This week I welcome guest blogger, Clint Watkins, as he shares with us how his personal experience of loss and pain led him to learn how to seize hope through lament. If you want to learn more about Clint, please visit his website.
As we conclude our study of Psalm 77, did you notice that we skipped a part of this Psalm? In our previous posts, we learned how Asaph teaches us that when we are struggling with loss and pain, we can seize hope through lament by weeping, wrestling, wondering and waiting. But there one more step we skipped, a step that’s crucial to our understanding of lament. We skipped the inscription before verse 1:
“For the director of music. For Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A psalm.”
This is not a journal entry, not a private prayer—this is a song. And this song was intended for use in corporate worship. Think about that. Not just the more hopeful part at the end. This entire Psalm, including the pain and questioning, was on the greatest hits of Israel’s worship.
The fact that this is a song is not unique to Psalm 77. This is the nature of the Psalms as a whole. They were not primarily written for devotional use. Though they can help our individual relationships with the Lord, their original function was for corporate worship. That’s why many refer to the Psalms as the “hymnbook” of God’s people. And using the Psalms in this way extends to the church. Paul tells Christians to sing the Psalms when they gather. In other words, the Psalms should be instrumental in shaping the way we pray and sing, together.
Now, at one level, this probably isn’t revolutionary to hear. We use Psalms all the time in our songs and worship. “Bless the Lord O My Soul” is a good example. Or there’s a song, “The Earth is Yours,” that takes one of its lines from verse 16. But what I’ve found is that we’re very selective about which parts of Psalms we use in worship. Can you guess what our tendency is? We only use the happy parts! Often the pain, wrestling, questions, struggle—they get left behind.
In other words, we’ll happily take portions from the second half of Psalm 77, but the questioning, the crying, the part about God not bringing comfort—we won’t include that in our lyrics.
Here’s why this is concerning. Lament is the largest category of Psalms. Lament accounts for well over a third of them. 68 out of 150 psalms are prayers out of pain. That means 1 out of every 3 songs in God’s hymnbook was a prayer in pain. 1 out of 3 songs are filled with lyrics of despair and doubt, wrestling and struggle.
So that shows us that lament is not something we do in order to worship. Lament is worship. God gave us these words as a template for how to sing to him together. Worship is meant to involve the whole breadth and depth of human emotion and experience—sorrow and celebration, heartache and happiness, grief and gratitude, confidence and confusion. God invites us to bring him both our praises and our pain when we gather. Both honor the Lord.
And lament’s prevalence in Biblical worship shows us that lament should be a regular rhythm in the body of Christ. If 1 out of 3 songs is a lament, if lament is the largest category in the Psalter, we should be concerned that it’s virtually disappeared from use. We need to recover this gift, to sing about sorrow together, in order to worship with the honesty that God permits, in order to wrestle for the hope that God provides.
There are many reasons why lamenting regularly together can be powerful, but let me just end by giving you two.
Lament unifies the rejoicing and weeping. On any given Sunday, people are walking into the sanctuary with burdens and struggles. You can use Psalm 77 as an example.
- There are people here who are verses 1-9 people. Struggling, in pain, wrestling with God, working through difficult questions
- There are people here who are verses 10-20 people. You’re reflecting on God’s character and goodness, lingering and wondering and waiting.
- And, honestly, I think we’re all typically a mixture of the two.
But if our tone and posture and lyrics only speak for verses 10-20 people, it excludes the people who are weighed down. In fact, this was my experience, and I have heard this time and time again from others—they feel like there’s no song for their sorrow. An excess of triumphant choruses can leave sufferers feeling defeated. Paul tells the church to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep. He also says that, in the body, if one member is honored, everyone celebrates. And if one member suffers, everyone hurts. Praise allows us to rejoice with each other. Lament allows us to weep with each other.
My challenge to you is to incorporate lament in the way you worship together. This ought to be a regular experience—and the more you do it, the more normal it will become. Worship leaders can include songs that capture the heart of lament—it gives voice to the people who are hurting.
It may feel uncomfortable at first to sing lament together. But sorrow belongs in the sanctuary. Think about it: It shouldn’t feel weird to worship the way people do in the Bible. And you will find that singing about both sadness and joy will deepen your relationship with the Lord and each other.
Lament deepens our compassion. Lament offers us a powerful tool to minister to others.
Have you ever felt like you don’t know what to say when someone is struggling? So often we stumble through sentences to offer some sort of comfort. Or, out of fear of saying something hurtful, we keep our distance. But lament provides another way. Instead of trying to say something profound, and instead of being silent, use lament as a framework to listen to others.
If you have trust with someone who is struggling, help them do what Asaph did. Invite them to describe their despair. Give them to space to voice the doubts they’re struggling with. Don’t try to fix them, don’t try to answer their questions, don’t push them to the second half before they’re ready. Just listen. And then, use the framework for lament to pray for them and with them. Share in their despair and their doubts, and recall God’s rescue and linger in redemption with them as they wait.
Suffering and loss can be so unbelievably lonely. But there is something powerful when others make your pain their own. This is what lament allows us to do—we cry out to the Lord together, wrestling with the Lord in our pain, and making others’ pain our own. We cry out together as God moves us toward hope.
At our son’s memorial service, we made sure to spend time lamenting together. Psalm 44 is another lament, full of pain and unsettling questions. We included it in Eli’s service because it gave voice to our grief. But we didn’t just have someone read it at Eli’s service—we had the whole congregation read it together. I can’t tell you how powerful it was to hear other people cry out with us and for us. They shared our pain and our grief and cried out to the Lord with us.
This is the power of lament. We weep, we wrestle, we wonder, and we wait—and share each other’s pain as we cry out to the Lord in worship.
If you’re hurting today, if you are grieving, if you are wrestling with the Lord—know that he welcomes your cries and your sorrow. And if you’re not struggling, cry out for people who are.