Learning to Lament: A Biblical Response to Pain

The New Year is off to a solid start. January has passed, February is here, and while some cherish Valentine’s Day, everyone can savor those chocolate sales, right? Winter will thaw soon. Whew!

I for one do not long for 2017. It was an intense year for me, with not a few bittersweet transitions and losses. My beautiful home of 22 years in Minnesota was put on the market. The low-level grief that snuck in with my decision to sell and move across the country kicked into high gear as the goodbyes and “last times” collected. During this same season of goodbyes, my mom approached death; I was with her as she died. Returning from the memorial to the overwhelming task of vacating my house piled physical exhaustion on top of the emotional avalanche of grief. Only with much help from many friends did I get through those tough last days.

But that was 2017. New year, new you...right?If only throwing away the calendar could take the grief and hurts of last year with it.

And while we try to let them go, the signs that they are still lodged in our souls are there. Anger spikes when you see that empty chair where the now estranged son used to lounge. Tears ambush as you open the bedroom closet and your wife’s surrender to cancer yanks you back. Your phone remains silent instead of singing out your bestie’s custom ringtone; how could politics come between you after all these years? Heartache rarely follows a convenient schedule.

What does grief crave? Lament.

It can be freeing to realize how many stories in scripture include earthy details about the anguish of loss, disillusionment, and grief. Throughout the vast collection of biblical books, written over many years, God inspired a number of authors to capture the human experience of pain. So we read that King David wept deeply at the death of his friend Jonathan; Joseph wailed so loudly as he was reunited with his brothers in Egypt that his entire household heard him; Hannah cried out to God repeatedly for a baby; Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet as he conveyed God’s own broken heart over Israel. Jesus publicly poured out his pain when Lazarus died. And the book of Psalms—the hymnal of ancient Israel—includes songs of praise, of petition, but also a number of psalms of lament that were used in times of crisis.

Lament is not a word we use much these days, but it is rich and expressive. Lament is not simply quietly feeling sad. Rather it also means using words and actions to get out all of the pain: saying it, crying out, loud weeping, sobbing, moaning, and wailing when mere words fail to thoroughly express the depths of it all, even bodily convulsing-prostrating-stomping-bowing-gnashing-shaking. Lament psalms were sometimes read by an individual in public worship, but were also set to music and intended for the gathered community to use. Crisis was faced together. Rituals were crafted and space was made to say out loud to each other and to God how bad it really was, and to seek God’s active response. It was healing space. Transforming.

Do you have places where you can say any and all of what is going on inside you with no filter? A relationship that is safe enough to let everything fly out with no fear of judgment or fixing? Can you gift yourself with that safety by hushing your internal critic and mercifully relaxing all the “shoulds”?

If not, learning to lament may be of special importance for you.

Learning to Lament

Read Psalm 80 as an example of a psalm of lament. Notice the colorful metaphors for deep grief and suffering: eating the bread of tears, being mocked by enemies, feeling unprotected and exposed to abuse, being a vine that is cut down and burned. Throughout this psalm is a repeated cry for God to restore his people. The psalmist chose titles for God that show trust and dependence such as Shepherd and Lord God of Hosts.

Craft your own lament. Putting words to your experience can bring release and relief in surprising ways. You don’t have to be a practiced writer or gifted composer. Here are some common elements you can experiment with:

  • Addressing God with a cry for help

  • Complaining to God, describing the problem, sometimes asking questions of God, and condemning the enemy. “Where were you God??” is a fair and good question.

  • Reminders of what God has done in the past, proclamations of trust in God, his power to save, his faithfulness and love

  • Specific pleas for God to intervene

  • Commitment to trust, praise, and worship God

A word about structure: Resist the temptation to view these elements of lament as sequential steps that must be accomplished one at a time before proceeding to the next. The Psalms were read regularly, publicly, washing over the people like rain. Everything a Psalm expressed was true all at the same time: faith, doubt, hurt, hope. The space of tensions, of in-betweens and both/ands, is where the Spirit tenderly dwells. And heals. It doesn’t have to be neat and tidy.

A word about words: They are powerful. Personal. And hard to come up with to capture something as primal as grief. So give yourself permission to play, create, mess around with the limits of language, break rules. For inspiration, here’s a lovely website to juice up your words workbench: The Language of Grief.

Don’t lament alone. Companionship is vital to healing grief. Don’t walk this path alone. Find someone who’s been there a few times to gently accompany your heart: a friend, a pastor, a spiritual director, therapist, grandparent. Someone who can listen well. Is there someone with whom you might share your personal lament psalm?

Finally, give it time. Will 2018 be better than 2017? Absolutely. In some ways. Will it be the same, no better, carrying chronic aches? Perhaps… But honest, active lament can by itself provoke healing and growth. It has for me: Creative lament has helped me cherish Mom, my house, my Minnesota life. It has brought closure, calm, and surprising energy for the next chapter.


Angelie Ryah is a spiritual director and coach on the ChurchNEXT ReNew Team, a CRM ministry working to strengthen the souls of spiritual leaders so they can thrive in every season of life and ministry. In 2017 she sold her home of 22 years in St. Paul, MN, said goodbye to her dear church and community, and lost her mom, all within three months. Griefwork is a sacred practice and adventure for her. She now lives in San Diego and is enjoying the 80 degree temperature difference.