The Hidden Hope in Lament

By Dan Allender

Copyright © 1994 Mars Hill Review 1 Founded in 1994 · Premier Issue: pgs 25-38.

The worship leader mounted the platform. In a booming voice, he announced the hymn. He gazed intently at the audience, a smile crossed his face, and he exhorted: "Sing it like you mean it. There is no room in this church for sad faces when you are loved by the Lord. If you are a Christian, let me hear you sing with enthusiasm."

We began falteringly and with his swinging arms, intense grin, and demanding eyes he worked the crowd until the hymn was sung with "conviction." I stumbled over the words of a great hymn:

1. O safe to the Rock that is higher than I, My soul in its conflicts and sorrows would fly; So sinful, so weary, Thine, Thine would I be; Thou blest Rock of Ages, I'm hiding in Thee.

2. In the calm of the noon-tide, in sorrow's lone hour, In times when temptation casts o'er me its pow'r; In the tempests of life, on its wide, heaving sea, Thou blest Rock of Ages, I'm hiding in Thee.

3. How oft in the conflict, when pressed by the foe, I have fled to my Refuge and breathed out my woe; How often, when trials like sea billows roll, Have I hidden in Thee, O Thou Rock of my soul. (Hiding in Thee){1}

I wondered how many caught the disparity between what was sung and how we were singing it. I felt relief in acknowledging conflict, sorrow, sin, loneliness, tempest, enemies, woe, and trials, but we seemed to bounce over both the sorrow and the hope with a mood of exuberant, smiling enthusiasm.

Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low-esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair; failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy.

Consider how many times you have heard another person encourage a struggling believer (perhaps, you): "It doesn't help to get upset, you simply need to trust the Lord." The assumption is that trust precludes struggle; faith erases doubt; hope removes despair. Therefore, lament is unnecessary if one trusts, loves, and obeys God.

Sadly, we have misunderstood the great value of public and private lament. To lament-that is to cry out to God with our doubts, our incriminations of him and others, to bring a complaint against him-is the context for surrender. Surrender-the turning of our heart over to him, asking for mercy, and receiving his terms for restoration is-impossible without battle. To put it simply, it is inconceivable to surrender to God unless there is a prior, declared war against him.

Christians often assume our conflict with God was finished when we converted. At that point, we were enemies of God-indeed, we were and it was a great battle. But the battle is not over with conversion-though it is the decisive victory that assures the outcome of the war, it is hardly the last and final fight.

Sanctification is a lifetime process of surrendering as more and more intense conflicts with God and others expose and dissolve our urgent preoccupation with the self. A lament is the battle cry against God that paradoxically voices a heart of desire and ironic faith in his goodness.

It is my premise we must learn to lament in worship and prayer, both publicly and privately if our passion for God is to grow. Further, if we wish to invite a dying culture-that flirts with knowing life is neither easy, nor good to consider the gospel, then we must learn to sing songs that face life with both honesty and hope. We need to learn to lament. We will consider the language of lament and the place for lament-the community of God.

The Language of Lament

One place to read and enter the language of lament is in the psalms. Many psalms reflect the struggle of the people of God to comprehend the vicissitudes of their lives in light of God's promise to protect and sustain. What were they to do with God's promises when their forces were devastated in a battle? How were they to trust God when he promised-"If you make the Most High your dwelling- even the LORD, who is my refuge- then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent" (Psalm 91:9-10)? The data of life then and now seems to invite us to doubt rather than to rest in confidence. The psalms tackle this discrepancy of promise and lived reality with forthrightness and a depth of emotion that unnerves us. One person told me: "I can't read the angry psalms-they make it harder, not easier to trust God. I feel like I am doing little more than complaining. And isn't complaining condemned?" The scriptures do condemn grumbling (1 Corinthians 10:15). How are we to read the "complaint" psalms without grumbling?

It is crucial to comprehend a lament is as far from complaining or grumbling as a search is from aimless wandering. A grumbler has already reached a conclusion, shut down all desire and postures with questions that are barely concealed accusations. For example, the husband who says: "You never have time for me. You can talk with your friends till all hours of the night, but I ask you to sit with me and you're too busy. Do you want this marriage to work or not?" His words may at first sound like lament, but it is not. His grumbling is defensive, hard, and attacks without asking.

A person who laments may sound like a grumbler-both vocalize anguish, anger, and confusion. But a lament involves even deeper emotion because a lament is truly asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. It is passion to ask, rather than to rant and rave with already reached conclusions. A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God.

Before looking at the psalms, recall the poetry of the psalms were the hymns of the people of God. It was their song book; it was what they sang in the temple at their worship services. The psalms are often thought to be the private poetry of people who struggled with God rather than songs sung in public worship. God intends for lament to be part of worship; and he intends for it to be done in community.

The Cry of Pain

Lament is a cry of agony. It is the cry of How Long, O Lord? Listen to the cry of suffering and how it propels the psalmist to struggle with God.

O LORD God Almighty, how long will your anger
  smolder against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
  you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us a source of contention to our
  neighbors, and our enemies mock us.
(Psalm 80:4-6)

The psalmist has been made to eat and drink sorrow. The source of the pain is not God, but the mockery of neighbors and enemies. Yet, it is God who is "behind" all suffering-shaping its form and orchestrating its direction.

The psalmist compares the people of God to a vine that God dug out of the soil of Egypt and then replanted in the promised land. He cleared the ground and nourished the vineyard. With all that care, the psalmist questions God: "Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?" (Psalm 80:12). Why have you built us up, cared for us, and now allow us to be broken in pieces?

Radical pain is required before we are prone to surrender to his goodness. The pain and the struggle are not to be glorified, but it seems to be provoked by God; therefore, it is part of the process of our transformation.

We struggle with him in order to comprehend why he remains silent when we want him to speak, abandons us when we want his protection, and attacks us when we want his comfort.

The cry of pain is our deepest acknowledgment-we are not home. We are divided from our own body; our own deepest desires; our dearest relationships. We are separated and long for utter restoration. It is the cry of pain that initiates the search to ask God, What are you doing? The cry of pain also reveals our heart of anger.

The Cry of Anger

Deeply embedded in our cry is the assumption: "If you loved me, you would take away this agony." If pain initiates the search, then anger clarifies what we are most deeply demanding-relief.

Listen to the radical words of Psalm 44:

You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
   and have scattered us among the nations.
You sold your people for a pittance,
   gaining nothing from their sale.
You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
   the scorn and derision of those around us. (verses 11-13)

All this happened to us,
   though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
  our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals
  and covered us over with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
  or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
  since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
  we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
   Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
   and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
   our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
   redeem us because of your unfailing love. (verses 17-26)

The psalmist is not happy with God. He has abandoned his people; he has betrayed them-foolishly selling them and not even for a profit. And they have done nothing to deserve his assault. It is a shocking series of accusations, but when the psalmist states his innocence and even challenges God's omniscience, one wonders if this psalm should have been included in the Bible.

This psalm is not an isolated expression of anger, though it is one of the most audacious. David tells God: Would you please get out of my face, so I can be happy again (Psalm 39:13). Another psalmist tells God that in comparison to being with him, "Darkness is my only friend" (Psalm 88: 18).

This kind of anger is not merely a brash assault-an adolescent swagger that enjoys taking on the big guy. It is far more serious. It is a cry that ease, even relief is not enough-far more, it is the cry of the soul that says: "I must have a new perspective, or I will die. I would rather face your wrath than exist in this agony with no more perspective than I have now." Anger in lament reveals the utter seriousness of the cry. Not all anger at God is good, but an anger that moves the heart to confusion, to feeling trapped between our belief in him and our movement away from him, opens the heart to redemption.

Cry of Confusion

Pain propels the search; anger makes the search a matter of life and death; and confusion opens the heart to God's answer(s). Psalm 77 provides a good example of the confusion in lament. The tone and content of the psalm allow us to see the pain and the implicit anger. It also reveals a heart struggling with confusion.

I cried out to God for help;
   I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
  at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.
  I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.
  You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
  I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
  I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:

"Will the Lord reject forever?
   Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
   Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
   Has he in anger withheld his compassion?" (verses 1-9)

First, note that this is a lament directed most pointedly toward God. As he remembers God, he groans: It is God who keeps him from sleeping. It is God who torments him. It is God who has abandoned him and left him to twist and turn in agony at night. He remembers God and his pain gets worse. We may expect the psalmist to remember God and be comforted, but this is not the case. Why?

Long ago, God had promised to be with his people in a covenant relationship. That meant he would protect them and watch over them. He had promised to show them "favor," "unfailing love," to be "merciful," and keep his "promise." The psalmist confronts God here and demands to known whether he is a liar. In the midst of his pain, he looks at his situation and wonders if God has reneged on his promises to him.

But this seems impossible. He can't deny his agony. And he can't deny his God. He is caught in the vortex of anger and faith. He is confused and so he returns to the central act of salvation in the Old Testament-the Exodus.

Then I thought, "To this I will appeal:
   the years of the right hand of the Most High."
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
  yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works
   and consider all your mighty deeds. (verses 10-12)

The waters saw you, O God,
   the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
  The clouds poured down water,
the skies resounded with thunder;
  your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
   your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
  Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
   though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock
   by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (verses 16-20)

The psalmist ends the song with no reflection on his struggle. Did he finish the psalm confident and restful once he remembered the Exodus? Or did his reflections in fact cause more confusion-If he saved his people then, why does he not do so now?

The psalm is left with a purposefully ambiguous conclusion. Confusion does not end; the battle is not over. But confusion-experienced in the middle of asking tough questions opens the door to a new perspective. And the perspective is glimpsed in recalling God's way of redemption.

If one wants redemption, it will not be in comfort, nor ease-it will be in the darkest moments of disaster. He does not offer redemption to those who are well or to those who live in light. Redemption comes when nothing else will do.

And it comes with a force and a fury that is terrifying. The psalm concludes with a frightening picture of rescue-God redeems, but it is in the midst of a mighty, terrifying cataclysm-in the midst of thunder, lightening, and convulsion. His redemption not only rescues, but it takes our breath away. What is God's response to our lament? It is an odd, startling response.

God's Response to Lament

Lament enters the agony of loss-far more it asks, what are you doing God? It is this element of a lament that has the potential to change the heart. Lament is a search-a declaration of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor an arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.

A lament is the energy to move toward the darkness of heart-rending sorrow that does not make sense and even worse seems to be a contradiction of God's love for us. Nothing moves the heart more than apparently meaningless pain-it either leads to the hardness of saccharine piety or condescending disbelief, or it compels a search to comprehend the heart of a God who would send his son to die.

The language of lament is oddly the shadow side of faith. To whom do you vocalize the most intense, irrational-meaning inchoate, inarticulate anger? Would you do so with someone who could fire you or cast you out of a cherished position or relationship? Not likely. You don't trust them-you don't believe they would endure the depths of your disappointment, confusion. And so the lament is never sung together, nor the anger ever addressed for fear that consequences would occur that are more devastating than the potential joy of reconciliation.

The person who hears your lament and far more bears your lament against them, paradoxically, is someone you deeply, wildly trust. It is the paradox that opens the heart to unfathomable rest. To sing a lament against God in worship reveals far, far greater trust than to sing a jingle about how happy we are and how much we trust him. That kind of song is much like the smiling salesman who meets you with a "Hey, how are ya. You're looking good today; how can I help ya." Lament cuts through insincerity, strips pretense, and reveals the raw nerve of trust that angrily approaches the throne of grace and then kneels in awed, robust wonder.

The cry of lament is never answered-it is confounded. God does not rationalize, he does not stoop to answer, he responds by wailing in the pangs of childbirth-crying, gasping, and panting (Isaiah 42:14). He cries out through his son: My God, My God why has thou forsaken me?

The Old Testament is filled with lament-Psalms, prophetic literature, the book of Lamentations. But the New Testament is filled, even more loudly, with one lament-the cry of God in anguish, doubt, and search. It is the inconceivable cry that does not silence our lament, but focuses it on a God of such wrath, and such mercy-and such passion for his glory and our reconciliation that he is willing to go to the most incomprehensible lengths to win us to his heart. Lament softens the hardness of false piety or arrogant unbelief, intensifies our search, and puts us before the face of Jesus' inconceivable cry.

The Place of Lament

Lament has the potential to change a heart. It compels a search, strips the heart of pretense, and forces us to wrestle with God. It opens our eyes to see God's profound hatred of sin and his equally profound love for his people. Lament leads to awe that God has turned his wrath against his son and not those who most deserve his condemnation.

In simple words: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." And mourning and comfort are meant to be part of public worship and not merely a matter of personal, private reflection and devotion.

We are called to feel and sing pain, anger, and confusion to God in the presence of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to worship God admitting our fight against him. Nothing could be more odd than to think the Israelites gathered to tell God: "Turn your eyes from us so we can be happy again" (Psalm 39:12), but indeed they did.

And so did Jesus. At the last supper, the Passover, it would have been the custom to sing psalms, including psalms of complaint. Worship truly involves bringing every dimension of our lives to him, not forsaking the struggles of life to worship, but worshipping in the midst of our struggles.

I spoke to a couple who were struggling with deep hurt and dissatisfaction in their marriage. They went to their pastor and to the elder board to ask for prayer. They were both told they would need to leave their ministry positions because of the state of their marriage. They were embattled, for sure. He was a distant, angry man. She was a sincere, superficial know-it-all that drove him crazy. They were troubled, but their commitment to the Lord, each other, and the church were solid.

I asked: "Why were you asked to leave your ministries in the church?" He said: "We were no longer the vision of maturity and happy Christian confidence that we were once. We no longer fit the standard for Christian service. I guess Christians are not supposed to struggle."

I believe that kind of tragic misunderstanding could be lessened if we regularly sang the psalms on Sunday morning. There are churches that sing nothing but the psalms, and though I don't agree with that perspective, I am coming more and more to believe it may be more helpful than I thought.

How much of the current counseling frenzy is due to an absence of opportunity to confess our hurt, anger, and confusion to God in the presence of others of like mind? In many ways, one role of counseling is to legitimize pain and struggle and focus the questions of the heart toward God. How much better it would be if in concert with others we passionately cried out to God with the energy that is often expressed only in the privacy of the counseling office.

In what church service have you experienced this opportunity to sing of the struggle you have with God, and to do so with a people that long to know him? The opportunity to do so in our culture will likely only be found in an African American church. Listen to the description of one worship service.

There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord....I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to "rock." Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that I was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, "the Word"-when the church and I were one. Their pain and their joy were mine, and mine was theirs-they surrendered their pain and their joy to me, I surrendered mine to them... (2)

And why is this found in the Black church? The answer is, no doubt, far more complex than I understand. Arthur Jones, a black psychologist, suggests in Wade in the Water, that the black church is the heir of the African American spirituals that were "songs of sorrow." And these songs pierce to both the deepest anguish and hope of the heart. Music in a culture of sorrow is less likely to merely reinforce the status quo, or beguile people with the "good life." Sorrow songs expose the need for cultural and personal redemption-that will not come without intervention and rescue.

Cultures that are formed or defined by suffering produce music, poetry, and literature that is haunting and compelling-such as the Irish (Clannad), the black South Africans (Johnny Clegg and Sukova), Holocaust victims (Elie Wiesel), and African Americans (Maya Angelou). In a culture that was formed in trial and persecution, there is no reluctance to enter worship with pain, to cry out in lament. It is not viewed as a violation of faith to sing:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long way from home,
A long way from home,
A long way from home,
A long way from home.
Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone,
Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone,
Sometimes I feel like I'm almost gone,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home.

-Traditional African American Spiritual (3)


The blind man stood on the road and cried,
Oh, the blind man stood on the road and cried,
Crying, oh my Lord, save-a me.
The blind man stood on the road and cried. (4)

Many individuals know deep suffering. But few have been part of a culture that is defined by sorrow. If one reads, or listens to the art of these cultures, one is led not to despair, but to passionate hope. It is far from what we expect. But I would argue the greatest power in art, life, and faith comes from the soil of lament. Lament embodies the passions of need, the fight against injustice, and implicitly the loudest proclamation of hope. W.E.B. Du Bois said:

Through all of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope-a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. (5)

Why is it so important that lament be a rich part of the worship of the people of God? I suspect there are two primary reasons: universality and accountability.

Pain separates. To have a terrible headache is to experience one's body as an enemy. To suffer the loss of a spouse is to feel separated from a world of couples. Pain, anger, and confusion deepens our loneliness. If 200 people in a congregation sing-"Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?" (Psalm 77:7), only a minority will enter those words in the present, but the majority will know that pain from the past and anticipate it in the future. To sing in sorrow is to befriend one another and to authenticate we are not ultimately alone, even if no one can fully comprehend our pain now. The awareness we are not alone increases our courage to honestly look at the pain and to struggle to know God. It gives us less excuse to withdraw from fellowship assuming either no one understands me, or everyone else has his or her life in order. Those assumptions destroy the integrity of true Christian community.

Second, to sing sorrow in congregation opens the door to accountability. Pain not only separates, but it also numbs the heart. Nothing is more common than for a person who has been deeply hurt, disappointed to make an internal oath: "I will not be hurt again." The oath leaves the heart calloused and blind to the heartache of others and the passion of God.

After years of therapeutic endeavor, I would claim it is one of the prime strategies of Satan. If the heart is shut-down to desire and disappointment, then something profoundly human is lost and repentance at best will be mere behavioral change, and at worst, a pious charade.

But to sing together-to allow your sorrow and joy to be mine, and mine to be yours, requires me to stay alive to sorrow and to the struggle of my pain, anger, and confusion with God. And this will be the case even if I am currently fairing well.

If I am alive to God, then I am more apt to note your deadness and more gentle and courageous in calling forth the lament in you. To sing a lament together will enable me to more readily ask the question: How are you? What are you doing with God in the midst of your "presumed" and not unusual song of sorrow?

Could this be the reason we are to "speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19)? Our singing is to open the door to the kind of intimate, rich discussions where our hearts are drawn eventually to praise.

To lament together also holds forth a vision of what might occur. I spoke about the subject of lament on a live, call-in radio show. I spoke about the rage of Psalm 44 and how it opens the heart to question in ways that most Christians refuse to enter. A 64 year old black woman called in and told the story of the six months that followed her grandson's murder in a gang-related killing. She spoke about how she prayed the psalm line-by-line day after day. She fought God. She tried to turn her back on him. But day by day her anger rose higher and higher until she came to the last verse of the psalm: "Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love" (verse 26). She said: "How can he rail against God for that long and still come back and say: 'because of your unfailing love'? When the psalmist called God good I had to do the same." I wept with her. How could I not? She is a vision of what is possible, very possible for any who passionately seek God. Her loss is more than I have ever experienced, but she calls God good. And so do I. How? After what I have suffered? It seems inconceivable, but to lament together is to hold one another accountable to continue the pursuit of truth until joy dawns. It will.

Lament is not an end in itself. There should be no question that God does not want us to sing lament as the staple of our worship, nor should it be our internal hymn of choice. But lament opens the heart to wrestle with a God who knows that sorrow leads to comfort and lament moves to praise as sure as the crucifixion gave way to resurrection.

Listen for lament-find some place to sing with other believers the songs of sorrow. Pray the psalms-line by line until you join the throng that wrestles with God and receives the blessing of a limp and a new name. Then your heart will not be as afraid of lament, nor your soul so leery to live the paradox of sorrow and joy. Then we may learn to sing with a new passion the words we must learn from those who not only sing of sorrow, but lived lament until it broke loose into the freedom of joy: (6)

I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow, I'm tossed in this wide world alone. No hope have I for tomorrow; I've started to make Heaven my home. Sometimes I am tossed and driven, Lord, Sometimes I don't know where to roam. I've heard of a city called Heaven; I've started to make it my home.

-Traditional African American Spiritual (7)

{1} William O. Cushing, "Hiding In Thee," The New Church Hymnal, Lexicon Music, Inc.

{2} James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (New York: Dial Press, 1963) pp. 47-48.

{3} Arthur C. Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993) p. 18.

{4} Ibid., p. 21.

{5} Ibid., p. 128.

{6} Jones recommends many Compact Discs and Videos at the conclusion of his fine book. Let me pass on a few suggestions that may invite you to hear the sounds of sorrow in a new light:
  • Marian Anderson. Marian Anderson. New York: RCA Victor, Compact Disc. No. 0-7863-57911-2-9, 1989.
  • Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. Spirituals in Concert. Hamburg, Germany: Deutsche Grammophon, Compact Disc Number 429790-2, 1991.
  • Mahalia Jackson. Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns. New York: Columbia Records, Compact Disc No. C2K 47083, 1991.
  • Bill Moyers. Amazing Grace. Los Angeles: PBS Home Video #102, 1990.

    {7} Arthur C. Jones, p. 64.