We step into this world with a cry. Although none of us remembers the moment, the first sound we uttered after leaving the warm and protected confines of our mother’s womb was a loud protest. We enter, wailing. To cry is human.
However, we aren’t the only part of the created order expressing sorrow. The apostle Paul says that the entire creation groans (Romans 8:22). Along with the fall of Adam, the created world was infected with the broken effects of sin. Death is the ultimate reminder that something is not right with the world. But there are other examples: cancer, addictions, failed marriages, relational conflict, loneliness, and abuse.
We don’t stop crying after birth. It continues because the world is broken. While tears and sorrow are part of our humanity, there is an often-neglected prayer language in the Bible for our travels through a broken world: lament.
What Is Lament?
Lament is not the same as crying, however. It’s different. And it’s uniquely Christian.
The Bible is filled with this song of sorrow. Over a third of the Psalms are laments. The book of Lamentations weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus lamented in the final hours of his life.
But lament is different than crying because lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God.
Four Elements of Lament
As Psalm 13 illustrates, most laments feature four essential elements:
Turn to God. Often a lament begins by an address to God: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1). The point is that the person in pain chooses to talk to God about what is happening.
Bring your complaint. Every lament features some kind of complaint: “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:2). More than a sinful rehearsing of our anger, biblical lament humbly and honestly identifies the pain, questions, and frustrations raging in our souls.
Ask boldly for help. Seeking God’s help while in pain is an act of faith: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken” (Psalm 13:3–4). Unremitting sorrow can create a deadly silence as we give in to despair (“there’s no hope”) or denial (“everything’s fine”). But lament invites us to dare to hope in God’s promises as we ask for His help.
Choose to trust. This is the destination for our laments. All roads lead here: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:5–6). More than the stages of grief, this prayer language moves us to renew our commitment to trust in God as we navigate the brokenness of life.
Lament is the prayer language for God’s people as they live in a world marred by sin. It is how we talk to God about our sorrows as we renew our hope in his sovereign care. To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.
Why Is Lament Christian?
The practice of lament is one of the most theologically informed actions a person can take. While crying is fundamental to humanity, Christians lament because they know God is sovereign and good. Christians know his promises in the Scriptures. We believe in God’s power to deliver. We know the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive.
And yet we still experience pain and sorrow. Lament is the language for living between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is a prayer form for people who are waiting for the day Jesus will return and make everything right. Christians don’t just mourn; we long for God to end the pain.
Lament prayers take faith. Talking to God instead of getting sinfully angry or embittered requires biblical conviction. Laying out the messy struggles of your soul and then asking — again and again — for God to help you requires a solid theological mooring. Laments turn toward God when sorrow tempts you to run from Him.
Laments interpret the world through a biblical lens. Christians lament because we know the long arc of God’s plan: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We know the cause of all lament: sin. And we read in Revelation about the ending of all laments:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
Therefore, Christians not only mourn the brokenness of the world, but we also long for the day when all weeping will cease. We wonder, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1). Anyone can cry. But only Christians can faithfully lament.
Learn to Lament
Since life is full of sorrows, and since the Bible is clear about the plan of God, Christians should be competent lamenters. We should regularly talk to God about our sorrows and struggles. Christians should learn to lament.
One way to start would be to more regularly read lament psalms. Start with Psalms 10, 13, 22, and 77. And then move to the other forty-plus laments in the book of Psalms. You’ll find lament psalms for personal grief and corporate suffering. There are laments for moments of repentance and for when you long for justice. As you read these psalms, certain phrases will become your own. You’ll probably be surprised how connected you are to the words you read. Laments tend to become personal quickly.
Another approach would be to study a lament psalm by looking for each of the four elements I mentioned: turning to God, bringing your complaint, asking boldly, and choosing to trust. Once you find examples of each element, consider writing your own lament. See if you can follow the flow of the text as you tell God about your struggle. Remember each psalm was written by a real person with real problems. Writing your own lament beautifully combines rich theology with real emotions.
Until Jesus returns, the world will be marked by tears. Children will continue to be born and their first cry will announce their arrival into a broken world. To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.