Why Lament in Worship?
Lament is expressing sorrow to God and asking hard questions in the face of trial. Some of our greatest Biblical heroes lamented—some openly, some in private. It is all over the Bible but is missing from the modern worship service. I suppose that, as churches have moved from a more traditional setting to contemporary, some parts of the service have gone by the wayside to create a more upbeat experience. Problems are for the rest of the week; Sunday is reserved for escape. Lament has an important place in worship, though, and we need to bring it back. Here are a few reasons why.
- To bear one another’s burdens. Galatians 6:2 is clear: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Everyone is bearing a burden of some sort, even if we don’t feel like we are in the moment. I can guarantee that there are plenty of brothers and sisters in our churches who are burdened and need to be comforted, sung forward, and held up to God in corporate worship. It’s part of loving our neighbor. Making a corporate petition to the Lord is one of the things that we should be doing in church for others, if not for ourselves.
- To be comforted. Who but the Lord is our Comforter? Job’s friends are pretty lousy ones (Job 16:1-2), and only when God Himself shows up does Job receive the vindication and comfort he desires. The Psalms are full of seeking comfort in lament (Psalms 3, 4, 10, 16, 17…). Part of bearing one another’s burdens is to comfort those who are afflicted. As the body of Christ, singing a song together, pleading for godly comfort in affliction, can give words to steer the afflicted in the right direction. And the saying is true, “misery loves company.” The feeling of not being alone in grief is an amazing builder of courage.
- To be vulnerable and experience intimacy with God. Some of us need a little help with directing our petitions in a healthy, honest way. Songs of lament can be the tool to open that door. When words fail to come to the mouth of the afflicted, scriptural lament can offer the words of God to be their words. What better model of lament do we have than Scripture itself? The truth of God’s word can bring us to a place of honesty with ourselves, as we see that it is OK to question, doubt, fear, express anger and sorrow—all on the Lord’s turf. We serve a God who delights in hearing us and, in turn, who speaks to us through His Word.
- To know the character of Jesus, the Man of Sorrows. As Isaiah 53:3 says, “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Jesus experienced everything we experience but perfectly. When we are given a chance to lament like he lamented and sorrowed, our hearts are shaped more into His image by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be able to identify with others in this broken world. The beauty of the personhood of Jesus is that He can identify with us. Modeling His life, in turn, is being acquainted with grief for the sake of others and our own sanctification.
- To be honest and confess our sins to God. Some of our reasons to lament are because of our own doing. David lamented and pleaded with God over his sin with Bathsheba. In Psalm 51, he urges the Lord to purge and clean him so he can rejoice again. Our own sinfulness can keep us from being honest with ourselves, God, and others. Lament in worship can give us a chance to reflect in a beautiful way and apply our hearts to a sung petition. Even David says in Psalm 32:3: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.”
- To heal. Lament can bring healing if we let God into those deep places. We are only truly free when we are being honest with ourselves, God, and our community. We have limits, and in humility, we need the Lord to bind up our wounds and to ask Him for that healing. When we sing lament corporately, we create the space for everyone to allow God to do His miraculous work.
- To remember God’s goodness. When we reach a moment of helplessness and we turn to lament, we, like David, remember and remind the Lord of His promises and His goodness toward us. He will not go back on His promises and He will never cease to be good, so we helplessly cling to those truths to steady our hearts. Psalm 13:5-6 is a great example of a shift from complaint to trust: “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
- To recover joy. We cannot find joy without God (Ecclesiastes 2:23-26), for life on this earth is toil and hardship, and without Him it is meaningless. And Jesus rounds this out beautifully: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). Jesus says this before his crucifixion, to comfort the hearts of His disciples. In lament, true joy is found in knowing that Jesus has the victory over this fallen world and our sufferings are only for a time. For now, without true sorrow, joy cannot take its proper place. Without the depths of grief, the Resurrection feels less like a triumph.
Lament has the power to shape us into God’s image. As the Body of Christ, in corporate worship, lament can provide an opportunity to be tightly knit in unity as Christ’s bride. Corporate lament can be an act of waiting patiently for the Lord in our sufferings: “…but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:19-26).
Rachel Wilhelm is a singer-songwriter and worship leader in Minneapolis, MN. Her upcoming full-length album, Songs of Lament, is releasing in May 2017. To help Kickstart it, go here.