Learning to Lament — Part 1

In the next series of posts, I’ll be sharing an essay I wrote several years ago about biblical lament. I recently taught on this subject again and, upon revisiting this essay, thought it would be worth sharing here. That being said, since I wrote this an excellent book on this topic was released by Mark Vroegop entitled Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament. I highly recommend it if you want to delve more into the concept of lament and its usefulness in the Christian life.

Learning to Lament from the Bible

As one becomes a student of the Bible, it is readily apparent that much of the narratives, accounts, and content of the Scriptures revolve around how life is difficult and how things are typically not the way they are supposed to be. Over and over again in God’s Word there are accounts of atrocities, disappointment, acute pain and anguish, suffering as a result of sin, and sometimes suffering for seemingly no reason at all. Brokenness and learning to respond to it is an integral part of the biblical story. In addition to the Bible’s take on the nature of life in the world, one’s own experience in the world serves to confirm the existence of the same tragedies, sorrow, and personal duplicity. The different types of brokenness that the Bible speaks of are found on the nightly news as well as in each person’s own life to some degree. Life is fraught with physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain, isolation, and struggle. The question is not about the reality of this experience, but rather how should one respond to the reality of a fractured human existence and experience.

While modern culture might suggest trying harder, mustering up positive thoughts, or avoiding one’s problems, God suggests a better way.  God teaches humanity the way of lament. Throughout the book of the Psalms as well as in other parts of the Old Testament (i.e. Lamentations, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and several of the minor prophets) and Jesus’s own ministry (i.e. Jesus’s “woes” – Matt. 11:21, 18:7, 23:13-29), the appropriateness of lament is affirmed and a pattern of lament is given.  Lament is not man’s natural response to brokenness, thus it must be learned. Ultimately, when life is not as it should be, the people of God are taught to lament – to bring their complaints before their sovereign, covenant-keeping God and to look to him for deliverance.  This series of blog posts intend to explore the biblical genre of lament as well as expound a psalm of lament, Psalm 42-43[1] to demonstrate the usefulness of lament in a particular instance of personal brokenness.

[1] While these are considered as two psalms in most Bibles, it will be explained shortly why they will be examined as a single psalm.

Why Lament Songs?

As has been briefly mentioned, lament is God’s prescribed response to one’s experience of sin – either one’s own sin or another’s – and one’s experience of a broken, hostile world.  While this point may be agreed upon, the question still remains: does lamenting really do anything?  Furthermore, there is the question: why should one sing or pray a lament? In their book, The Cry of the Soul, counselor Dan Allender and Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman refer to a person’s emotions as “the cry of the soul.”  They continue, “[Our emotions] expose what we are doing with the sorrow of life and in turn reveal what our heart is doing with God.” [1]  In an experience of sin or brokenness, emotions rage like a storm within an individual’s heart.  These emotions, and their expression, are revelatory – showing the character of one’s relationship with God and one’s view of the world.  

Lament is intended to be a healthy, human way to process these emotions while supported by a biblical view of God, life, and God’s covenant promises.  Allender and Longman go on to suggest the Psalms as a channel of godly emotional expression, referring to them as “the voice of the soul.”  The Psalms speak with a variety of voices: a disrupting voice – against one’s denial and depravity, an inviting voice – to personal hurt and to rage, and a revealing voice of God’s heart for His people.[2]  Furthermore, the Psalms, as poetry put to song, “[take a composition] much further into the heart than merely reading it aloud” and actually serves to shape the hearts of those who sing it when paired with faith in God.[3]  Thus, lament songs are a powerful way of expressing the emotions that accompany the darker experiences of life in a broken world.  Lamenting is an essential practice in any day and yet, there are several reasons why it is particularly both unlearned and needed today.

[1] Allender, Dan B., and Tremper Longman III. The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God.(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 13.

[2] Ibid. 13-22.

[3] Collins, C. John. “Always Alleluia: Reclaiming the True Purpose of the Psalms in the Old Testament Context.” In Forgotten Songs:Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship, edited by C. Richard Wells and Ray Van Neste, 17-34. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 29.

The Modern Need for Lament

In a fascinating blog post, Christian philosopher, James K.A. Smith exposes why lament is a lost practice in modern culture and why there is a great need for lament, starting with the Church as its worship.  Smith’s reflections on lament begin with his experience of listening to a retuned version of a wildly famous pop album in 2015 – Taylor Swift’s 1989.  Another artist, Ryan Adams, remade Swift’s infectious album with a different sonic approach – one that Smith argues was more honest about the “lyrical world of heartbreak, disappointment, and despair” embedded in Swift’s art.[1]  Ultimately, Smith discovered that “Adams’ cover tells the truth about the music, and thus tells the truth about a sad, broken world by redeploying Swift’s lyrical honesty in a sonic environment that fits.”[2]  What Swift had done, possibly inadvertently, is pair lyrics of lament with hymn-like music.  While her lyrics were honest and true to her experience, the sound wasn’t true.

            Digging deeper, Smith found that what he discovered in Taylor Swift’s sonic dishonesty had applications for Christian worship and living.  He continues:

“We live, you might say, in a major chord culture.  We live in a society that wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat, tunes we can dance to.  We live for the ‘hook,’ that turn that makes it all OK, that lets us shake it off and distract ourselves to death.  And this cultural penchant for a certain sonic grammar seeps into the church and the church’s worship, so that we want songs and hymns and spiritual songs that do the same…

But then a Ryan Adams comes along and takes you back to lament, and reminds you of all the minor chord moments in the biblical narrative, and invites you into a sonic environment that actually tells the truth about the broken world you live in, and that your neighbors live in…

Worship should be a proclamation that tells the truth, not just lyrically, but sonically.  And that means music that resonates with broken hearts.”[3]

James K.A. Smith’s analysis of Swift & Adams

Smith’s perceptive analysis of both Swift and Adams’ music certainly exposes modern culture’s unfamiliarity with the practice of lament as well as its need for the honest expression that lament provides as poetic and musical form.  Lament is needed for the Church, as forerunners and instructors in lament, to speak honestly about much of the stuff of life – the darker side of the human experience.  People need minor chord music for minor chord moments.  If all of the Church’s poetic and musical expression is major chord, then the Church is lying about a large portion of life and has little to say to the broken hearted.  Lament is not only prescribed by God, but it is also desperately needed today.  That being said, the shape of biblical lament must understood if it is to be properly practiced by the Church and ultimately so that it can provide a voice for moments of pain and brokenness that all inevitably and repeatedly experience in life.

[1] Smith, James K.A. Liturgical Lessons from Ryan Adams’ 1989. September 25, 2015. http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/2015/09/liturgical-lessons-from-ryan-adams-1989.html

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

3 Comments on “Learning to Lament — Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Learning to Lament — Part 2 | Moment-By-Moment

  2. Pingback: Learning to Lament — Part 3 | Moment-By-Moment

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