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What is Lament?

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning – Eccl 7:4

Recently my wife wrote an article on dealing with miscarriage which can be found here. In that article she brought up one of the lessons that the Lord has been teaching us over the past year. I announced last week that I will be teaching through the book of Lamentations as soon as I finish Hebrews and one of my students remarked that they were going to be depressed while we work through the book. I think so often that is what people think about this book, but I feel they are missing the purpose. For this article I would like to explore what Lament is and how do we properly lament.

My journey through lament began much before I knew what lament was. My wife and I were missionaries in NE India on the Bhutanese border and served in a bible college in Coimbatore, India. I had spent so many years wanting to be a missionary, preparing to be a missionary, raising funds to be a missionary and then finally serving as a missionary that unbeknownst to me, I had begun to derive my identity and value from being a missionary. Our work was beginning to really take off, but God had other plans. For the first time since arriving in India, I had the opportunity to go into Bhutan and begin to make some connections. Those two weeks in Bhutan were amazing. The struggle began when I tried to re-enter India. At the border, I was stopped and interrogated for hours. In the end, the man in charge of the interrogation did not believe my reasons for being in India and gave me ten days to leave the country.

On returning to the states, we did not have a strong system of support. Very few knew what we were going through and just assumed it was like any other move. I struggled for years to be honest with the depression. My image of myself was so tied up into being a missionary and I assumed God had forsaken me because I could no longer serve in India and Bhutan. Eventually, I began to read "Spiritual Depression" by Martin Lloyd-Jones. That book was a break through for me on dealing with the pain that I felt. Some of the lessons I received from the book have evolved over the years as I studied this topic. Recently, I began reading a book by Mark Vroegop called "Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy" in which he laid out the premise of Lament in the Christian life. As I studied, the book of Lamentations I was surprised to see that other commentators had noticed the same pattern that Vroegop did in his book and then I did my own study of the structure of Lamentations and came to the same conclusion.

The Christian church has been absent of a doctrine of lament for a long time and I think it shows in the number of Christians who get bitter or backslide because of the suffering that they are going through. In essence, lament is the process by which a believer deals with the irreconcilable pain that they feel.

“Lament is " the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness." -Vroegop

Those who have studied the book of Lamentations and the Lament Psalms have noticed that for the most part they contain four different elements:

Turning to God

Every lament in scripture is also a prayer, a cry; many are in the form of a song. The lamenter is approaching God because they feel they have no one else to turn to. Honestly, most people don't know how to deal with us when we are in the depths of our pain. It takes a special kind of person to reach out to us in empathy and point our eyes where they needs to be. While people struggle with helping us in our time of grief, God knows everything and knows exactly what we need. Who better than God should be turn to?

Many times when we feel pain we do one of two things: we shut down or we lash out. Those months struggling with depression were some of the most prayer less months of my life. When others try to get us out of our funk, we often lash out at them as being uncaring or ignorant of the pain that we feel. Neither are good responses, especially when we use them with God. The second part of lament can be one of the most liberating parts of the process:

Lay out your Complaint

So often as believers we struggle with what to do with the feelings we have. God knows our frame and that we are dust. He understands our weaknesses and I don't think God is waiting to beat us down either. The example of all the laments is that we can honestly and openly bring our frustrations, our questions and our feelings to God even when they may not be theologically correct.

As I prepare to teach through Lamentations, I have been working my way through Psalm 77 as an example of lament outside of the book of Lamentations. In this psalm, the author asks some deep questions:

1. Will the Lord cast off forever? vs 7

2. Is His mercy gone forever? vs 8

3. Are his promises failing? vs 8

4. Has He forgotten to be kind? vs 9

5. Has He stopped having mercy on me because of his anger? vs 9

The author also lays out his bitter frustrations:

1. I can't sleep vs 4

2. I can't even talk vs 4

The important part at this stage is to complain in the right way. We should bring our complaints humbly, honestly, and in faith. In lament, the author of psalms moves to the third stage of the process:

Ask God boldly

You have come to God already in prayer or song and have expressed your frustrations and questions; now is the time to ask God boldly to do something about it. Psalm 77 lacks any obvious requests which just goes to show us that this process of lament is individual. Sometimes those who lament bounce back and forth between petition, and compliant which just goes to show us that life is messy and so is our pain. The process may not be linear but we need to keep pushing through. Other Lament Psalms use these petitions:

1. Arise- Psalm 10:12

2. Grant us help Psalm 60:11-12

3. Remember your promises Psalm 25:6

4. Let justice be accomplished Psalm 83:16-18

5. Don’t remember our sins Psalm 51:1

6. Restore Psalm 80:3

7. Don’t be silent- Psalm 28:1-2

8. Teach me Psalm 86:11

9. Vindicate me Psalm 35:23-24

The final point is where all lament needs to end up if it is going to do us any good and glorify God. We must

Choose to Trust

In many of the psalms there is a "yet" or a "but" transition at this point. One of the best illustrations of this point comes from Lamentations 3.

19 Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.

20 My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.

21 This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.

22 It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.

23 They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Jeremiah has laid out his complaints before the Lord even directly accusing God of being the source for all of his pain. He remembers or thinks on all of the negative things that have happened in his life and it was wormwood to him. Vs 21 serves as the switch, "This I recall to my mind." Jeremiah made a choice to change what he was thinking about and choose to trust in who God was. His compassions fail not, they are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness.

All true Lament that is not human sorrow must push us to this point in our lives where we remember who God is and choose to trust Him. Without it, we are just wallowing in despair. Why would God give us such depressing passages in the bible? Because He knows that life isn't always pretty and we need a way to grapple with these feelings and come out the other side victorious.

I beg you if you are going through a rough patch, try to develop this habit in your life of lamenting through the pain. I can't guarantee that the results will be instantaneous, but there will be victory, there will be joy again. Don't quite, don't shut down and don't wallow for the rest of your life.

Vroegop, Mark. Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy (Kindle Location 337). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

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