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Rediscovering the Lost Art of Lament

Updated: Apr 1

Every human being experiences wounding and grief. This hurt requires a meaningful way of processing our emotions. Lament provides a structure to express our suffering, grief, and myriad feelings. In this blog, I will focus on lament from a Judeo-Christian perspective and draw on the example of Scripture to provide guidance for engaging in a personal lament.
To lament means to express grief for or about something; to mourn, such as to lament a death. Lament means to regret deeply; to deplore; to grieve audibly; to wail.[1]

Why is lamenting so valuable? Lament is a means of self-care. Through lament people can express what has been churning within them. They name their feelings and their condition. At first, this may feel risky. Many in the western world have settled for superficial happiness which results in inauthentic relationships. However, when human beings choose the authentic expression of a full range of emotions, they can experience a profound connection with others.

Dr. Carl Rogers, eminent psychologist, and developer of the theory of Client-Centered Therapy writes, “That which is most deeply personal is most universal.”[2] In other words, learning to lament helps not only the individual but can also provide a significant relational connection with others. The courage to lament can have a profoundly positive influence with others who also must deal with life’s grief, loss, and pain. When this occurs, the experience results in mutual understanding, acceptance rather than rejection, community rather than isolation, the strength of shared struggle rather than the loneliness of despair. Furthermore, lamenting is a way of bringing up and out before Immanuel (God with us) what is inside. We discover in lament that candid, fierce dialogue with God is possible without shame, guilt, defensiveness, or fear of rejection. We learn that God understands and can handle our feelings.

Despite the universal reality of human hurt and suffering, few people in our day have knowledge of or practice lamenting. Even though seventy-two Psalms are several types of laments, this is not a common spiritual practice. Since all humans experience grief and pain, it would be invaluable to rediscover the art of lament.

Neglecting or minimizing upsets, disappoints, and the traumas of life is harmful. It undermines our mental, emotional, and spiritual health, and may block our healing. Lamentation offers a path toward freedom; a way of releasing the pain and accessing the power of hope.
Laments in the Bible have both the catharsis of releasing pain, but they turn to God with hope, with a sense of renewed faith. I offer two examples of biblical characters who lamented. There are many others.

Moses lamented to God about being unable and unprepared to lead the people of God out of slavery in Egypt. God provided a partner for Moses in Aaron and together they led God’s people to freedom (Exodus 3 and 4).

The prophet Elijah lamented after running from Queen Jezebel who wanted to kill him. The Lord revealed himself to Elijah and helped him to know that he was not alone (1 Kings 19).

The Structure of an Individual Psalm of Lament

As you read various Psalms of lament you will observe that the lament often begins by expressing a complaint or making a cry for help. The psalmist pours out hurt and releases it to God. Having authentically described to God the unfairness of their condition, the actions of their enemies, and other upset emotions, the psalmist then changes tone. A significant turn is made from a focus on hurt to a focus on faith. New hope and strength are reflected in the words used. For example, we find this shift in Psalm 13. Having honestly expressed his frustration and grief to the Lord, the writer, we see in verses 5 and 6 a significant change in language and tone.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4 and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Bringing up and out before the Lord what we are feeling is a means of accessing God’s forgiveness and freeing us to forgive those who have hurt us. Lament leads to a renewed sense of security and peace.

Writing Your Own Lament

The following outline suggested by Dr. Terry Wardle will be helpful in writing your lament.[3]
· Express it all . . .
· To the Lord . . .
· With feeling . . .Raw
· Without censoring . . .Real
· In safety . . .
· While listening . . .
· In faith . . .Revitalizing, anticipating new life out of the ashes

When writing a lament, express all that you are thinking and experiencing to the Lord. Think about what your pain has cost you. Let out all your feelings--the easy and the more difficult, the fear, shame, guilt, anger, sadness, remorse, etc. Bring it all up and out before God without censoring yourself. The most primitive language human beings have is the language of feelings. We need to lament in the language of our feelings. It doesn’t matter if it sounds good or bad, whether it is polite or not. We need to lament with a sense of safety that we will not be judged or condemned for the feelings we have. Whatever is inside, we acknowledge to ourselves and to the Lord. Having released these pent-up feelings, we can begin to listen to what God has to say. God may provide some sense of quiet, comfort, assurance, or love. This trusting God with what is within us and then listening to God gives opportunity for us to feel heard, seen, and understood. It positions us for a revitalizing, episodic encounter with the God of hope. An encounter like this offers healing to our hurt and inspires renewed faith, hope, love in the places where we have been wounded.
The process of lament unlocks and releases us from the negative things the linger inside, the bitter experiences and memories we have, the hurts we have felt, the unforgiveness that binds us to another in unhealthy ways.

We don’t lament because God needs to learn what we are feeling; God already knows. We lament so that we can discover for ourselves the depths of our hurt and pain and offer it to God for healing.
Learn More

To read in greater depth and detail about lament with biblical examples and to see all the types of laments found in the Psalms, I invite you to go to the resource tab on my website (use link below) and purchase the article, “Rediscovering the Lost Art of Lament.”

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope that you will be helped and inspired by it.
David Oliver
[1] Accessed 3/4/21 [2] Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person. New York: New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995, 26 [3]Wardle, Terry. Writing a Lament. Lecture notes found in the Pastors of Excellence curriculum, retreat four. Ashland, OH: Sandberg Leadership Center, 2004, 20.

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