The Practice of Lament

Matthew Wilcoxen Part 3 of 13

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A Season of Lament

The world has entered into a time of acute trial. The death toll from the Coronavirus pandemic is mounting rapidly; the world’s economy is faltering; communities are broken and individuals isolated. It is a season of grief, but it is important that it also becomes a season of lament.

When one experiences loss, grief is inevitable. In St. Augustine’s terms, we are each a collection of loves that bind us to people, places, and practices. Whenever these bonds of love are severed, we grieve. Grief is not a choice; we are subject to it whether we like it or not.

Lament, by contrast, is the exercise of spiritual agency in the face of loss. As a spiritual practice lament seeks to incorporate the experience of loss into the broader story of the lives we live before God. Where grief threatens to shatter the coherence of our story, lament opens the heart once again to the possibility of a recovered sense of wholeness.

To lament is to join a long line of those who have wrestled with God in the midst of sorrow. The Psalter is the prayer book of the Bible. From antiquity it has served as a mold into which we can pour our molten selves. For this reason, the Psalter must be able to accommodate the full range of human experiences—and it especially must make room for experiences of human suffering through psalms of lament.

In the Bible the psalms of lament are more numerous than any other genre of psalm. These cries for help appear to us to be impious. They express bitter doubt. They blame God for evil. They are angry, impatient, and demanding. “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). Yet it is precisely as such that they are inspired, sanctioned for our use.

The psalms well up from the deepest recesses of each individual, but they are intended to be spoken and sung collectively. To be this honest in public, as a community, addresses directly what is often the most intolerable part of our suffering—the fact that we each tend to do it alone.

This practice of achieving true sorrow is only finally fulfilled in Christ himself. As Augustine and many others emphasize, the one speaking to God in the psalms is ultimately Jesus. To enter into the practice of lament is to participate in customs that join one’s suffering to the suffering of Christ and at the same time to enter into the hope of resurrection.

The scandalous mystery of Holy Week is that the invincible God suffers (to paraphrase Athanasius). The divine and human Christ himself experiences the feeling of abandonment as he takes upon himself the world’s plight. In what is the ultimate fulfillment of the practice of lament he takes upon his lips Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

Jesus’ cry of dereliction troubles us as we hear it and reflect upon it. Is God such that he abandons us? Has he abandoned those who are struggling for breath in overcrowded ICUs? Does he abandon those who are losing their livelihoods in this virus-induced economic catastrophe? If we answer these questions in the affirmative, the insurmountable difficulty comes when we seek to know the “why” of our suffering.

Christ’s entrance into the fullness of suffering and lamentation means, paradoxically, that God has not abandoned us. In Christ, God enters so fully into God-forsakenness that it ceases to be God-forsakenness. Christ’s cry of dereliction is itself the proclamation that God has chosen to be with us precisely in our darkest moments.

Lament, then, does not insult us by offering theoretical explanations of the problem of suffering. It does not compound our misery with a cheery optimism. Lament is no satisfying intellectual argument but rather is something that can only be experienced through the practices of prayer, which offer something far more powerful—the presence of the living God.

The greatest danger in suffering is not only in the physical pain—however real—that it produces. Rather, the greatest danger suffering poses to us is the way it threatens to strip our lives of meaning. Suffering can make of us powerless victims, destroying our sense of personal integrity and moral agency. However, by joining our experiences of suffering to those of Christ, suffering can become the ultimate site of meaning in our lives. As the Apostle Paul says: our suffering with Christ is the basis of our being glorified with him (Cf. Rom. 8:17).

The practice of lament is how we join our suffering to Christ’s. Lament is not merely complaining—though it certainly requires that. Lament is, in effect, the total abandonment of oneself to God. To lament is to express the depths of one’s pain before God and other Christians and to call upon God for help. In lament we, in effect, put God on the hook for deliverance. We declare that it is his honor and integrity that are at stake in the outcome of our suffering. We shift the burden of making meaning out of our suffering from ourselves, and we cast that care upon the God who cares for us.

How to Practice Lament

Pray aloud the Psalms of lament (e.g. 3, 6, 7, 13, 17, 22, 28, 31-32, 35, 42-43, 51, 52, 54). Allow these prayers to become your own. Use them to channel your own frustrations, disappointments, and sorrows into a posture of self-abandonment to God.

Write your own prayer of lament, using the following structure:

    1. An introductory address to God, naming his attributes, his relation to you (Father, Savior, etc.), and recalling his promises or past deeds on your behalf.
    2. A heartfelt complaint that describes the suffering you are seeing or experiencing in honest and vivid terms.
    3. A confession of trust, even if you don’t fully feel it.
    4. A prayer for deliverance and a statement of why God must do this for you. Appeal to his honor and his ultimate responsibility. Plead the merits of Christ.
    5. An expression of thanks that God has heard you and will answer you.

During this time of “social distancing,” gather virtually with a small group of trusted Christians for a time dedicated to lament. Using the structure of lament described immediately above, share the burden of lamenting together. Have each person supply their own address and lay out their complaint before God with full expression of their feelings. Then, allow the other people to provide the confessions of trust and prayers for deliverance on behalf of the complainant.

Matthew Wilcoxen is a priest and theologian at Church of the Resurrection in Washington, DC
Listen to all parts in this 12 Spiritual Practices for the Pandemic series