A few days after the stillbirth of our daughter, the phone rang.
On the other end, a familiar voice brought me to tears. It was a mentor from seminary, a teacher whose classes elevated my view of God and leveled my pride. His love for God’s glory and the church often left me wanting to crawl out of class. It was my first taste of Reformed Theology. I was never the same. Dr. Grier called to offer his comfort after learning that our daughter died in the womb just a few days before her due date.
After asking how we were doing and expressing his love he said, “Mark, I want to remind you that your theology matters right now. This may be the greatest test of what you believe.”
He was right.
Over the next two years, we wrestled with waves of grief, mourned multiple miscarriages, and fought the daily presence of fear when we conceived another baby. We clung to what we believed. We talked to one another and to God about our frustrations, questions, and hurts.
We tried to be honest and biblical. We drew upon our theology to inform how we looked at our pain and what we hoped for in the future. The Psalms became our comfort.
While I didn’t know what to call it at the time, our honest prayers were laments. That’s part of the reason why we ran to the middle of our Bibles. Over a third of the inspired songbook reflects this minor-key language. Lament Psalms, in particular, move toward God along the tracks of intense human emotion and deep theological belief.
Looking back on our journey, I’m convinced that the seed of our laments were planted in the soil of what we believed. It takes good theology to be a godly lamenter. Let me show you the connection.
What is Lament?
First, let me start with a definition. I don’t want to assume that you are familiar with this category that dominates the Psalms and encompasses the entire book of Lamentations. A lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. It is a uniquely Christian prayer form as people look to God for help in the midst of their sorrow.
Most laments contain four elements: turn, complain, ask, and trust. Each is designed to move the weary-hearted saint toward a renewal of hope in God’s character, even when dark clouds linger. Turning to God in prayer is the first step. It refuses to allow a deadly prayerlessness to develop. Complaining lays out our hurts in blunt but humble terms. We tell God what is wrong and the depth of our struggles. Asking reclaims the promises of God’s word that seem distant, and it calls upon him to intervene. Finally, all laments end in trust. This is where biblical lament is designed to lead – a faith-filled renewal of what we know to be true.
While pain lingers, laments give voice to what we believe.
Why is Lament Theological?
I would guess that most people would view lament as an emotional expression to suffering. They wouldn’t be wrong. But that perspective is incomplete. Lament is deeply theological. It fuses feeling and doctrine.
Christians lament not just because of their pain-filled tears, but also because of biblical truth.
The doctrine of sin creates lament. Christians believe that underneath cancer, marital problems, wayward children, addictions, church conflicts, death, and every human sorrow is the curse of sin. The entire created order groans under this broken condition (Rom 8:22-24). The presence of pain reminds us – over and over – that something is wrong with the world.
Christians lament more than their personal pain. They mourn the presence of sin and its effects.
Christians celebrate the plan of redemption. From Genesis to Revelation we witness the unfolding mission of God to rescue people from their rebellion. Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration are the high points in salvation history. Knowing this trajectory, Christian lament calls upon God to intervene and to rescue us from the lingering effects of the Fall. We believe Jesus entered our messy world not only to save us, but also so that we can have confidence in prayer (Heb. 4:15-16). We cling to the hope that everything, including suffering, works out for God’s good purposes in our lives. (Rom. 8:28).
Knowing the plan of God in redemption motivates us to reach out to him with painful lament prayers.
The book of Lamentations mourns over the leveling of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people. In that dark moment, Jeremiah prays “…the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam. 3:22). The beauty of the longest lament in the Bible is its orientation. Jeremiah used his theology to shape his interpretation of disaster. Believing God is good, kind, and merciful changes what you pray when life is hard.
But it also creates biblical complaint. Laments talk to God about circumstances that do not seem to fit with what we believe to be true about him. “Has his steadfast love ceased?” “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” These are just a few of the troubling questions in Psalm 77. Laments talk to God about the disconnect between experience and theology. If we believed God was unkind and limited, there would be no cause for complaint.
The prayer language of lament is rooted in our theology of God.
Revelation is in the Bible for a reason. It shows us the end-game of our redemption, giving us the promise of a day when tears will be wiped away and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4). Christians long for the defeat of Satan, the removal of sin, unhindered fellowship, and eternal joy. That’s the future. But it’s not here yet.
Christians lament “How long, O Lord?” (Rev. 6:10). We yearn for the day when our faith will be sight. We look to the future with anticipation and godly impatience. The glorious vision of the new heavens and the new earth create the laments for Jesus to come.
Our view of the future informs how we lament in the present.
Lament is one of the most theologically informed practices of the Christian faith. Believers cry out to God in their pain, complain, ask for help, and choose to trust because of what we believe.
Why is This Important?
Considering lament through the lens of our theology is essential. It is important to know that pain is not the sole cause of our laments. Underneath our minor-key songs is a theology.
A big view of God allows us to deeply wrestle with human emotion. Too often grieving Christians fall into the ditches of denial or despair. They project an image that “everything’s fine.” Or their troubling questions may cause disturbing doubts regarding the legitimacy of their faith. By connecting lament with our theology, we change how we define steadfastness in trial. By connecting lament with our theology, we change how we define steadfastness in trial. Truth and trauma co-exist.
Preparing people for suffering requires teaching theology. While there may be legitimacy to the stages of grief and support groups, hardship tests what a person believes. In order to help people persevere through seasons of deep sorrow, we need to give them a rich theology that can bear the weight of their pain.
My mentor was more correct than what I knew at the time. The stillbirth of our daughter and navigating the rocky terrain of grief was frightening and exhausting. It tested us at every level, including what we believed.
Our laments emerged from the paradox of the daily battle with grief and our theology. Rather than seeing this tension as something wrong or unhelpful, lament allow us to embrace it.
We learned to live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty.
Lament was how we prayed because we believed.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.