“There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:4). Fasting and mourning was characteristic of John the Baptist’s disciples, consistent with his message of coming judgment (Mk 2:18; Lk 5:29–34; 7:33). Jesus’ disciples did not fast, but joyfully ate and drank in celebration of the arrival of the kingdom of God (Mk 2:15–18; Lk 5:29–34; 7:34). The Pharisees frowned upon their merrymaking.
It would be wrong to conclude that the disciples of Jesus, therefore, are not to weep, mourn, or fast, since Jesus clarifies that there would be a time when the bridegroom would be gone, and, in his absence, his disciples would indeed fast (Mk 2:19–20; Lk 5:35). In John’s Gospel Jesus puts it like this, “Truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice. You will become sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy” (John 16:20). When the disciples see Jesus again, sorrow will turn to joy. Initially this happened when they saw the risen Jesus. It will happen finally and completely when Jesus returns and he wipes away every tear (Rev 21:4), and sorrow and sighing gives way to “unending joy” (Isa 35:10; 51:11). What a day that will be!
Now, in this age, we both mourn and rejoice, knowing the joy of his presence by the Spirit, but also mourning his absence in a world where the powers of evil still hold sway, and suffering in mind and body often overwhelms both righteous and unrighteous alike. It is right, therefore, when we gather together now, that our fellowship is marked by both joy and mourning, praise and lament. What this looks like will differ from church to church, depending on types of liturgy, forms of prayer, and styles of music. But it is to our great loss if the psalms of lament, which make up about a third of the Psalter, and which model for us what the lament of the godly looks like, do not get a look in somewhere. I suggest there are five benefits (at least!) to singing and praying these psalms together.
Lamenting together expresses our trust in God
In many psalms the sufferer brings a sorrowful complaint to God with the question “Why?” (e.g. Ps 10:1; 22:1; 42:9; 43:2; 44:23–24; 74:1) or “How long?” (e.g. Ps 6:3; 13:1; 74:10; 79:5; 90:13). The former typically assumes something about God’s character that the lamenter presently cannot see, and the latter something about God’s promises that he is presently not experiencing. The promised messianic kingdom (Ps 2:4–9) is not in evidence. But the very act of addressing God in this way takes its stand on the truth of God’s word, whatever the evidence to the contrary. We live by faith, not by sight.
Mark Vroegop, in his recent book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, suggests that there are 9 different petitions in the lament psalms which we hear voiced alongside the complaint of God’s apparent absence: “Arise, O Lord,” “Grant us help,” “Remember your covenant,” “Let justice be done,” “Don’t remember our sins,” “Restore us,” “Don’t be silent,” “Teach me,” “Vindicate me.”
One of the reasons that lament has been relatively absent from western evangelicalism for so long is because of the modern conceit that life is manageable apart from divine intervention. This is, of course, only exacerbated by what Neil Postman famously called our present “technopoly,” a society marked by an excessive trust in technology. But what all the above petitions assume is that God, and God alone, is able to help us. As Ps 121:1–2 puts it, “I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” When we lament together we are lifting our eyes, in trust, to our only real source of help.
Lamenting together fosters opposition to sin, suffering, and death
The deceitfulness and power of the enemy or enemies, so prevalent in the lament psalms, and especially in the psalms of David, is a reminder to us of how vehemently the kingdom of evil opposes the kingdom of Christ. Sin, the world, and the devil are fierce in their opposition to God’s people. When we lament their work, we refuse to make a truce with the kingdom of darkness.
Sin, suffering, and death are normal. But they are not normal like gravity is. They are devastating intruders into God’s good creation. Their familiarity in our lives and the world around us so easily breeds apathy. But if we merely become passive observers or sufferers of these enemies of Christ’s kingdom then we fail to reflect Christ, whose life and death was lived in implacable opposition to the kingdom of darkness. When we lament, we refuse to make a truce with sin and suffering, either in our lives or the lives of those around us. We take our stand with Christ against the forces of evil, refusing to acquiesce in their presence in the world.
Lamenting together promotes unity in the body of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul challenges a worldly church that is closely mimicking society’s preferential honouring of the wise and strong. But within the mutual interdependence of the body of Christ, God wants the less-presentable, weaker members of the body to receive the greater care and honour (1 Cor 12:22–24).
The impressive members of the body will always attract attention. To offset that tendency, we need to deliberately and actively care for the weaker members to ensure that there is unity in the body. Paul’s desire is that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor 12:26). As Lionel Thornton puts it, there are “no private sufferings” in the body of Christ. As such, we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), an exhortation that also comes in a context where Paul is talking about the unity of the many-membered body.
In recent years there has been a steady flow of books from evangelical publishers that deal with the themes of suffering and lament. In most of these, in one way or another, the author recounts his or her personal discovery of the value of lament in the context of debilitating illness, tragic loss, or unforeseen disaster. But, almost in every case, the author relates that the discovery has been a personal and private one, in the context of a church that was more versed in rejoicing with those who rejoice than mourning with those who mourn. If we are honest, we are not particularly good at either.
A church that frequently laments together cares for weak, suffering members in two ways. First, we are providing the biblical language in which those who are often lost for words can continue to draw near to God in their distress. Secondly, we are forming the whole body into a community that is more naturally sensitive to sufferers. Our emotional and verbal register expands to be able to more comfortably minister to the suffering in our midst.
Lamenting together strengthens hope in Jesus’ return
We are members of one another in the body only because we are members of Christ, in whom the whole body is joined together. Christians are those who have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection (Col 2:8–3:4; Rom 6:1–11), and, as such, we suffer with him now that we might one day also share in his risen glory (Rom 8:17).
One great reason for praying and singing the psalms of lament is that by doing so we join our voices to the Lord Jesus, the ultimate lamenting Christ of the psalms. Jesus embodied a life of lament as one who was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). He lived and died as the lamenter par excellence, with the words of Ps 22:1 on his lips. All the laments of the Psalms find their fulfilment in him. The significance of this is that as we join our voices together in lament, expressing our solidarity with the suffering, lamenting Christ, we are also thereby anticipating the future glory which we will one day share with him.
God doesn’t leave the psalmist in his distress. He answers him in his day of trouble, bringing him—although sometimes only after a long period of patient, perplexed waiting—the hoped-for deliverance. “You turned my lament into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness” (Ps 30:11). “I waited patiently for the LORD, and he turned to me and heard my cry for help” (Ps 40:1). As we join together in saying and singing these words, and others like them, our hope is strengthened that one day we too will rise in unending joy with Christ.
Lamenting together engages unbelievers in a common language
So far I have assumed a particular biblical context of lament, that finds its OT apex in the psalms of David, and its NT fulfilment in the Son of David, Jesus Christ. But lament can also be considered more broadly as the universal human experience of sorrowful complaint in the face of the same realities of sin, suffering, and death. This explains why some definitions people give of lament are fairly narrow, and others relatively broad. Both have their place, since Jesus laments as both the Son of David and the Second Adam.
It hardly needs saying that someone who is reeling from a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a child, or is racked with chronic pain, or bears the deep scars of abuse, will be receptive to the language of lament, whether they are believers in Christ or not. The presence or absence of congregational lament will have both pastoral and evangelistic ramifications. By lamenting together, we not only serve one another in love, but we engage a fragmented, divided world with a universally comprehensible language.
So I’ve suggested five benefits of practising congregational lament, especially by embracing the language of the psalms of lament, whether in prayer or song. Living as we do between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom of God, joy and sorrow will always be mingled together in our experience. May praise and lament be similarly joined together when we meet in the name of the crucified, risen Christ.
Will Timmins, Lecturer in New Testament, Moore Theological College.