When I was younger, I didn’t understand the concept of lament. I believed that questioning God about my traumas was sinful. He is the great and powerful King of the universe! How dare I blame him for my itty bitty problems? There are others who have it much worse, after all. In fact, I thought that bringing complaints to God would only move Him to make it worse for me.

This view of God could not be further from the truth. Not only does He care about my troubles, but He is big enough to handle every emotion I can hurl at Him. Even further, He purposefully included in Scripture many accusations and emotionally-packed grievances against Him. By incorporating these dramatic expressions of grief, God is saying He doesn’t want us to suffer in silence; in fact, His Word models what it can look like to bring your stuff to the foot of His throne.

What is lament?

A professor once told me that “lament is faith’s answer to despair“. There’s a tension that exists between what you know and what you experience. You know that God is good, yet it feels like God is nowhere to be found. What do you do when you feel this way? You lament.

Psalms 6, 10, 22, and a multitude of others present a basic framework for lament; the longest biblical lament is the aptly named book of Lamentations. The ingredients of lament are:

  • Protest & Complain – Tell God what’s going on. Ask hard questions and explain where you’re at. Let your heart speak how you’re feeling. Allow yourself to get raw.
  • Request – Ask God to step in.
  • Express Trust – Affirm your loyalty and His authority. Praise Him for who He was yesterday, even if tomorrow feels hopeless.

At first, it can feel counterintuitive to complain and question God and in the same prayer recognize His sovereignty. Maybe the purest and most succinct lamentation was spoken by Jesus on the Cross, quoting Psalm 22:1.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Matthew 27:46

In these few words, Jesus encapsulates the tough questions brought on by anguish (why have you forsaken me) while acknowledging God’s kingship (My God).

Lamentations: A Promise Destroyed

The book of Lamentations is a series of five poems lamenting the destruction and siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire. This event was the most atrocious and catastrophic point in Israel’s history thus far. Jerusalem was the physical embodiment of God’s presence and promised land for His chosen people, so it is understandable why such a matter would produce extremely emotional outpourings from the nation.

The following is drawn from All the Bible: God’s Servants the Prophets.

The five poems of lament present different perspectives on the fall of the city, including those of an outside observer, of the city itself, and of those who suffer in its midst.

The first chapter draws upon prophetic comparisons of Jerusalem to a widow forsaken by her lovers and friends. Her possessions have been pawed over by her enemies (1:10), and her festivals have given way to famine. In v. 11 the poem switches to the perspective of the city itself, speaking in the first person. She calls out to God for relief, emphasizing her distress and anguish as being “trodden as in a wine press” by God. As often happens in lament psalms, the personified city finally asks for God to bring judgement on those who are glad at her trouble, saying, “Deal with them as you have dealt with me” (1:22; cf. 3:64-66).

The central cause of the city’s distress is God’s punishment for their sins, and several verses recognize the justice of their suffering (1:8, 18; 3:42; 4:11). However, the text also raises several issues that call God’s actions into question. It points out that their punishment has been severe (4:6) and asks whether it has been unjustly applied to the descendants of guilty ancestors (5:7). How guilty could the children be? However, they bear a disproportionate share of the city’s suffering (1:16; 2:19), with infants fainting from hunger in the streets (2:11-12).

How could the people have been expected to know better when their prophets have delivered to them “false and deceptive visions” (2:14)? Chapter 3 includes a section of confident affirmation of God’s mercy (3:22-33), saying that God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33). When terrible things happen, “does the Lord not see it?” (3:36). This pious expression of God’s justice, however, is called into question by the depth of Jerusalem’s pain resulting from God “killing without piety” (3:43).

The poetry compares God to any number of impersonal and destructive forces of nature. God has burned like a fire, raging in destructive acts of violence against Israel (2:2-3), and like bear or lion sitting in ambush (3:10). God has become “like an enemy” (2:5) and has driven the city into darkness; “against me alone he turns his hand, again and again all day long” (3:3). Theologically, the poems walk a fine line between affirming the justice of God’s punishment and the harsh possibility of God’s overreaction in sending judgement.

Either way, the description of the city’s suffering is brutally intense. Even if the people deserve wrath, their attackers are violent, wicked, and filled with mocking for God’s people (3:61). They experience great famine (1:11), even to the point where it is a form of compassion for a mother to cook and eat her own children (2:20).

The rhetorical purpose of this kind of lamentation is twofold: to provide a cathartic communal expression of grief and frustration and to ask God for assistance. As with lament psalms, the people hope that this intense description of pain and suffering will motivate God to show compassion and deliver them from their distress. At the same time, the people also confess their trust in God’s goodness and power (3:22-24). If God is powerful enough to save and good enough to care deeply for the people, then God is their best and only hope.

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Lamentations 3:22-24

The last stanza of Lamentations combines an affirmation of God’s sovereignty (“you, O Lord, reign forever,” 5:19) with an honest questioning (“Why have you forgotten us completely?” 5:20). The people hope that God will restore the city to its former greatness, but even in faith there remains a seed of doubt in the last line: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). In their distress, God’s final absence is a terrifying possibility, yet they still address God in prayer, expressing a desperate need for divine salvation.

Final thoughts

God can handle your questions and your anger. Today, it’s far too common to hear about an injustice that brings confusion, fear, and fatigue. Maybe it feels like God has been silent or is punishing you, your country, or the world. When you feel like you’ve run out of hope, let yourself process, wrestle, and lay it all down before Him.

Try it out: if a deep wound stirred in your Spirit while reading this post, take a second and give God your protest, request, and expression of trust.

Keep Reading

For a uniquely personal and conversational approach to the Word, add All the Bible to your library. This eight-volume series covers the whole Bible from a historical, cultural, theological, and human perspective. Rekindle your love of the biblical literature with this set today.

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