We all remember where we were on that dreadful September morning 10 years ago. Though the sun was shining and the weather was pleasant across most of America, our hearts were darkened by the images of airplanes crashing into buildings and ash-covered people fleeing what we now simply know as Ground Zero.
I happened to be sitting in a seminary classroom at what is now Lincoln Christian University waiting to hear from one of my favorite professors, Dr. Robert Lowery. Before the 8 a.m. class started, a classmate informed us he had heard on the radio about an airplane hitting a big building in New York, but he didn’t know anything more than that. Of course by the end of the morning, the images of the twin towers falling would forever be etched in our minds.
Even more important than remembering where we were that day is remembering how we responded. Outside of turning on our TVs to newscasts and filling our cars with gas, most Christians responded in prayer. That evening, church doors opened and church buildings filled with saints who were brokenhearted over the tragedy and terror they had just witnessed.
Yet if you were anything like me, you didn’t know exactly how to pray. Oh sure, we prayed for the firefighters and police officers who were just beginning their long rescue mission. We also instinctively prayed for our country to be protected from further attacks. But my guess is that while we wanted to ask questions of God like “why?” and “how long?” those type of prayers seemed quite foreign to such a strong and independent people. Unfortunately, we all too often try to pick ourselves up instead of understanding that God longs to meet us in our time of uncertainty.
Fortunately for us, the Bible is filled with examples of these types of prayers, known simply as laments. In Psalms, David repeatedly questioned God about how long his enemies would triumph over him and wrote of exiles mourning for Jerusalem while sitting by the rivers of Babylon. Jeremiah continuously protested Judah’s eventual demise at the hands of its enemies. Even people of the early church—which we remember for its great joy and zeal—prayed laments concerning the hardened hearts of the world toward the Lord.
As often as I read these prayers of lament, part of me still responds by asking, “Is it really OK to talk to God like this?” I have come to believe the Bible not only teaches us it is OK, but if we are going to have a healthy faith in a world of chaos, we must pray that way. This doesn’t always settle well in churches where we have been taught not to question our faith. However, the Bible shows that when we properly question our faith through lament, our faith will thrive like never before.
A prayer of lament is simply acknowledgment that our faith has had a head-on collision with the reality of this world. Biblical laments start with the reality of our world and end with a reassurance that God is in control. Let’s look at both pieces of these prayers.
For virtually every emotion we encounter in our real-world experiences, the psalmists have given us a lament. Consider some of the following introductory verses to the Psalms: “Why do the nations conspire” (2:1); “Answer me when I call to you” (4:1); “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger” (6:1); “Why, Lord, do you stand far off?” (10:1); “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (13:1); “Save me, O God, by your name” (54:1); “Deliver me from my enemies, O God” (59:1); “Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint” (64:1); “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck” (69:1); “O God, why have you rejected us forever?” (74:1); “O God, do not remain silent” (83:1).
The psalmists clearly are giving us a green flag to bring to God complaints about our reality and petitions concerning the absence of justice in our world. Scott Ellington describes it as “the tension between belief and experience. The first step in a practice of lament that mirrors the lament prayers in the Bible is a willingness to entertain such a dissonance.”1
This world doesn’t always make sense, especially if we believe God is in control. The good news is we don’t have to act like we have it all figured out, especially when we pray. Whether we are watching airplanes collide into towers, receiving bad news from doctors, standing beside the grave of a loved one who died too soon, or trying to figure out how a relationship fell apart, it is perfectly OK to ask God, “Why?”
Better yet, laments are not merely useful for us as individuals. Laments are also designed for faith communities. While we may prefer to sing along with more upbeat hymns and choruses on a regular basis, who hasn’t been comforted after a tragedy in the community by “It is Well with My Soul” or “Blessed Be Your Name”? If the Psalms were the ancient hymnal, and roughly one-third of them are laments, then we currently have a famine when it comes to songs of lament. We would be wise to encourage more lamenting in Sunday morning worship, as well as in Sunday school classes, small groups, and around the family table. Surely God doesn’t want our churches to merely make things better on the surface. He wants to heal us to our very core. If that is to be the case, we must be willing to lament together.
The beauty of biblical laments is that they don’t end with “why?” While they generally don’t seek to answer our questions with precise theological formulas, virtually every lament brings us back to our faithful and almighty God.
For example, Psalm 6 concludes, “The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame” (vv. 9, 10).
While Psalm 13 starts with the feeling of God’s neglect, it concludes with, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (vv. 5, 6).
Peter Hicks suggests that God’s best answer to “why?” is often “Be still and know that I am God.”2
If psalms of lament bring us to the place where the pain of our experience collides with the sovereign rule of God, it is essential that we express both our reality and our belief. If we try to reassure ourselves of God’s sovereignty without ever processing the pain and grief we are experiencing, then we are simply putting a small bandage on a cancer that is still growing deep within us. On the other hand, if we only deal with the pain and grief without recentering ourselves in the rule of almighty God, we might as well just sing the blues. The blues may have rhythm, but they don’t offer redemption.
If David is an excellent example in how to lament, Jesus provides a perfect example. In Gethsemane, he not only pleaded with God by saying, “Take this cup from me,” he also proclaimed his belief in God by stating, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Even more so, while Jesus was on the cross, he invoked the lament of Psalm 22 by crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
For years, I read this passage simply as some type of theological declaration Jesus was making about what was happening at the cross. Only recently have I allowed myself to recognize that Jesus was lamenting from the cross. He was crying out to God about the seeming injustice of the situation. In the pain, grief, and embarrassment of the moment, he was baring his true emotions before his Father.
But he wasn’t simply singing the blues. As we read further in Psalm 22, we realize he was also proclaiming that even in this darkest hour God would still prove himself both faithful and victorious. “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24).
The power of Jesus’ lament did not go unnoticed. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). Whether we are lamenting national tragedies or personal calamities, we can be confident God is faithful to hear our cries for help. Yes, we can worship even when our world is falling apart.
1Scott A. Ellington, Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2008), 185.
2Peter Hicks, The Message of Evil and Suffering (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 44, 45.
Dustin Fulton is preaching minister with Jefferson Street Christian Church in Lincoln, Illinois, where he has served since 2006.