Lament as Prayer

Lament does not feel spiritual to me in the way I have often thought of spirituality. When I think of spiritual people who have trusted in God, I do not imagine them crying in anguish, snot bubbling at their nose, their voices raised in a loud shout asking God their angry questions.  When I think of the Bible, I think of victories won or patient, solemn faith. There does not seem to be room for the tears and snot and anger that have invaded my everyday life after the death of my aunt to cancer and the unexpected death of my uncle to a heart attack less than three months later.

In hindsight, it seems silly to me that I viewed lament as unbiblical when much of Scripture is devoted to it. I was not unaware of the existence of lament in the Bible, I knew of the laments of Job and the prophets and David and even Jesus, as a few, of many, examples. I was well acquainted with passages of grief and lament, but they always felt uncomfortable to me. I would bristle when I read the book of Job, afraid that his pain would dampen my joy somehow. I’d read the words quickly, scanning the pages but never pausing to take any of it in. I concluded that Job was a book for suffering people, but not for me in my comfort and joy. In reading Scripture, as in life, it is painful for me to enter into the lament of another person’s sorrow. It requires me to pick up their pain, strap it on myself like a heavy backpack, and carry it around. The weight is often awkward and makes me feel unbalanced.

This discomfort is not unusual, as it turns out. Over the last few months, I have watched people grapple with the awkward weight of another person’s suffering. They have grasped at anything they can for stability - kitschy sentiments, wildly out-of-context Bible verses, something about the dead becoming guardian angels. I have watched as people try to apply happy-clappy theology bandaids over the bullet hole of death. They do this with the best of intentions, but their bandaids do nothing to heal; they only cover the wound, make it less visible and perhaps less of an inconvenience.

I wanted to be angry about this, chalk it up to a 21st century American culture that dismisses the pain of others in favor of lessening any inconvenience to ourselves. Instead I was struck by the realization that lament is never easy. Lament, especially corporate lament, is difficult and uncomfortable because it requires self-sacrifice. Even in cultures where it was an everyday part of life, I have to imagine that it was still painful to share in the burdens of other people.

Permission to Lament

There is a small piece of Psalm 73 that has become so dear to me in the last few weeks and months. I find it bookending my prayers nearly every day, a reminder and a promise, something to hold onto for a moment while I catch my breath. The Psalmist writes in verse 48, “But as for me, it is good to be near God” (NIV).  The New American Standard Bible says it in a way that I find beautiful, “the nearness of God is my good.”

In lament, God has drawn near to me. This has not looked the way I expected it; his nearness has been most clearly felt in moments of asking questions to which I have received no answers and crying until my eyes were red and scratchy with the salt of my tears. These moments do not feel victorious, and I do not feel full of faith and strength. Instead, there is a tense kind of peace that runs quietly under these moments.

Every day is a question mark with no answer to follow. I think of Job and, though I have never seen myself in him before, I see myself in him now, in his miserable suffering, his sackcloth and ashes. “Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face” (Job 13:15, ESV).

I never understood how Job could trust the Lord and still argue his own ways to his face. Now I see myself most clearly in his pages and pages of questions and his arguing against the Lord, the two truths held in tension against each other.

That tension has been a welcome invitation into nearness with God. A kitschy sentiment or theological bandaid can feel like the easiest route, but after a while a wound must be exposed in order to heal properly. I think Job knew this when he put his pain on display to God, his questions forcing suffering into the light. This permission to lament, to ask difficult questions and engage God in the argument of my own ways while still trusting that his ways are far better and far above, is a salve for my own stinging heart. Soon the wound will scab over, heal ever so slowly, and give way to scar tissue. It will always be tender, always, but perhaps I will not always gasp at this pain.