We’re thinking as a church at the moment about how to respond to the many awful reports of abuse within the wider evangelical church and one of the most appropriate responses is to lament. But what does it mean exactly for Christians to lament? And how do you do it?
The dictionary definition of lament is ‘to express passionate grief about something’ but biblical lament is not simply crying out into the ether, but specifically crying out to God and expressing to him the pain we, or others, are experiencing. It has been said that to cry is human, but to lament is Christian.
Think, for a moment, of:
- The book of Job (which is one long lament)
- The prophets Jeremiah & Ezekiel lamenting over the sins of God’s people.
- Daniel & David lamenting over the suffering they were enduring.
- Jesus himself lamenting over Jerusalem.
- The fact that over a third of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament.
- And we have a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations.
The Bible is full of lament. The Bible expects us to lament. It is one of the main ways the Bible encourages us to respond to the pain and suffering we face in a fallen world and certainly one of the main ways that we can respond to the abuse scandals that have come to light recently in the evangelical Church.
In Hosea 7:14, God laments the fact that his people ‘do not cry out to me from their hearts, but wail on their beds.’ In other words, God wants us to pour out our grief and heartache to him. He invites us to do so, so that he can minister to us. Therefore, lament can be profoundly transformative for us precisely because of the one we are crying out to:
- One who is in utter control of our entire lives.
- One who loves us with an unbreakable love.
- One who loves to hear our prayers.
- One who mourns with those who mourn.
- One who sympathises with our weakness.
- One who comforts us.
- One who is faithful to us.
- One who has experienced all the pain and suffering of this world himself.
- One who will one day bring all our pain and suffering to an end.
What do we do with the sense of injustice in this life?
What do we do with our feelings of not being seen or heard?
What do we do with the seeming paradox between the pain of this life, yet the sure promises of God?
How do we rightly express the experience of life in this fallen world, whilst awaiting a perfect future restoration to come?
We cry out to the one, who promises to see us, hear us, comfort us, walk with us, minister to us, offer us hope and give us the words to say.
In his book, Dark Cloud, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, Mark Vroegop argues that there are four basic ingredients to biblical lament: turning, complaining, asking, trusting.
A. Turn to God
It is so easy to withdraw from God in our pain and suffering, or when we see the fall from grace of a leader, but lament reaches out to God. Of course, talking to a friend, a counsellor, or even to yourself can help. But lament talks to the one who can truly sympathize with us, the one who truly knows our sorrows, and the one who can truly help.
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted. I remembered you, God, and I groaned; I meditated, and my spirit grew faint. You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. (Psalm 77:1-4)
Even in times of terrible suffering. Even when we are unsure what to pray for. Even when things feel out of our control and overwhelming. Even when no one believes us. Even when words fail us. We can turn to the Lord. Lament invites us to keep crying out to God in prayer.
B. Complain to God
Lament specifically names the things that are troubling us – laying out to God precisely what our complaints are about circumstances that do not seem to fit his character or his purposes.
Why, O God, would you let such terrible abuse happen in the church?
How can it be that the very shepherds of the flock have become the abusers?
How long, O Lord, before justice is done?
How long, O Lord, before people see what has really gone on?
Why the lack of transparency from supposedly Christian organisations?
Why such little pastoral care for the survivors?
Lament is not a sinful venting of your anger, but an honest crying out to God with your pain and questions.
C. Ask God
The New Testament book of James reminds us: ‘we do not have because we do not ask.’ Is it no wonder, then, that the examples of lament we have in the Bible are full of bold petitions of God for:
- deliverance, rescue, strength (e.g. Ps 60)
- justice for unfairness, abuse, hidden mistreatment (e.g. Ps 83)
- forgiveness and mercy when a lament is directly connected to their sin (e.g. Ps 51)
- restoration (e.g. Ps 80) for a specific situation or that final restoration of all things.
- vindication (e.g. Ps 35),
- to listen (e.g. Ps 28),
- to teach them in the midst of the trial (e.g. Ps 86),
- simply to ‘arise!’ (e.g. Ps 10) – and to do something!
And so let’s cry out to God for victims to experience healing and restoration; for abusive leaders to repent; for Christian organisations in which abuse has occurred to be transparent in the way they respond to it; for upcoming reviews to bring everything into the light; and for God to act!
D. Trust God
The destination of all lament is to trust in God. Not an overly simplistic “God is sovereign – just trust him.” But a journey of turning, complaining, asking, which leads to a deliberate hope and trust in God.
Lament does not avoid the tough questions. Lament does not minimise suffering and injustice. Lament does not ignore our own pain. But lament does finish by reminding us of who God is. And what He has done and promises to do for us. That God is just and justice will be done. That God sees us and understands us even if others don’t. That God will refine, protect and build his church. That God can redeem anything, as seen by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so he can certainly redeem any abusive situation. And one day God will bring an end to all abuse in his world. Amidst the awful reports of abuse within the wider evangelical church, we can still trust him.