Debunked: It's Okay to Lament

By Katie Hill

Anguish sweeps over you like a wave--relentless, merciless, stealing your breath away. You never expected to feel pain or sorrow like this. Maybe someone close to you has died. Perhaps you're reeling from the breakup of a close relationship. You might be facing the worst betrayal ever. Your emotions are going a million miles an hour. You feel like you're going to go crazy. "Lord help me! I can't bear this!" you cry out. That, dear Christian, is the heart of lamenting.

Simply put, lamenting is the expression of deep-seated grief. The portrayals of funerals from Biblical times might pop into your head, where men beat their breasts and women wailed loudly. No, this is not what I'm saying you need to do. Not all lamenting is that overt or looks the same, but it is a real experience nonetheless--one that we all will share at one time or another.

Is Lamenting Biblical?

Well-meaning fellow Christians who seek to offer comfort, might actually turn you away from something that is an essential part of your relationship with God as His child. I've recently discovered that one of the most comforting expressions I've been able to offer to others is, "It's okay to lament." I usually get the response "Really?" Yes, really. Just because you're a baptized child of God doesn't mean the losses of life don't profoundly pierce your heart.

It may surprise you to know that there is actually a pattern in the Scriptures that shows us how lamentation can be a constructive process, strengthening our reliance on our Father and bringing us the comfort found only in Christ. Ultimately we cry out because we know He will answer. He's a God who keeps His promises, after all.

The Bible is brimming with example after example of this.

Without a doubt, Job comes to mind. He faces tremendous grief and sorrow due to losses that few of us will ever know. Yes, Job lamented. His "friends" were of little comfort and ultimately Job found rest in the reality that "I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last He will stand upon the earth" (Job 19:25).  

There's even a book in the Bible called Lamentations that catalogs Israel's continual struggles. It's a tough read. Yet in the midst verse after verse of sorrows, Jeremiah declares, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Jesus, the One who lamented over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37), the One who anguished in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating tears of blood as He begged His Father to take the cup of wrath from Him (Mark 14:36), and the One who cried out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)--that's the Jesus who is at your side while you lament. It is just as the writer of Hebrews reminds us: "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:14-16).

It's not possible to investigate lamenting without perusing the psalms, which are packed with grief-riddled poetry. There's a reason they figure so prominently in our liturgy and lectionary because in some way all 150 of them capture the common ups and downs of life; it's almost like reading someone's journal. But more than that, they point us to Christ. Let's zero in on Psalm 13.

One theory about this psalm is that David wrote it as he was experiencing the betrayal of his own son, Absalom, who had revolted against him in order to usurp the throne. David was on the run--his very life in danger. So he asked of God:

How long?

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?
(v. 1-2)

One of the most common questions we ask as we grieve is "How long?" It's a valid one. When we are experiencing trying or tragic circumstances, it feels like it will last forever. But notice how this cry quickly transitions to a petition--a demand even--from David:

Consider and answer me!

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. (v. 3-4)

At this point we naturally look to the Lord to fix things. He's our Father and of course we ask this of Him. We know He has the answers. They might not always be the answers we like but we ultimately know we can trust Him. Then we see David come full circle, back to the Lord, in whom he trusts because he has experienced it for himself:

I will sing to the Lord!

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.
(v. 5-6)

So to recap, here's the pattern captured so beautifully in Psalm 13 (and many other psalms):

This is terrible!
God help me!
I can trust in You because You keep Your promises!

Lamenting and the Liturgy

Since this pattern of lamentation is so evident in the Scriptures, it's no surprise it's featured in the Divine Service as well. Where else can you see it more clearly than in the Confession and Absolution?

"We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean" (This is terrible!), we are invited to cry out, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." (God help me!) Is this not a deep-seated grief over our sins? Don't we experience the healing balm of Absolution-- "Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins"-- when we are reminded of God's infinite mercy and steadfast love to us through His Son? (I can trust in You!)

Yes, it's okay to lament. And when you're in the pit, lamenting can actually be a gift. We worship the God of all comfort and He stands by with His Word and Gifts to remind you that He is trustworthy and loves you steadfastly through His Son, Jesus. He has promised you that He will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). In your anguish, you can trust Him.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5b)

Katie Hill is the managing editor of Higher Things. When she's not silently correcting everyone's grammar, she enjoys fostering and fine-tuning the writing of authors who deliver the sweetness of the Gospel to Higher Things readers and beyond. A Lutheran convert for 15 years now, Katie has been working for HT in some capacity for nearly that same amount of time. She relishes life in a small town in northern Arizona with her husband, Jeff, and five children.

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