the motivation and the reason that you’re coming.
If you come to God because you think He owes you a life like you’ve always dreamed, if you’re frustrated and angry because God has thwarted your plans, if you come with a demanding spirit, I think that’s just…or you coming because you’re angry at God. I don’t think it’s right to be angry with God. I think He’s a sovereign good God, I think it’s okay to have questions. I think it’s okay to acknowledge this is very difficult.
And so I think it’s important to come humble. If you’re worried that your complaint is going to be ungodly, because you know where your heart is, I would suggest you then let the lament Psalms be the tracks along which your complaint runs. So pray the Bible, and you won’t be sinning. Pray what the Bible says and there’s lots of really, really good language in the Psalms.
One of my favorite is where the Psalmist says, “God, remove your hand from your garment and help me.” In other words, here’s the [inaudible] translation, “God, get your hands out of your pockets and do something.” And that’s what the Psalmist is saying. He’s like, “Come on, God help me, please.” And yet when we resolve our hearts and say “I want to choose to ask or I’m going to ask boldly, I’m going to choose to trust,” where we end is key.
So if you don’t end, if you stop and complain, I think that’s just not only unbiblical, it’s unhelpful. But I think you have to be careful just checking your heart to be sure. “Am I here today because I think God owes me something, or am I here because when I look at the brokenness of the world, I’m really hurting today.And I’m thankful that I have a savior who can handle my struggles.”
And maybe there’s some times when your complaints have gone too far. And when that happens, I would say at least you’ve been praying. And if you feel guilty for going too far, then ask the Lord for forgiveness, repent and turn, and use the language of the Bible for a season. But at the same time, just know that we have a God who’s given us this language, because someday He’s going to come and make it all right.
And while we live in the in-between world, He’s given us a language to talk to Him, so that we can move from where we are, to where we need to be. And that’s why I think lament is a language that needs to be recovered because there’s lots of grace in it. All right, friends, let me close us in prayer. Thanks for coming today. Father, we thank you for the language of lament that you are so wise and helpful in giving to us and we pray that we would learn how to talk to you, how to pray when we’re in pain.
I pray for brothers and sisters who are in this room are going to hear this recording who have fallen into silence, I pray you help them to dare to hope again, to choose, to talk to you, and not give up. Let them just read a lament Psalm slowly, carefully, allow it to be something that begins to open their hearts again. And thank you, Jesus, you’re the man of sorrows, you tell us to come boldly to the throne of grace, we need your help.
And we’re thankful that hard times remind us of that. So Lord, give us strength to persevere and help us to be a good community of believers who help others do the same. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.