Lamenting Like a Christian

It takes no particular religious conviction to complain about the world. But lament is different. The Bible shows us how God’s people throughout time have lamented as his people.

So what does it look like to lament as a Christian? How do we bring our sorrows and pain to God in a way that is specific to followers of Jesus?

Full of Faith

Biblical lament is full of faith. Those who lament know both the character and promises of God. They know God himself. At the same time, the pain and sorrow they suffer in the world don’t line up with what they know of God.

Here is the spark in the furnace of lament for each believer: My anguish in the world doesn’t match the reality I’d expect if the God I know had fully and finally set everything right.

That gap between our knowledge of God and our experience of the world is the space for faith. We need not have watertight answers or certain solutions, but we can turn to trust the one who holds all things together, knowing he is good and wise.

Broken By the Fall

Adam and Eve were the first king and queen of God’s world, and when they fell, everything came crashing down. All the groans ever groaned can be traced back to that original sin.

To be sure, some of the sickness and tragedy on earth may result directly from sinful deeds, evidence of God’s pointed judgment. But this is incredibly hard to discern; it’s safer to say that our hardships are traceable to the general broken state of the world we inherit and in which we participate.

The reasons for lament point to the brokenness of the world, and that brokenness points to sin. It’s exactly this simple: Without sin, the world—our bodies, our relationships, our surroundings—would not be corrupted in any way.

Jesus and the Kingdom

Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom to earth. He came as the perfect human king to rule on God’s throne. And that mission of rule and reconciliation was of necessity also a mission of suffering and sacrifice.

The imperfect and frequently despicable kings of Israel and Judah pointed to the coming of an incorruptible king. When Jesus began his ministry announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15), those steeped in the Old Testament would not have reacted with confusion but relief. He’s here!

Jesus’s miracles were brief, glorious windows into the emerging kingdom of God. The blind would see, the lame would walk, and the hungry would be fed. Sickness would flee, and the dead would rise. In those flickers of restoration we saw the curse being lifted by the corner and peeled back.

As the cross came closer, many around Jesus assumed he would pursue a political path to kingship. This excited some and angered many others. But Jesus spoke of death and resurrection, not coronation. He made it clear (to those with ears to hear) that a fully realized kingdom of God on earth would happen in the future, not immediately. Yet Jesus’s unmistakable resurrection also underlined the fact that his kingdom was imminent.

Final Fullness

Lament is our longing for this full and future kingdom to come now. It is our cry with the apostle John—“Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

We want God’s kingdom to arrive in its final fullness with the rightful king on his throne. This king will bear the marks of this world in his scarred body. He himself has traveled a path of pain and agony. The bloody sweat at Gethsemane and the mournful cries on the cross bear witness to Jesus’s journey of lament.

When the end finally comes—when all hopes have been realized and the curse is no more—there will be no more need for lament. We will have our full and final comfort in the form of our strong and kind king. We will be at home and there will be no distance between our experience and our longings.

The Man of Sorrows—who bore our sin, who mourned and lamented in our place—makes our present-day lamenting possible. We lament as Christians when we cry out to God in our pain, trust him to keep his promises, and look ahead to the glorious kingdom that Jesus has secured for us.

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Restore Us to Yourself That We May Be Restored

Most Christians know that sin is bad. But, how bad is it, really?

Sin is a tornado, and the final chapter of Lamentations helps us see the extent of the damage. The consequences of breaking covenant with the Lord are dire. And yet, there is still hope for restoration.

See Our Disgrace

The first verse in this chapter frames much of what follows.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
look, and see our disgrace! (Lamentations 5:1)

The author is asking God to remember, to bring to mind for the purpose of action. Asking God to see and remember is a key part of all lament; those who lament are pleading that God would not forget them in their circumstances.

However, this is an unnatural request, that God would see or notice our disgrace. We usually like to hide those qualities and circumstances that are shameful. But in this situation, those embarrassments are exactly the reason for the lament!

Verses 2–18 provide a list of many disgraces of the people still living in Jerusalem. These disgraces range from the horrifying (deaths of fathers in Lam 5:3, rape of women in Lam 5:11) to the seemingly mundane (the people now have to pay for water and wood, Lam 5:4). To be sure, far more disgraces fall in the first category than the second, but the mingling of the two makes a profound point: Sin has brought judgment which has overturned every aspect of life. Even the loss of music and dancing (Lam 5:14–15) can be considered a tragedy.

One other disgrace is worth mentioning. In Lam 5:16, we read: “The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!” This is both a confession of sin and a lament about Judah’s inability to rule themselves. They are now in the hands of Babylon. This confession about leadership also sets the stage for verse 19 (see below).

On the whole, this first portion of Lamentations 5 (verses 1–18) shows us that the consequences of sin are real and heartbreaking. There is a direct line between the rebellion of the people and the desolation of Zion, and the present grief and loss are a result of earlier decisions to turn away from God.

Renew Our Days

The chapter takes a bit of a turn in verse 19: “But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.” Judah may no longer have a king ruling in Jerusalem, but that is not true on a larger scale.

In the midst of lament, acknowledging the sovereignty of God is vital. His rule is not negated by suffering. Pain and sorrow are not in charge—God is. Because grief and sadness feel so immediate and enveloping, God’s people must remind each other of this truth. The Lord reigns now and forever.

Verse 20 takes us into the deep questions of an honest lament. Lord, if you reign, “why do forget us forever?” If you’ve heard that asking “why” questions is forbidden in prayer, think again. God’s people should not accuse him of wrongdoing or blame him for evil, but laments are filled with “why” and “how” questions. (See Psalm 10:135:1742:9, and 43:2 among many examples.)

The author of Lamentations then asks the boldest prayer in the entire book.

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old— (Lamentations 5:21)

The people want Jerusalem to be the way it was, they want to be restored. But they confess that restoration with the Lord must happen first. Jerusalem is in ruins because the people turned away from God, so a vibrant renewal of that covenant relationship is needed before any of the physical blessings can be enjoyed.

There is a good reminder here for modern Christians. When we see brokenness and rebellion in ourselves and others, we should think about the need for repentance and restoration to the Lord. A wayward heart is driving the train which is producing those acts of unrighteousness.

This chapter ends in a way that many Christians through the ages have found unsatisfying. (Apparently, some scribes have recopied verse 21 after verse 22, presumably to prevent the book from ending on a down note!) But tension is inherent in lament, and we need to learn how to embrace that tension if we are to be followers of Jesus who both rejoice and weep (Romans 12:15).

Here is the ending of Lamentations.

unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5:22)

The people know God has promised to bring them back from exile (Lam 4:22). And yet they do not know exactly when. God’s righteous anger may mean that this generation will not see the restoration they desire.

This tension—restore us, unless you remain angry with us—is a bit unsettling. But it also serves one of the purposes of lament, to keep us turning back to the Lord again and again. Our prayers may not be answered immediately; our sorrows may remain; we may feel seasick in heart through our years on this groaning earth.

Rejected No More

But God is always ready to receive our lament. He reigns forever, he is wise, and he is loving. For this reason, we can trust him with our pain and grief.

The Israelites wondered whether God had rejected them. We may wonder the same. But in Jesus we have an emphatic, definitive answer. No. Because Jesus bore our sin, we are no longer subject to that same awful judgment that he suffered. “Jesus is the answer to the cause of every pain” (Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop, page 150).

Though we groan, we can look to Jesus, the Man of Sorrows. Because of him, our true, final restoration is secure.

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Solid Bible Promises for Times of Suffering

Creation groans, and we echo that same mournful tune.

We feel the Curse deep inside. We are broken people in a broken world, and no one avoids some measure of suffering. In my article on Lamentations 4, we saw the author arrive at the end of his lament with nothing but a promise of God. We too, at times, may feel like everything is stripped away. Our anguish seems like the most tangible element of life.

But we also have the promises of God! These are good gifts meant to sustain us and stoke our hope for the future.

Which Promises?

The Bible is stuffed with promises. However, we can’t claim every promise we find.

For example, some Bible promises are conditional. Consider Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” We cannot claim that God will meet our every desire unless we are delighting in the Lord.

Further, God made some promises to specific people at specific times (see Joshua 6:2). He made other promises to Israel, and we need to think carefully about whether they carry over to the church and/or individual Christians.

Where does this leave us? We still have many Bible promises that are meant for us. This article focuses on those which are helpful in the midst of suffering.

Promises for Sufferers

I’ve divided these promises into five categories. Learning, digesting, and even memorizing these verses will not eliminate pain or make suffering somehow desirable. But they will help us to trust in the Lord in dark times and to fix our eyes on Jesus.

God is with you

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

Suffering is often extremely personal and therefore isolating. In those times, we can treasure God’s presence with us. He is near to those in anguish, and he has promised never to leave or forsake his children. Nothing at all—not even this present suffering—will be able to separate us from God’s love for us in Christ.

God will comfort and rescue you

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)

Because God will not abandon us, and because he loves us, he will comfort us in the midst of turmoil and eventually pull us out. Though pain and suffering seem unending, for the children of God, they are not. God will restore and strengthen us, whether on this side of glory or the other.

God will use your suffering for your good

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)

God is in the business of turning bad things to good. Affliction prepares us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, and our sufferings produce endurance, character, and hope. Our sufferings in themselves are not good, but God brings good out of them.

Everything will be made new

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:51–53)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 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 21:3–4)

Our groaning bodies will put on immortality. Our new dwelling will be with God himself on a new earth. The mourning and crying and pain we experience now will then only be known as “former things.”

We will be forever with the Lord

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:17–18)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3)

The promises of a glorified body and a curse-free earth would be nothing without God’s eternal presence. The suffering we experience will be a distant, faint memory because we will live face-to-face forever with our Creator and Redeemer.

(Yes, I have listed Rev 21:3 twice. But it’s jaw-dropping, and we all probably need it twice.)

All By Grace

These promises are ours. But they are ours by grace. Our works deserve God’s wrath, not his blessing. These promises are given to us because we are the children of God, united to Jesus, sealed by the Holy Spirit.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:31–32)

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Learning to Embrace Tension

Not every story has a satisfying ending. Some clouds lack a silver lining.

Humans have a strong desire for resolution, not just in our own lives, but also for our friends and neighbors. We’re uncomfortable with the in-between, with sadness, with suffering.

Here is one more lesson that lament can offer. Lament teaches us to live with the tensions of life in a fallen world.

Lamentations 5

The end of the last chapter of Lamentations is a snapshot of the entire book.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us. (Lamentations 5:19–22)

I learned recently that, when copying this text, several Hebrew scribes repeated verse 21 after verse 22, presumably because they thought the book should not end on such a down note. I understand that impulse.

But I’ve grown to see that the end of Lamentations is just about the perfect ending for this book. Like lament itself, there is no resolution. There is a question—a gut-wrenching, foreboding question—hanging in the air over that last verse. Yet this very tension keeps us seeking the Lord.

Trusting, trusting

While we know how our ultimate story ends, we don’t know all the details along the way. Not every episode or chapter will be joyous or fulfilling.

Learning to live with the tension of suffering, stubborn sin, difficult relationships, and tragedies helps us to continue trusting the Lord. We need him, we cry out to him, we mourn in his presence when we feel nothing more than a puddle of pain and confusion.

If life was smooth and predictable, it would be much easier to trust in peace, stability, or even the momentum of a string of good days. It would be harder to see our need to trust the Lord.

Similarly, our prayers do not need to be wrapped up with a shiny bow. We don’t need to come to the Lord with a lesson learned or with carefully-chosen, sanctified words. It’s okay to tell God your troubles, to sit with him and ask him why (see Lam 5:20).

Back to God

Tension in our lives and in our prayers is a generous gift of God. Like the end of Lamentations, it keeps us turning back to him, relying on him. Where else could we possibly go?

A tidy plot might be the script we’d write for ourselves, but the tension God gives is closer to what we need.

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Let the Guilty Lament

God has been teaching me much in my study of Lamentations over the past nine months. I’ll share a short one today: one does not need to be innocent to lament.

I’ve never heard anyone claim that innocence is required for lament, but this sort of statement can be absorbed over years of selective Bible reading. Lamentations smashes that statement to bits.

In my mind, there are two obvious examples in the Bible of crying out for deliverance. The first one is King David.

David wrote a good portion of the Psalms, many while on the run from Saul or other enemies. When he asks God for deliverance, he frequently appeals to his own righteousness. Here’s an example.

The Lord judges the peoples;
judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me. (Psalm 7:8)

David is asking for deliverance in this prayer (see Psalm 7:1), and he cites his integrity as the basis on which God should act.

The difference between righteousness and innocence is an important one; perhaps at another time and/or place. For our purposes it’s enough to note that, in this situation, David’s sin is not what got him into trouble.

The other example of crying out to God that sticks in my head is the Israelites in Egypt. God’s people pleaded with him for deliverance from slavery, and God heard them (Exodus 2:23–25). The Israelites were not a perfect people, but they were being oppressed—this is what prompted their cry.

Lamentations is different. This book of prayers arises from rebellious people who have received just judgment from God for their sin. And yet, this cry of lament is included in Scripture! Blamelessness, righteousness, status as an innocent victim—none of these are requirements to come before God in lament.

The author of Lamentations confesses that the people are guilty and have deserved God’s wrath. (See Lam 1:5, 8, 18, 22. Examples abound in chapters 2–5 of the book as well.) And yet, they still come to God. They still describe what they are experiencing and the accompanying pain and sorrow. They know they are to blame for their situation, and they still ask God to see them. They want to be remembered in their suffering, even when the blame for their suffering falls on their own shoulders.

The requests in Lamentations are sparse. In this way, these prayers are much different than psalms. We might expect multiple cries for mercy, for deliverance, for some way out of the present suffering. But there is really only one request like this, at the very end of the book: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). Even this request acknowledges the guilt of the people.

God wants the guilty to come to him. To keep praying. Even when they suffer as a result of sin. I find this to be incredibly good news! Not because our sorrow or pain is easily traced back to sinful actions or desires (though occasionally that is the case), but because God is so open to our lament that we can come in any condition. Even those who are dripping with guilt, standing in the smoky ruins of a conquered Jerusalem—these believers can lament before the Lord.

This opens the gate for everyone, every last person who looks to the Lord. God will see. I am guilty; I can lament before the Lord.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus underline this truth. Jesus was the friend of sinners, welcoming the guilty even as he hung on the cross.

Because Jesus brings us to God (1 Pet 3:18), we can go to him, taking our praise, confession, sorrow, thanks, and lament, trusting that he hears.


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How to Find Hope When Hope Has Perished

The book of Lamentations is not dripping with hope. I suspect many avoid the book because it seems so dreary and somber.

But there is hope for God’s people in Lamentations.

My Hope is Gone

Chapter 3 in Lamentations takes a different turn than chapter 1 or chapter 2. God’s judgment earlier was corporate, focused on Israel as a people. In chapter 3, things get personal.

Instead of mourning the destruction of the city or the loss of the temple, now the writer cries out at God’s attacks on his person. God has broken his bones (verse 4), made him dwell in darkness (verse 6), given him heavy chains (verse 7), and even shut out his prayer (verse 8). God is like a lion or a bear hiding in wait for him (verse 10); the writer is a target for God’s arrows (verses 12, 13).

In the start of this chapter, we have an inversion of the way we usually think about God on the side of his people. This writer sees God’s hand against him (verse 3), and instead of protection and joy God has brought him bitterness and tribulation (verse 5). This sorrowful cry escalates until his soul is bereft of peace and he has forgotten what happiness is (verse 17). At the peak of the lament, the writer confesses that both his endurance and his hope have perished (verse 18). Bleak, indeed!

This may seem like an off-limits prayer. Earlier chapters were filled with complaints about the state of the people and city after God brought judgment. Here the writer trims away all of the decorations and strips it down to this crushing truth: God has done terrible things to me.

I Will Yet Hope

The wonderful, memorable verses from Lamentations 3 must be read against this harsh background. What does a person of God do when hope has perished?

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:21–24)

The key to our understanding and application of verses 22–24 is found in verse 21. How do we harvest hope from a hopeless situation? We don’t. We remind ourselves (“call to mind”) of what is true that we cannot see.

Lamentations shows us that hope does not come from a change of circumstances. Rather, it comes from what you know to be true despite the situation in front of you. In other words, you live through suffering by what you believe, not by what you see or feel. (Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds Deep Mercy, page 110)

We look around and witness devastation, we feel God’s arrows pointing at our necks, but we know he is full of mercy. We know—from our own experiences walking with him and from countless episodes in the Bible—that God’s steadfast love never ceases. He is so, so faithful—great is his faithfulness!

How wonderful: God’s mercies are new every morning! This doesn’t mean that his mercies are different from one day to the next. Rather, his mercies are fresh every time the sun rises.

Right now is a good time to plan how you will call to mind what is needed. We store and practice and prepare now for the desperate times later. Reading and memorizing the Bible are more than appropriate disciplines here, but so is something like gathering stories of God’s faithfulness from your own life and the lives of others. Ask your friends to remind you how faithful and loving God is. Christian biographies can also be a good source of stories about God’s faithfulness.

Seeking the Lord in Hope

The first half of Lamentations 3 ends with instruction on how to seek the Lord in hope. The punch line here may not be what you’d like to see, but it is anchored in God’s character.

The author tells us, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lam 3:25). Among other things, this means that seeking the Lord may involve more than waiting, but it does not involve less. As much as it grates against our human impulses, we must wait on the Lord. This is a good practice for God’s people to learn even from their youth (verse 27).

Why can we wait? Why can we rebuke our flesh when it insists that things must happen right now? Soak in the beautiful answer found in Lam 3:31-33. God may cause grief to his people, but that is not what makes his heart beat (verse 33). He “will not cast off forever” (verse 31); “he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (verse 32).

With the author of Lamentations, we must return to the theme of God’s steadfast love. His steadfast love is the grounds for our hope; his Son Jesus has secured our hope.

While the author of Lamentations felt the judgment of God personally for his transgressions, Jesus felt the judgment of God personally for our transgressions. Jesus suffered, cried out, and waited on the Lord—all for us. He hoped that God would raise him from the dead to new life. And that same new life awaits those who follow this same suffering, steadfast, risen king. This is the real hope everyone needs.

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The Lord Has Become Like an Enemy

Most Christians don’t have a problem seeing God’s hand in the blessings of life. Give us a new job, a narrowly-avoided accident, or an energizing time with a friend and we’re eager to point to God as the giver.

It’s harder for us to see God bringing difficulty our way. How can we attribute bad circumstances to a good God?

The author of Lamentations did not have this modern problem. As he sits in the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem, he knows for a fact that God has done every bit of it.

So Much Devastation

The poet of Lamentations 2 looks around and sees his city destroyed. And though Babylon is directly responsible for the fires and the rubble, he knows this is God’s work.

God has “broken down” the defenses of the city (Lam 2:2) and “cut down” its might (Lam 2:3). He has “swallowed up all its palaces” and “laid in ruin its strongholds” (Lam 2:5).

Even the destruction of the temple can be traced back to the Lord. God “laid in ruin his meeting place” (Lam 2:6). He has “scorned his altar” and “disowned his sanctuary.” He delivered this holy building “into the hand of the enemy” and they “raised a clamor in the house of the Lord” (Lam 2:7).

Through this work, God was not removed. He was angry. In the first ten verses of this chapter alone, notice the words that describe God’s posture toward his people: anger, fury, burned, killed, without mercy.

At one point it must have seemed unthinkable for God to stand against his people like this. But now, “the Lord has become like an enemy” (Lam 2:5). The author does not take the easy road, writing that God allowed this or that tragedy. No, God “did not restrain his hand from destroying” (Lam 2:8).

This chapter contains some of the most vivid, forceful, specific language in the Bible about God’s judgment on Israel. If the prayer of Lamentations 1 could be summarized as Look at what has happened to us, then chapter 2 takes a harsh turn: Look what you have done to us!

Reasons for Judgment

We don’t have a detailed list of the sins of Israel in this short book. But chapter 2 offers a few details.

The prophets have failed the people. They have seen “false and deceptive visions.” They “have not exposed” the people’s iniquity, but have instead spoken “oracles that are false and misleading” (Lam 2:14).

In his response, God has not acted out of character or against his promise. “The Lord has done what he purposed; he has carried out his word which he commanded long ago” (Lam 2:17).

The Response to Judgment

This chapter is filled with weeping and lament. Here we have a profound example: We can mourn our circumstances to the Lord even when God is the one who brought about our mournful circumstances.

It is not wrong—in fact, it is deeply right—to cry out to the Lord in the midst of pain and tragedy that are the result of God’s judgment.

The repeated prayer in Lamentations 1 is a request for the Lord to see the poet. That is also the author’s main request in this chapter: “Look, O Lord, and see! With whom have you dealt thus?” (Lam 2:20)

But now the request to be noticed acknowledges God’s hand in the devastation. The end of this verse captures the layers of grief, surprise, and horror: “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?” (Lam 2:20)

While few of our hardships can be traced with certainty to our guilt, all suffering exists because of the fall of humanity into sin. This chapter helps us understand that crying out to God is good, even in the midst of judgment. How much more, therefore, is it good for us to lament when we are not necessarily directly to blame?

The Laments of Jesus

Because God is just, sin must be judged. And for every Christian, this is what Jesus accomplished. His sufferings were greater than those of the residents of fallen Jerusalem. His agony was deeper than we could imagine. In the unthinkable way that God became like an enemy to his people, God confronted Jesus as he was “made sin” in his final hours (2 Cor 5:21).

On the cross, our Lord lamented being forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He could just as easily have cried, “With whom have you dealt thus?” (Lam 2:20)

Called to be Lamenting People

The white, western church is deeply uncomfortable with lament. Our calls to worship, our songs, our congregational prayers bear little resemblance to Lamentations. Though we often suffer, we have swallowed the lie that our lives and our words to God should be nothing but celebration.

But it is good to grieve over sin and its consequences. In this way we agree with God—our broken world needs redemption.

As we turn to God, let’s acknowledge him as the good, sovereign king who justly brings consequences for sin. When we feel that sorrow, and when our neighbors bend under that same weight, we can bring this anguish to God.

He will hear. He will see.


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Look and See, O Lord!

In the midst of any prolonged suffering, we feel a natural desire for relief. We want the pain to go away, the grief to recede, the devastation to subside.

But there’s an earlier, more fundamental need we have as humans in mourning. We want to be seen.

Lamentations

The book of Lamentations in the Bible is filled with urgent cries of agony. Assumed by many to be written by Jeremiah (though never identified internally this way), Lamentations is a book of five laments about the destruction of Jerusalem. As an agent of God’s judgment on his people for their sin, the nation of Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C. After destroying the temple and much of the city, the Babylonians led most of the residents away to captivity.

This was a heartbreaking, disastrous situation for all Israelites. The prayers recorded in the book of Lamentations were written by one of the people left behind, and they were used in Jewish worship services for decades afterward. These prayers are filled with loss and anguish, and they teach us as God’s people how to process grief in his presence.

Requests in Lamentations 1

lament is a genre of prayer found in the Bible which usually contains complaints, requests, and expressions of trust in the Lord. Not all of these ingredients are found in all laments, but most laments include at least two of these elements.

It’s not hard to find the complaints in the first chapter of Lamentations—they’re everywhere. This is easy to understand, as the city and temple have been leveled. All that the Jewish people knew and held dear was reduced to rubble.

The requests in this chapter are more scarce. In fact, before the last two verses, there is only one petition I see, and it appears three times.

“O Lord, behold my affliction”

In verse 9, the author writes, “O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”

The Israelites have “sinned grievously” (verse 8) and Jerusalem has fallen in a public and embarrassing way (verses 8–9). There is no one to comfort her (verse 9). The Lord “has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (verse 5).

“Look, O Lord, and see”

In Lamentations 1:11, we read, “Look, O Lord, and see, for I am despised.”

The nations have entered unlawfully into the Lord’s sanctuary and have taken “precious things” (verse 10). The people are starving, groaning as they search for bread (verse 11).

“Look, O Lord, for I am in distress”

In verse 20, we read, “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.”

The Lord has “inflicted” sorrow in his “fierce anger” (verse 12). The author writes in detail of the painful physical judgment God has brought on his people (verses 13–15). There has been no one to give comfort (verses 16, 17).

A Desire to be Noticed

As painful as suffering can be, loneliness amplifies this hardship. Agony is more acute when it is held in private and not seen or acknowledged by others.

Here is the root of these requests. Before asking for relief or deliverance or restoration, the author of Lamentations wants to be seen by the Lord.

This is something we should be praying for ourselves and our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ: “Look, O Lord, and see!”

Jesus, Our Lamenter

The book of Lamentations is bleak territory. With some minor exceptions, it doesn’t feel hopeful. I’d wager no verses from Lamentations 1 appear on a Hallmark card.

And yet, when we understand how all of the Scriptures point to Jesus, there is much we can learn from this rich book.

The author of Lamentations understands the connections. God is holy and the people have rebelled. So God has brought the judgment for sin he promised. The people are lamenting because they are suffering the consequences of their sin.

This probably doesn’t sound like Jesus yet, but remember what he screamed on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew the pain of judgment for sin. He knew loneliness. He knew what it was like to look in vain for comfort. Piped through the right speakers, Jesus’s cry on the cross sounds a lot like “Look, O Lord, and see!”

If you are a child of God, Jesus has suffered and lamented for you. Jesus is evidence that God has looked and seen!

Do Unto Others

We can now lament—even more fully than the author of Lamentations—because we have a lamenting Savior. Christians have the comfort of the Holy Spirit because, for a time, Jesus was without comfort.

We know how vital it is to be seen and noticed, to have our pain recognized and named. Entering into the full suffering of humanity, Jesus knew the same, so we have a sympathetic advocate in heaven when we pray.

The application for us toward our friends and neighbors here is obvious. We must learn to notice and acknowledge the suffering of others. We can lament on their behalf, asking God to look and see and comfort.

When we encounter our neighbors’ grief, it may be raw and wild. We don’t need to offer advice or platitudes; often our presence is enough.

And a lament to God for our neighbors—with our neighbors—may point more persuasively to Jesus than a sermon could.

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The Myth of the Always-Happy Christian

I had a friend once with a great smile. Her smile completely transformed her face, showing genuine joy in every feature.

She told me that her happiness was the occasion for many conversations about Jesus. People would observe her near-constant smile and ask her why she was so happy. And she would mention the joy the Lord brought to her life.

The idea of joy-as-Christian-testimony was powerful and pervasive, at least in my circles in the late 1990s. Jesus makes us happy, after all, and that happiness can point others to him.

I never heard much about other emotions, however. The implied message was that we don’t think sadness, grief, or even middle-of-the-road okayness are, well, okay. When Christians think the best or only way to bear testimony to the world is to be constantly smiling, sadness feels like failure. And that creates a culture in which we hide and suppress sadness and end up with little ability to process the harder, painful, very real emotions that come along with normal life under the sun.

Emotional Discipleship

Not all learning is academic, and not all discipleship is doctrinal. Growing as a disciple of Jesus means walking in his ways. This surely includes knowledge about God, salvation, the church, and the future. But Jesus was a full man, not just a teacher. We have not been redeemed and called by a systematic theology textbook.

I was recently listening to Mike Cosper interview Tish Harrison Warren on an episode of the Cultivated podcast. They were discussing Warren’s new book, Prayer in the Night, just released in January. It was a stimulating, thoughtful conversation. (Note: I have not yet read this book.)

In the course of the interview, Cosper talked about seeing some of his friends in ministry crushed by disappointment and sadness. These friends had been discipled in one way, but they lacked what he called “emotional discipleship.” They didn’t have a way to handle or process suffering, tragedy, or even their own sin.

That rang true. I have studied the Bible a lot and learned a good deal of theology. But I have not heard or thought much about growing in the way my emotional life glorifies God.

Recovering Lament

Part of growing in our emotional maturity will be learning to process grief and sorrow, sin and sadness. Toward this end, I’ve been learning about the Christian practice of lament. (One very helpful resource for me has been Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.)

Modern Christians generally avoid lament because it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Those within the church are more likely to try to find the bright side of a tragedy than to enter into mourning with a friend. We look for a deeper meanings, we assure the one who is suffering that things will get better, we ask, What is God teaching you through this?

As I learn more about lament, I see the need for Christians to embrace tension, to not be so obsessed with resolving the chord. (Vroegop calls lament “a minor key language for suffering,” which seems about right.) The goodness of God and the sadness of life can feel like giant waves colliding in the sea, and while we want quiet waters, smoothing over all turbulence as quickly as possible is not a healthy pursuit.

Yes, in the end—at the end of the age—all will be put right. But all is not right now, and it is okay to feel and confess that. Jesus did this very thing! The Psalms also are filled with lament, some of which were on Jesus’ lips in his final hours.

We may not always have answers, but we do have God. This is not an attempt to sneak in a silver lining. If we embrace the reality of God’s presence with his people—not as a magic elixir which eliminates all sorrow, but as a comfort and help and sign of love in the midst of sorrow—we may have a start on emotional discipleship.

Because we know the One who holds all things, and because we know he is loving and good, we have hope. And because we have hope, we can learn to grieve and to weep with those who weep.

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Learning to Lament

What should we do with our sadness?

If life was one sunny day after another, this question would hardly make sense. But in these bodies, we know grief; we feel it in our bones. We see the storms. At times we feel like opening the spigot and filling buckets with our tears.

Unfortunately, many churches don’t make it easy for Christians to admit their sadness. “How are you?” greetings have only one acceptable response: “Fine, thanks.” Beyond individual relationships, the community activities and liturgies of some churches have no space for sorrow. Every face wears a smile and every song is jubilant.

This need not be the case! There is a precious, biblical category of prayer known as lament. When we ignore this tool God has given, we miss a rich opportunity to trust the Lord and lean on him in difficult times.

Four Steps to Lament

Mark Vroegop’s book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, is an exploration of Biblical lament. Vroegop is a pastor at a church in Indiana, and he and his wife were awakened to lament when one of their children was stillborn. He writes with depth and wisdom that come only from experience.

Vroegop defines lament as “a prayer in pain that leads to trust” (page 28).

You might think lament is the opposite of praise. It isn’t. Instead, lament is a path to praise as we are led through our brokenness and disappointment. The space between brokenness and God’s mercy is where this song is sung. Think of lament as the transition between pain and promise. (Vroegop, page 28)

The first half of the book explores the four elements of lament, the first of which is turning to God. This may sound too basic to mention when it comes to a type of prayer, but Vroegop makes a compelling case.

To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough questions, is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence. However, I’ve found that many people are afraid of lament. They find it too honest, too open, or too risky. But there’s something far worse: silent despair. Giving God the silent treatment is the ultimate manifestation of unbelief. (Vroegop, pages 31–32)

After turning to God, the second step of lament is to complain. Yes, there is a godly form of complaint! It is found throughout the Psalms of lament.

If you’re going to offer a complaint to God, it must be done with a humble heart. As I said before, I don’t think there is ever a place to be angry with God. However, I do think it’s permissible to ask pain-filled questions as long as you’re coming in humility. Proud, demanding questions from a heart that believes it is owed something from God will never lean into true lament. (Vroegop, page 52)

A complaint is never an end in itself. Indeed, “we bring our complaints to the Lord for the purpose of moving us toward him” (Vroegop, page 54). The third ingredient of lament is asking God. Specifically, we call “upon God to act in accordance with his character” (Vroegop, page 57). The question of why moves to the question of who. If we have confidence in who God is and what he has promised, we can ask him boldly to intervene and help.

After asking God to work, we come to the final step of lament. We trust. We hold onto God as we wait for deliverance.

Lament helps us to practice active patience. Trust looks like talking to God, sharing our complaints, seeking God’s help, and then recommitting ourselves to believe in who God is and what he has done—even as the trial continues. (Vroegop, page 74)

Laments in the Bible

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy is packed with Scripture. Each of the first four chapters—one is devoted to each of the four steps of lament—takes a close look at a Psalm of lament. (Mark Vroegop reports that more than one third of the Psalms are laments!)

In the next part of the book, Vroegop walks his reader through the book of Lamentations. While not an exegesis or commentary, he highlights important themes from the book. Vroegop shows us that lament is thoroughly biblical and teaches us what we can learn through the practice of lamenting.

The last part of the book is dedicated to application. Vroegop suggests specific ways that lamenting might take hold for individuals and churches.

When Lament is No More

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy was a valuable book for me to read. I saw that lament is a biblical prayer category about which I’ve been ignorant, and I now understand how valuable the discipline and practice of lament can be for Christians.

Perhaps most importantly, this book has changed my prayer life. I now have some tools for mourning before the Lord and crying out to him in pain and sadness. Mark Vroegop has taught me this is a normal—even an essential—part of being a Christian.

However, lament will not last forever. Though praise and thanksgiving will continue through the ages, there will be no occasion for lament in heaven. Ultimately, lament points us to the sure, curse-free future God has in store for his children. Though lament may start in despair, because of the work of Jesus, it ends in hope.

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