The Power of Lament

John Perkins  and Karen Waddles
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Maybe that’s your question too. “Why, God? Why did this terrible thing happen to me?” That why comes from the depths of the soul and is a lament. I’m grateful that God allows us to ask why. We don’t have to pray pretty prayers when we are suffering. We don’t have to cross all the “t’s” and dot all the “i’s” when we are in agony. We don’t have to pray theologically correct prayers when we are hurting. We can just cry out! Pain and agony ask the question, “Why? Why am I suffering like this?”

When I’m in deep pain I cry out, “God, have mercy on me!” And He hears my feeble cry. That’s really what lament is. It’s crying out to God, and there’s something about a child of God crying out to his heavenly Father that gets His attention.

In Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop defines lament as “a prayer in pain that leads to trust. . . . Lament is the historic biblical prayer language of Christians in pain. It’s the voice of God’s people while living in a broken world.”

More than one-third of the psalms are devoted to lament. And the book of Lamentations is full of Jeremiah pouring out his heart to God in lament. I remember Spencer saying, “You play ‘Amazing Grace’ on the black keys, and you play it to the tune of the sound of the groan of the dying slaves.” I think that’s what they call the minor keys. They tug at your soul. Lament tugs at your soul. It goes deep into the reservoir of pain.

“We don’t have to act like we’re strong when we’re falling apart.”

When the psalm writers would pour out their lament they began with their complaint. They did what Job did. They cried out to God, they made their requests of Him . . . but they always ended with praise or a word of trust. Job did that in his lament:

“I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.”
(Job 19:25–27)

I think maybe the church has got it wrong. We need to make room for lament. We need to let people know that God allows us to lament. We don’t have to act like we’re strong when we’re falling apart. In Gary Smalley and John Trent’s The Blessing, they have an entire chapter devoted to the idea that the church needs to be a place where we can take our hurts. They begin the chapter with a poem titled, “If This Is Not the Place.” It asks the question, if the church is not the place where we can go to cry when we hurt, then where can we go? And it challenges the notion that you have to always be smiling and have your happy face on. Life is hard. And it becomes harder when we don’t have safe places to share our grief and our struggles without being made to feel like we’re not strong enough. We need a place where we can hurt together, cry together, heal together. I think that place should be the church.

In This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, K. J. Ramsey says, “The tacit message in our churches, culture, and relationships is this: success is public; suffering is private. We see so little of each other’s insides that we come to believe we might be the only ones suffering. We hide our wounds behind bandages of our own making while wondering if the hard things lingering in our lives somehow delineate between who belongs to God’s family and who doesn’t. Hiding and hurting, we become divorced from hope and detached from joy.” We’ve got to find a way to give space to our cries and our hurts when we come together as the body of Christ.

He Answers With Himself

It reveals a lot about God that He allowed Job thirty-four of the forty-two chapters to lament and wrestle with God and his friends before He finally spoke into the conversation. God makes room for our lament, for our questions, for our heartache. I love that He came to Job. He let him hang out there for a while, but He finally came. And He actually engaged in a dialogue with Job!

The Creator of the universe gave Job the privilege of having a one-on-one conversation with Him. He came to Job. And to his question of why . . . God filled that space with Himself. He didn’t explain anything to Job about His conversation with Satan and His offering Job as a worthy target. Nothing. Silence. And for much of life it’s like that. There is no answer that will suffice for why a child is born with a deformity. There is no answer that will do for why a family is murdered by an intruder. No answer that will suffice for why cancer comes back again, destroying what was left from before. There is only the answer that He provided to Job: “Here I AM.” And what we, like Job, are left with is the question that Helen Roseveare wrestled with:

Helen Roseveare, a British medical missionary in the Congo uprising when the Mau-Mau revolutionaries invaded, was attacked. This godly, gracious, woman of God was raped, assaulted, humiliated, hanging on with her life to a faith that would not be shaken. While recovering from that horrible event, Helen and the Lord grew closer together than they had ever been before. In her pain, she felt his presence and sensed him asking her: “Can you thank Me for trusting you with this experience, even if I never tell you why?”[1]

At first, she wasn’t sure that she could ever thank Him for her experience, but one word was riveted in her heart: privilege. She had been given the privilege of suffering. God had entrusted her with a special, and very difficult—almost unthinkable—type of suffering. Like Job, she was given the privilege of suffering. I have been given the privilege of suffering. If you’re reading this book you probably have been given that privilege too.

That’s a paradox, isn’t it? That anyone would consider suffering a privilege. We’ll talk about that more in the coming chapters. But for now, let’s rivet our hearts to the truth that God doesn’t always answer the why in our hearts. And that’s probably for the best. I’m not sure any answer would ease the pain of the death of a loved spouse or betrayal by a close, intimate friend. No answer would make the suffering of infertility or moral failure any less.

In that huge space of unanswered questions for Helen Roseveare, for Job, for me, and for you, God offers Himself. He is there. He is present. The God who knows about suffering is there. The God who loves me—He is there. He is there with awesome power to keep me. He is there. The old preacher used to say, “He’s my everything. He’s water in dry places. He’s bread in a starving land. He’s a doctor in a sickroom ,a lawyer in a courtroom. He’s my everything.” He’s there filling the void when I don’t understand why. He is enough. He’s more than enough . . . and that’s joy!

[1] Helen Roseveare, quoted in Charles Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), 245.

For Further Reading:

Count It All Joy

by John Perkins with Karen Waddles

Can joy come from suffering? We think of suffering as the worst of all evils. Our culture tells us to avoid it at all costs. But can suffering...

book cover for Count It All Joy