The Ancient Practice of Lament


The Ancient Practice of Lament

The topic of violence against women is in the spotlight again.  Not because there was an increase in statistics, but the prominence of the cases took the spotlight and forced people to engage.  National discourse shifted and story after story of violence against women and children surfaced.  For some who more aware of this devastating scourge on our society may have been asking “this has been going on like this for ages, why are you only noticing now?”  For others, the headlines, the protests and the conversations have brought an awareness to the topic: how widespread it is, how broken the system is and how much fear really is in the hearts of women.  Marches, social media, brave women telling their stories – all of this has helped many to moved from statistics being numbers to being people, with inherent dignity, honour and bearing the image of God. 


As one engages with this, there is a great risk of not processing powerful emotions well.  There may be rage, hurt, disappointment, grief, guilt, hopelessness and a general sense of being overwhelmed.  Being unable to process these strong emotions can leave one crushed by them, or trying to minimize them to just ‘get on with life’.  These emotions are not sinful, but believers are not to be governed by them.  So, what do we do with them? 

The Biblical lament 

In the Psalms and the prophets, we read many laments.  Somewhere between one third and one half of the Psalms are laments.  It is almost like God has given us a template of how to complain, to vent, to process, to pour out our hearts, to bring our whole selves to him.  You may feel that you have to ‘leave your baggage at the door’ in order to worship him, that only people ‘on the mountaintop can truly worship’.  Laments teach us that these deep and powerful emotions, the valleys we are in, are actually not disqualifiers to pray, to worship and to meet with God.  Instead, it is in the valley that the deepest praise is found. 

The ancient practice breathes life in us today 

In Western evangelicalism there is a deficit of lamenting.  There is a desire to focus only on the positive, to look forward, to be triumphant.  And so, there is no space to cry out to God from the place of pain, to process real life.  Strong negative emotions are frowned upon, because ‘we are more than conquerors’, right?  If that was the case, then Jesus would not have quoted a lament Psalm from the cross: “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22 that Jesus quotes from the cross in Matthew 27:46).  The perfect Son of God used a lament Psalm.  I can too. 

The biblical lament is transformative in nature and breathes life into the lamenter: 

  1. It allows you to pour out your heart to God, unfiltered.  God is not afraid of what you are feeling.  Do not bottle up what you are experiencing or thinking.  He knows what is going on inside you already – this is you wrapping words around your experiences and feelings. 
  2. It directs your emotions towards God, not towards yourself or others.   
  3. It takes your heart on a journey – not to only focus on the ‘valley’ 
  4. By focusing on God, you are no longer at the centre, but positioned within his story 
  5. It does not change the situation, but the very process helps you to have a different posture in the situation as you endure with hope 

How do I write a lament? 

There are three basic parts to a biblical lament.  The order may be different, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s use Psalm 13 as a template: 

Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 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?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
 light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have 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. 

The parts of a Biblical lament: 

vv1-2 is all about the trouble, the pain, the distress, the injustice.  It is what is being experienced or observed.  Many times there is a list of the grievances, describing what is going on.  This is often the easiest to write.   

vv3-4is the request that is made of God, based on the experience of the person suffering, or grappling with the suffering of someone else.  It is asking God to move, to act, to take action in the midst of the experience above.   

vv5-6: the final part of laments focus on reminder of God’s character, his promises, his past actionsThis process of looking at God’s character is hard to do in the valley and, many times, these declarations or reminders are aimed at our own heart.  

The pen is in your hand 

Reading the laments of others can be helpful to give words to what may be inside your heart and mind.  Reading the laments in scripture (read Psalm 10 with current reality of South Africa in mind) can reveal how someone in the depths of pain can turn to God.  Ultimately the power of the lament lies in writing it.  It isn’t about ‘getting it right’ or having something that someone else will even read.  It is about processing what is going on inside you in the direction of your Heavenly Father.   

However you are engaging with the topic of violence against women, can we encourage you to pick up a pen and lament with your God?  You will find His comfort as you do this. 

Other links  

Lament – by Sue Ryan (Common Ground Church Bosch AM)

 Prayers of Lament



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