Lament in the Background of Romans 8

I’m open to the accusation that, after spending two years thinking hard about lament, I see it where others do not. I may have turned into the man who is given a hammer and, suddenly, nails abound.

Yet there remains the possibility that we don’t spot lament at times because modern Christians are terribly out of practice. Lament was a regular part of worship for ancient Israel, and I suspect it was much more prevalent in the early Christian church than in present-day congregations. Especially in more affluent communities, lament can be seen as an unknown taste, an exotic flavor one might sample on a tour but which is out of place in the regular rhythms of Christian worship.

Let’s consider Romans, chapter 8, as a case study. We tend to think of this chapter for its memorable, soaring statements about the love of God. However, it might be better to see the end of Romans 8 as the last stage of lament, where Paul is working out what it means to hope in God in the midst of great suffering.

The Ingredients of Lament

I’m not claiming that Romans 8 is an example of lament. But the ingredients of lament are here, so Romans 8 is evidence that lament was a tool Paul used to process and reflect on sorrow in his life.

Turn to the Lord

The first ingredient of lament, as Mark Vroegop describes it, is to turn to the Lord. Again, Romans 8 is not a prayer, but it is sprinkled with both references to and explicit teaching about prayer.

  • The Spirit of adoption causes us to cry out to God, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15).
  • The Spirit also helps us pray, because we don’t know how to pray as we should. He “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” We can be sure that the Spirit prays according to the will of God for us (Romans 8:26–27).

Complain

A central part of lament is complaining to the Lord. Though this may make us uncomfortable, we have plentiful examples in the Bible to reassure and guide us. Paul mentions aspects of complaint in Romans 8.

  • The creation has been subjected to futility, it is in bondage to corruption (Romans 8:20–21). As God’s stewards, a corrupted creation is a source of frustration and grief.
  • The creation groans in the pains of childbirth; we also groan as we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22–23). The new bodies we long for—with freedom from the curse—have not yet arrived.

Though Paul mentions suffering as well (see Romans 8:35–37), these are perhaps the only verses which could be viewed as complaint in Romans 8.

Ask Boldly

Because this is not a prayer of lament but evidence of lament in Paul’s life, we don’t have any specific requests in this chapter. However, we do have Paul’s reminders that the Spirit (Romans 8:26–27) and the Son (Romans 8:34) intercede for us. This is great motivation to pray and should give us confidence when we do so. (Remember, not every lament includes all of the “ingredients” of lament.)

Trust in the Lord

It is this last element of lament which is so prevalent in this chapter, which is why I see this chapter, in part, as the fruit of Paul’s practice of lament. I won’t list all the numerous ways Paul exhorts us to trust and hope in the Lord here. But here is a selection.

  • Though we suffer, there is glory to be revealed to us. In fact, the suffering doesn’t even compare to the glory! (Romans 8:18)
  • There is hope built into the creation for freedom from bondage. We share this same hope for new creation bodies (Romans 8:20–25).
  • Though we may not understand it, we can trust God in prayer because the Father knows the mind of the Spirit who intercedes for us (Romans 8:27).
  • All things—especially this groan-inducing suffering—work together for good for God’s beloved children. This “good” includes being made into the image of Jesus and sharing in his glory! (Romans 8:28–30)
  • The final paragraphs of this chapter are eloquent and justifiably memorable—nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31–39).

Lament for the Rest of Us

Few of us will come out of lament with this same Spirit-given swell of hope. But Romans 8 is another encouragement for us not to shy away from talking with God about the hard things in life.

We can take our pain and sadness and confusion to him. We don’t need to pretend to have the right words, posture, or attitude. God may seem distant, but he is with us to the very last drop of our sorrow.

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