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The Wisdom of Holy Lament

The Wisdom of Holy Lament

My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? — Psalm 22:1

One of my friends was in crisis. He was walking through the valley of the shadow. A small group of friends gathered and yielded the floor to him. We were in no hurry. Tears began to stream down his face. “This has easily been the most difficult year of my life,” he said. We felt the weight of his words. We did not try to positively “spin” the moment. No one tried to manipulate the moment by reminding him of all he had to be grateful for. We let our friend speak like one of Israel’s psalmists, who cried out in pain and exhaustion. After an appropri­ate amount of silence had settled over us, this came out of me: “You have permission to live the most difficult days of your life in the safety of our presence.”

What I told him is a pretty good description of what a Christian community can be when things are working as they should: a safe place.

A Christian community should be a place that grants permission to feel the loss, per­ mission to grieve, permission to be where we are, and permission to tap into the pathos of the God who feels.

The easiest verse in the Bible to memorize is the shortest one in the whole book, made up of only two words:

Jesus wept. — John 11:35

It’s found in the story of the tragic death of Jesus’ close friend Lazarus. Jesus arrived and was standing on the outskirts of the village with Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha. They were surely wailing and reeling and feeling caught up in the maelstrom of human emotions. From what we read, Jesus didn’t try to cheer them up. He felt their sadness and wept.

But people don’t always feel they have been given that permission, the permission that Jesus afforded Mary and Martha, the permission that my friends and I gave to our dear friend walking through the most difficult year of his life. And, because of it, we have so many emotion­ally stunted Christians walking around like robots. They carry a Bible in their hands but have only a faint glimmer of light in their eyes.


Lament: an Invitation to Tell the Truth

How in the world did we ever get here? All it takes is opening up the Old Testament to see that the people of Israel were not afraid to share their feelings with Yahweh. The book of Psalms introduces us to an official — and very unique — literary genre called “the laments.” In fact, almost two-­thirds of the Psalms are classified as one form of lament or another. These people were not afraid to name their difficult realities. They were not afraid to shoot straight with God and say hard things to him.

With my voice I cry out to the Lord. . . . I pour out my complaint before Him. — Psalm 142:1-2 ESV, emphasis mine

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? Consider and answer me, O lord my God. — Psalm 13:1-3 ESV, emphasis mine

In one of Israel’s national laments, the people came at God with an outright accusation:

You have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.

You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.

You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.

You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.

You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.

All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,

yet You have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Psalm 44:9-14, Psalm 44:17-19, Psalm 44:23 ESV, emphasis mine

These words, pulsing with fury and exasperation, are enough to make the average believer blush. We know what proper decorum looks like when it comes to being in the presence of presidents and prime ministers, and we would never consider using such speech. But here it is in the Bible. Here it is given to us by the ones fastened in the yoke with God.

Lament is the act of speaking up, of maintaining a voice, of taking up our side in the divine­human cov­enant interaction. Indeed, it cannot rightly be called a “covenant” if the stronger party (God) doesn’t allow space for the weaker party (us) to speak up. That sort of arrangement would only be tyranny. But because God is a covenanting God, we see Him giving us, the weaker party, space to voice our concerns and complaints.

Jesus Himself is the icon of what faithfulness before the Father looks like, and when we turn to the end of the Gospels, we read about His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane. He takes the disciples with Him to pray, and in a moment of great honesty, He tells them,

My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me. — Matthew 26:38 NASB

Matthew’s account goes on:

And He went a little beyond them [in the garden], and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” — Matthew 26:39 NASB, emphasis mine

In another gospel account, Luke gives us a glimpse of Jesus in Gethsemane through the lens of a physician:

And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. — Luke 22:44, emphasis mine

It’s possible that Dr. Luke was using hyper­bole to state the obvious, namely, that the weight of the world was collapsing in on Jesus. But it’s also possible that he was describing an occurrence of hematidrosis, a medical phenomenon caused by severe mental distress, where tiny capillaries rupture near the sweat glands, mixing blood and sweat that then spill out of the pores.1 Such knowledge lies beyond the scope of our knowing, but of this we can be certain: before having His body crushed, Jesus was being crushed to the very depths of His being.

Jesus was then betrayed by Judas, arrested and beaten by the guards, and His fragile and naked body nailed to a cross. Matthew takes us up to the hill called Golgotha and tells us important details:

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? [My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?]” — Matthew 27:45-46

As He was being suffocated to death in front of the gawking crowd, Jesus prayed a prayer that is taken directly from Psalm 22:1: “My God, My God, why have you for­saken Me?” Walter Brueggemann suggests that Psalm 22 is about “the desperate attempt to sustain praise when one’s world is falling apart.”2 Praise? How is a prayer like that considered praise?

It’s considered praise because in the very worst moment of his life, Jesus addressed not the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders, Judas who sold Him for thirty pieces of silver, or His closest friends. Jesus addressed His Father. He lifted His voice to heaven, for He knew that was where His help comes from (Psalm 121:1).

And the church has been praying those words ever since. During Lent, the forty days of fasting and soul preparation that get us ready for the joys of Easter, the church leans heavily on Psalm 22 as a model for main­taining faithfulness during severe testing. The use of this psalm suggests that the nature of prayer is found in our openness and vulnerability before the Lord. According to Brueggemann, “unless you’re living in the framework of a covenant, you don’t dare get angry.”3

As we pay attention to Jesus’ words on the Cross, we discover that God wants truthful communication from us, not some watered ­down, reserved, dispassionate speech in sterilized language.

Jesus, the Word of God, wants our words to bleed, to have a pulse, to be alive.

Lament prayers are ancient Israel’s tools of choice for keeping the divine-­human dialogue alive and vibrant.

  1. William K. Hobart, The Medical Language of St. Luke (1882; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1954), 80–84.
  2. Walter Brueggemann, Psalmist’s Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament (Kansas City, MO: House Studio, 2010), 68–85. I found this quote in Dr. John Goldingay’s notes to an article he wrote, which he gave me in one of my seminary classes. Goldingay, “The Dynamic Cycle of Praise and Prayer in the Psalms,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 6, no. 20 (1981): 85–90.
  3. Brueggemann, Psalmist’s Cry.

Excerpted with permission from Chasing Wisdom by Daniel Grothe, copyright Daniel Grothe.

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Your Turn

Everyone needs a safe place to go through the most difficult days of life. To grieve and mourn. To lament. If you are in a season of lament, lean into your Christian community and share your heart with safe people. Jesus understands. His heart is with you in it. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily