Maybe you’re currently experiencing deep pain and suffering. Learning to pray in lament will help you get from today to tomorrow.
Maybe your life is peachy. You still need lament, not for today, but for tomorrow, where troubles undoubtedly await.
Regardless, learning lament is necessary so that you can encourage others in your life who are in seasons of suffering. Not everyone suffers the same way or in the same measure or in the same season, but everyone suffers one way or another.
This sounds a little heavy, but we promise you that lament is not the path of pain and sadness. Quite the opposite. It’s the path through pain, the path to the other side, the path of the restoration of the joy of your salvation (Psalm 51:12) when life gets hard.
Lament doesn’t always sound pretty. Sometimes it’s messy. But what is it?
One pastor defines it as “a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” In his definition we have the beginning of a lament, a prayer in pain, and we have the end goal of lament, trust in God.
Lament is necessary. It’s healthy. It helps you to move from feeling overwhelmed by pain to rejoicing through pain and praising God because of the joy of the Holy Spirit, because of the assurance of your salvation, and because of the hope of a new heaven and a new earth one day with God, where tears are no more and pain is just a memory.
In the book of Psalms, about 1/4 to 1/3 of the Psalms are laments—prayers and songs that begin in sadness and end in praise. This article will walk through the four steps of lament. Lament truly is God’s gift to help you righteously express your sorrow and find healing and restoration.
Going to God
This first step might sound obvious, but, in times of pain and distress, Christians often forget to pray. Or they just simply choose not to.
They’ll say, I’m just too angry at God, I’m just too overwhelmed with my pain right now, that I just don’t have the time, emotional energy, or willpower to study my Bible and pray.
And, if we’re all being honest, each of us has been there—maybe even more often than we’d like to admit. But when you think about it, that’s like saying, I’m too hungry to eat.
Friends, God is the source of your solution to suffering. If you want to find peace when you’re suffering, you have to pray. You have to go to God. Meditating, journaling, counseling, and crying may be cathartic, and they may help a little, but they’re not enough. If your expressions of pain are addressed to no one then no one will respond. But if you seek the LORD, the LORD will respond.
God alone possesses the divine resources to solve your impossible problems. God alone created you, God alone allowed your situation of suffering, and God alone can answer your requests and bring you back to a place of joy and trust in him.
John Calvin says, “Faith, there is no doubt, lies idle and even dead without prayer.”
We must go to him. Only he can heal us.
Cry and Complain
Psalm 88 is one of our best pictures of a kind of godly complaint. It’s also one of the darkest passages in all of Scripture. “Darkness is my only friend,” it says, and that’s where the psalm ends. That’s dark and raw.
Step two on the path of lament is not praise. Praise is the conclusion of a lament prayer. Before you can get to authentic and genuine praise, you first have to be real about your disappointment with God and about your sadness in his presence.
Before we look at cries and complaints in the Psalms, let’s explore a passage in the book of Job.
To give you a little context, the LORD had just allowed Job to lose all his property and to suffer the death of all his children, and in chapter 1, verses 20-21 we’re told of this godly man,
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (ESV)
Job performed five actions before his speech:
- Tore his robe,
- Shaved his head,
- Fell on the ground, and then and only then, does he,
Notice the order. Job doesn’t immediately say, “God is in control” or, “God works out all things for good.” He does eventually get there. But not at the start. The extreme expressions of pain in actions #1-4 happen first. They are what allow Job to progress through grief to ultimately and authentically perform action #5, worship.
All too often, when someone is in deep pain and suffering, well-meaning Christians “correct” them, rebuke them, and remind them of God’s sovereignty. While it’s true that God is sovereign, it’s unhelpful to the suffering saint to ignore or diminish their pain. It’s important to notice that these prayers first express the depth of pain, asking God why the sufferer feels abandoned. Don’t take our word for it, though. Let’s see this in Scripture:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1 ESV)
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1 ESV)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalms 22:1-2 ESV)
This is God’s Word. This is God’s instruction on how to pray through your pain. You’re allowed—and actually advised—to express your pain to God when you feel like God has abandoned you. Even when you know, theologically and technically, he hasn’t abandoned you, God invites you to bring your pain to him.
1. Wait . . . Isn’t Complaining Sinful?
Isn’t complaining a bad thing? In Scripture, there’s a difference between a righteous complaint and sinful grumbling.
David complains in these Psalms and the LORD accepts his prayers and answers them. But the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness, and the LORD poured out his wrath.
The first difference between complaining and lamenting is humility. The LORD provided for the Israelites and gave them bread, and they grumbled because they preferred meat (Numbers 11). That’s not lament. That’s just ungratefulness.
The second difference is faith. The Israelites weren’t talking to God, they weren’t praying, they were simply thinking to themselves and grumbling to one another. With grumbling, the speech stops here. There’s no exercise of faith by initiating prayer. It’s just whining.
But in lament, a righteous complaint is always accompanied by a request for God to act, which is a prayer of faith that pleases the LORD. This leads to step three.
Ask for Action
There’s an unbiblical motto that says, “God helps those who help themselves.” The biblical motto is “God helps those who ask him for help.” Look at some of these psalms.
Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted. (Psalm 10:12 ESV)
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3 ESV)
Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. (Psalms 22:11 ESV)
David calls God to action. David asks God to “arise,” “consider and answer me,” and “be not far from me.” Lament is an opportunity to ask God to actually change your circumstances when this request aligns with his will.
There are countless stories in Scripture from barren women asking God for children to fearful men asking God for victory in war, that God responds to with a resounding, Yes!
Of course, to some requests, God does say no. With Paul’s thorn in the flesh, causing a season of suffering, God responded by saying, “my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). Did God give Paul specifically what he asked for? No, but he did give him what he needed.
Even if God’s answer to your specific requests is no, the prayer in and of itself will increase your faith as you commune with God. Your relationship with him will grow. The LORD sees our frailties and has compassion on us. And he loves to give good gifts to his children (James 1:17).
Trust and Praise
After going to God, crying out and complaining righteously, and after asking God to act—conclude your prayer by willfully trusting him and praising him.
Look at the ending of these psalms.
The LORD is king forever and ever. (Psalm 10:16a)
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. (Psalms 13:5-6 ESV)
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! (Psalm 22:23 ESV)
Like Job, with a bald head, torn clothes, lying face-down on the ground, after going to God, expressing your sorrow, and asking for action, you can then choose to say, no matter what happens, “Blessed be the name of the LORD.” We must end in praise.
This final step often includes the word and the concept of remembrance. For example, in Psalms 77:11-12, we read,
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds. (ESV)
A primary tool Christians use while praying a lament to help them trust in God today is remembering what God has done yesterday. Remembering can happen for us on two levels.
First, remember what God has done in redemptive history as recorded in Scripture. Remember how God has powerfully and lovingly cared for his people in the Bible. This is especially illustrated through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, remember how God has answered your prayers in the past, in your personal life. Christians are, unfortunately, forgetful people. It may be helpful to keep a journal and record your prayers, as well as answers to your prayers. Consider reading through it once a month to remind yourself of God’s faithfulness.
And then when you find yourself doubting, whether God is real, or whether he’s here, or whether he cares, read through those journals and remember who God was to you in the past, so you can trust who he is to you today. So remember from Scripture, and remember from your own life, and you’ll be better equipped to trust and to praise the LORD.
We Can Lament Because of Jesus
Ultimately, our laments are rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, because they look forward to the day when pain and suffering are no more.
When you lament, remember to think about the truth that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the curse of pain and suffering will be gone one day. A day is coming when the damage done by our sin will be no more.
Not only will we be reconciled to God, but we will then get to live with him forever. This is the Christian’s hope—it’s sure and certain.
We pray that this article will help you to begin to express your pain to God in prayer and through this practice, grow in your relationship with him. Before we conclude, we want to leave you with two final encouragements as you learn to lament.
1. Praying Through Pain Is Not a Science
There’s room for artistic license with laments. And what I mean by that is these steps are not always in perfect order. Step 1 (going to God) always comes first, but other than that, you can mix and match these steps when you pray a lament. In the Psalms, sometimes step 4 (praising God) is in the middle of the Psalm, sometimes the Psalm will go from step 1 to step 3 to step 2 to step 3 again and then eventually to 4. So it’s not a science, but rather a general guideline.
2. Praying Through Pain Is Not a Sign of Weakness
You may have been taught that crying is weak, that “real men” and “strong women” express triumph and sometimes anger, but are only allowed to cry at the most extreme moments in life, maybe out of joy when your child is born and out of sadness when a loved one dies. For less significant events, maybe crying wasn’t allowed.
But when we look in Scripture, we find that the strongest men are not those who cry the least, but those who express sadness the most.
Scripture tells us that David, the great Psalmist, was a man who killed both a lion and a bear with his bare hands, he was a man who killed the giant Goliath, he was a valiant king—as courageous as they come.
But he cries perhaps more than anyone else in Scripture, especially in laments. Throughout the Psalms, David is crying and crying out to God through his pain and suffering. And this is not an indication of his weakness. It’s an indication of bravery to be honest with your emotions before God.
Although Jesus was God himself, and the archetypal human, he still cried. Think about it, human tears exited the eyes of the Son of God (John 11:35; Luke 19:41; Isaiah 53:3).
It’s okay to cry. It’s something Bible people do often. It’s okay to be raw in how you express your sadness. But may your tears draw you closer to him who one day will wipe them all away (Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4).