Six Things Lament is Not

As I continue to ruminate on Biblical lament, I want to clarify and develop what this practice is and what it is not. Lament is new for many people, including me, and this short post is intended to clear up confusion and reduce unhelpful caricatures.

Lament is Not Unusual

Judging by the Biblical record, lament is a common type of prayer for God’s people. Roughly one third of the Psalms contain aspects of lament, there is an entire book called Lamentations, and laments show up in other places in Scripture. The Israelites lamented their harsh treatment in Egypt (Exodus 2:23–25), Hannah lamented her barrenness (1 Samuel 1:10, 15), and Jesus lamented the rebellion in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34–35). Significantly, Jesus himself lamented on the cross (Matthew 27:46).

The existence of lament Psalms and the book of Lamentations show us that lament was not reserved for occasional, tragic events. Lament is appropriate in those drastic times, but it was also part of the ongoing, regular worship of God’s people. As those living under the weight of the curse, these portions of Scripture give us words for our groaning (Romans 8:22–23).

Lament is Not Natural

It doesn’t take much for humans to grumble against the Lord. From small frustrations and disappointments to large tragedies and sorrows, our impulse is to find fault.

When we meet hardship, our natural state is grumbling. But it takes faith to lament. While grief may be the trigger for lament, its foundation is the goodness and sovereignty of God. Bringing our anguish and mourning to God wouldn’t make sense if he weren’t listening, caring, powerful, and similarly grieving at the broken state of the world.

Lament is Not Grumbling

Lament is a difficult practice for some Christians because they’ve been told from their earliest days not to complain. They should swallow their sadness and anger, put on a happy face, and be thankful.

But this betrays an important misunderstanding. Both grumbling and lament are examples of complaining—one is prohibited in the Bible and one is not.

Lament, properly understood, is not a rebellious raised fist. Lament is a complaint on the bent knees of faith.

Lament is Not Pessimistic

I sense that some people get tired of hearing about lament. We get it, lament is important. But must you focus so much on the bad stuff?

A fair question! I hope that in my personal relationships I am not overly mournful. However, it strikes me that lament is a very natural, honest response to living in a fallen world. Just as thanksgiving should be a regular occurrence for Christians, so should lament.

Lament is not pessimistic, because while it contains complaints it does not end there. The result of lament should be hopeful trust in the Lord. Those who think lament is wallowing in sadness have an incomplete understanding of the practice.

Lament is Not UnChristian

Lament is not only an ancient Jewish practice. Rightly understood, it is an explicitly Christian one.

In addition to godly complaint, lament involves bold requests and, ultimately, trusting the Lord. As Mark Vroegop explains, Christians know that God is good and that he keeps his promises—he is trustworthy. The crucified, resurrected, and exalted Jesus is the key to Christian lament, turning honest expressions of grief into worshipful trust.

Lament is Not Forever

Certain parts of our Christian experience will continue and even grow through eternity. Fellowship, thanksgiving, and singing fall in this category.

But lament will cease. We should learn and practice it now, but one day there will be no use for lament any more.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

There will be no more mourning or crying or pain. There will be no more curse because of sin. We will not feel the aches of loss and decay and desperation that are so much a part of our current lives. Be honest—it’s hard to imagine such an existence!

But this is the great end of lament. When we lament, what we long and pray and strive for is not just a resolution to the particular pain or grief we are feeling. Because of the great work of Jesus for us, in lament we stretch out for the end of all loss and brokenness.

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Complaint and the Christian

From my earliest days as a Christian, I heard that believers must not complain. Older saints equated complaining with a rebellious spirit, quoted Philippians 2:14 to me, and sent me on my way.

However, when I started reading about lament in 2020, one fact was inescapable. Complaint is an essential part of lament. Mark Vroegop writes that “without a complaint, there would be no lament” (Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, page 43).

Therefore, if lament is a biblical form of prayer, and if complaint is a necessary component of lament, then complaint cannot be inherently sinful.

Complaint in the Bible

We have scores of examples of complaint in the Bible. Let’s begin with some prayers of lament.

Psalm 10 is a lament psalm in which the psalmist complains about his arrogant, wicked enemy. Worse, it feels as though he faces his enemy without the Lord.

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

Psalm 22 is more famous, elevated by Jesus when he quoted from this song on the cross (Matthew 27:46). Again, the psalmist wants to know where God is.

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. (Psalm 22:1–2)

(There are many, many more examples of lament psalms in the Bible. Here are three to get you started: Psalms 42, 43, and 94.)

In addition to examples of complaint, we also read of God responding to complaints.

But I call to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noon
I utter my complaint and moan,
and he hears my voice. (Psalm 55:16–17)

It seems unlikely that David could have recounted this if complaint was something God despised. Here’s one more.

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
preserve my life from dread of the enemy. (Psalm 64:1)

Other specific mentions of complaint occur in places like Psalm 142:2 and Jeremiah 12:1.

Adjusting Our Vocabulary

To be sure, complaint can be sinful. As humans, it often is! Ungodly complaint is our default mode of addressing an objection with God.

However, when we prohibit all complaint, this is not only unbiblical but it pushes Christians away from lament—one of God’s gracious pathways back to himself in the midst of suffering.

I think adjusting our terms might help. Complaint is too broad of a category; there are both godly and ungodly kinds of complaint. Instead, we might refer to grumbling and lament as two specific types of complaint. (It’s worth noting that the ESV uses “grumbling” in Philippians 2:14 where the NASB uses “complaining.”)

Grumbling versus Lamenting

If these words are to be helpful, we must define and distinguish between them.

To grumble is to insist we deserve better, that God is treating us unfairly, perhaps with ill intent. To see this in action, look at the way “grumble” is used in Exodus 15–17, Numbers 14–17, or Matthew 20:11–12. A grumbler is entitled, proud, bitter, angry, and demanding.

To lament is to cry to the Lord in the midst of pain and suffering from the foundation of God’s sovereignty, goodness, and promises. Lament points to the distance between how things are and how they might be if God’s kingdom were fully and finally realized.

(I recognize here that “lament” more commonly refers to the biblical prayer of which this godly complaint is a part, while I am using “lament” in this section to refer to the complaint itself. I hope the reader will allow for a little fuzziness in service of the larger point.)

Invitation to Lament

The distinction in the previous section is not meant to sanitize lament. Biblical lament will likely be uncomfortable for Christians who have absorbed the command not to complain.

However, though lament is raw and unseemly at times, it is entirely appropriate for confused, suffering, wounded Christians. It is God’s prescription for processing grief—both individually and corporately—in his presence.

As Christians, let’s never be grumblers. But, until the final day of the Lord, let’s lament in faith, with hope.

If you’re new to lament, I recommend meditating on some Psalms of lament. Reading through the book of Lamentations would also be a good exercise. Finally, the first half of Mark Vroegop’s book defined the ingredients of biblical lament for me in really helpful ways.

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