The Healing Gift of Bold Lament

The messy middle between Jesus' resurrection and ours.

by Rebekah Eklund

Jesus wept. It’s the shortest verse in Scripture, and one of the most profound. On an otherwise ordinary day, Jesus goes to visit some friends, and when he arrives he walks the path so many of us have taken—to the edge of a grave—and when he gets there he does the most human thing. He breaks down in tears.

We begin our exploration of how the Bible thinks about grief here: at the grave of Lazarus, with the startling image of the Savior of the world weeping because his friend is dead. Ancient Christian teaching argued that what is true about Jesus must also be true about God. God wept. 

Of course, God does not let grief have the last word. Jesus, perhaps with tears still streaming, commands Lazarus to rise from the grip of death and come out of his grave. When Lazarus emerges tangled up in his grave clothes, Jesus may as well have been speaking directly to Death itself when he commands, “Unbind him, and let him go!”

The most common form of prayer in the Bible is not praise. It’s lament.

Christian tradition often struggles to live in the tension between the truths that Jesus wept and that Jesus raises the dead, the truths that the Bible contains prayers raw with grief—and even rage—meant for public worship and that God has promised to wipe all the tears away. But that’s right where we are, in the messy middle between Jesus’ resurrection and ours.

Out of the Depths

The most common form of prayer in the Bible is not praise. It’s lament. There are more psalms of lament in the book of Psalms than any other type. To that we can add all of Lamentations, over half the book of Job, and the laments of the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and Amos.

At its most basic, a lament is crying out to God in the midst of distress. It might be summed up with the opening words of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!” The depths are unspecified, but it does not take much imagination to fill in that blank: the depths of depression, the loss of a parent or a child or a friend, the pain of divorce and broken relationships, regret over past mistakes or sins, the profound loss that results from infertility, a devastating diagnosis or chronic pain, the loneliness of singleness, the grief of job loss or unemployment. The first half of the line (“Out of the depths”) is what makes it human: who among us hasn’t been in the depths? The second half (“I cry to you”) is what makes it a prayer.

Lament takes formless grief and gives it a name and directs it toward God. It is grief given a pattern to inhabit. This pattern is fourfold. It includes an invocation, which simply means it invokes God’s name—not just any name, but Yahweh, the LORD, the God of steadfast love who binds himself to humanity and will not let go. The pattern also contains a complaint, which means the lamenter gives voice to what precisely the trouble is. And then the lamenter makes a petition, which is a request (or even a demand) for God to act. The lamenter must decide what to ask God for. What exactly do I want God to do in the midst of my suffering?

Because of this, lament is not a particularly polite form of prayer. It is sometimes brash and demanding. It often accuses God of being absent. It demands that God show up, show God’s face, pay attention, and do something about the pain. Lament is the form of prayer that Jesus himself commends in Luke 18, in the parables of the stubborn widow who won’t give up until she gets justice from a judge, and the bothersome friend who knocks on a neighbor’s door at midnight and won’t go away until the neighbor gets up to lend him some bread. But unlike the unjust judge and the sleepy neighbor, God is eager to hear our requests. In Scripture God seems to admire the persistent, those with chutzpah, those who dare to wrestle with the Almighty. Lament depends on this insight and often appeals to it. Lamenters call upon God to be true to God’s own character; they ask God to be merciful because God is merciful. This is the final piece of the fourfold pattern of lament: trust in God’s goodness. With one exception, the biblical lament always includes a note of praise for God’s faithfulness or hope in God’s loving providence. The lamenter chooses to trust God while still in the depths.

The one exception to this pattern is Psalm 88, which begins and ends in darkness. Like all the psalms, it was and is part of the public, communal prayers of Israel. And now it is part of the church’s public, communal prayers too. The writer of Psalm 88 could not make the turn to praise and hope. Sometimes we can’t either, not right away, not for a time. But others make the turn for us in the community of faith. Perhaps this is why a wise editor embedded Psalm 88 between the final line of Psalm 87, “Singers and dancers alike say, ‘All my springs are in you,’” and the opening line of Psalm 89, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever.” The grief of Psalm 88 is circled around and held firm with joy. We can’t skip it or ignore it, though. We need Psalm 88. We need lament in our private and corporate worship. Alongside joy and thanksgiving, we should lament in prayer and song and sermon not only because it brings the fullness of our broken human lives into worship, but because Scripture itself gives us this form of speech to God.

New Orientation

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann sometimes groups the psalms into three broad categories: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Psalms of orientation are all about God’s right ordering of creation; they are songs of stability, contentment, and praise (for instance, Psalm 131). Psalms of disorientation concern the dismantling or disrupting of the old, known world (for instance, Psalm 69). This can include both sin and suffering, both griefs caused by us and griefs done to us. Psalms of new orientation are about finding our way into a new world marked by the redemption of pain, by hard-earned hope, by thanksgiving for having survived the trauma of disorientation (for instance, Psalm 40). Brueggemann suggests that lament is one of the most important ways we become able to move from disorientation to new orientation.

The move from disorientation to new orientation is not speedy or simple. The best thing that Job’s friends did was simply to sit with Job in silence, sharing his grief, pouring ashes on their heads in solidarity, letting the darkness be dark. They don’t (and God doesn’t) want Job to remain in his grief forever, unhealed, unresolved. But it might take some time. Lament is honest about how very dark the darkness is, how grievous the grief is. Naming it and bringing it into God’s heavenly throne room can open up the space for God to be present there in the darkness. Over time we make our way not back to the old, oriented world, but into a new world. God redeems our grief rather than erasing it. Even after his resurrection, Jesus still had his scars.

Grieving with Hope

We have already seen that Jesus himself grieves at the grave of a friend. He also laments: in Gethsemane, when he begs God to take the cup of suffering away from him, and on the cross, when he uses the first line of Psalm 22 to cry out in anguish, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Even his trusting words from the cross are from the pattern of lament: when Jesus says, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” he draws from Psalm 31, which cries out a few verses later, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.” Jesus laments. At the very least, this authorizes lament as a form of Christian prayer. Jesus teaches us how to pray.

What about after the resurrection, after God has defeated sin, death, and the devil? Aren’t Christians instructed to rejoice always? These are important Christian teachings. But we also have the witness of Scripture that Death is an enemy who stalks all of us (“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” declares the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:26), that sin still entraps each one of us (“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,” laments Paul in Romans 7:18), and that the whole creation is groaning and longing for redemption along with us (Paul again, in Romans 8:19–23).

When Paul writes a letter to a congregation grieving the loss of some of their members, he tells them that he is going to teach them about the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s second coming so they will not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Paul does not say he is instructing them so they will not grieve. He says understanding the resurrection will enable them to grieve with hope. Grieve, says Paul: you’ve lost loved ones. But grieve with hope that God has broken the power of death and will ultimately defeat it forever.

Between the Times

This is life between the times: poised between the old age and the new, between Jesus’ resurrection and ours, between the now and the not yet of God’s redemption. Lament lives here, in the tension between confidence in God’s salvation and longing for the world to be healed. It’s the kind of prayer that contains within it both the pain of all the ways that God’s kingdom has not yet fully come, and the trust that God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Grieving with hope, bearing scars with joy.

Recommended Resource List

Experiencing Grief by H. Norman Wright Writing after the loss of his son in a pocket-size book, Wright addresses the faces, questions, disruptions, emotions and changes of grief in 25 brief chapters. His purpose is to help reader progress through the grief journey with a greater sense of comfort.

Reflections of a Grieving Spouse: The Unexpected Journey from Loss to Renewed Hope by H. Norman Wright A vulnerable, insightful, supporting guide to find a hopeful path after the loss of a loved one, this book includes journal entries written during the author’s wife’s illness.

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis In this slim volume written after his wife’s death, Lewis offers honest reflections on loss, jotting in a notebook as he journeyed through his own devastating grief.

A Grief Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry Sittser The author’s wife, daughter and mother were killed in a crash with a drunk driver, dying before his eyes. Though loss is a
solitary experience, it is also common and can lead us to community. Sittser writes from personal perspective about how it is possible to live in and be enlarged by loss.

Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope by Albert Y. Hsu Acknowledging that there are no easy answers, Hsu draws on resources of faith to point loved ones to God who offers comfort and hope.

Good Grief by Granger E. Westberg Timeless wisdom has stood the test of 50 years and is still relevant with gentle concern and insight on the path through loss, both small and overwhelming.

Someone I Love Died by Christine Harder Tangvald For children four to eight years old, this book uses age-appropriate language and resources to create a keepsake of a loved one’s life, helping grown-ups with a tool that offers healing during a difficult time.

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