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Why the world needs our prayers of lament

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By Melody Murton

I recently spent a Tuesday night lamenting in prayer. I rocked up to my church’s weekly prayer meeting, restless and tired and ready for a moment of quietness, encouragement and spiritual tank-filling. When the leader shared that we’d be spending our time together praying psalms of lament, I was quietly disappointed. Lament just sounds so… depressing.

But as we opened up Psalm 38 and used it as a framework to voice prayers for the brokenness in and around us, I found myself participating in something I didn’t know I needed. I was able to lay before God big things – heavy things – that had, until that point, pressed on me uncomfortably. Friends I felt responsible for. Situations I wanted to respond to but didn’t know how. Destructive attitudes that I couldn’t shake. Through the living Word of God in scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit, I poured out my lament to Jesus – who knows both the depth of suffering and the glory of victory. Rather than just venting emotion, lament gave me a way to talk with God about my pain, and helped re-anchor my trust in God.

Author and theologian Soong-Chan Rah suggests that the Western church is disconnected from the practice of lament – and the power that comes along with it. It’s one of the reasons that we find it hard to answer the question, “where is God in suffering?” By participating in lament, we position ourselves to see God in the midst of pain. In a culture that resists suffering in the name of preserving happiness, lament insists that joy and suffering are not contradictory. Followers of Christ have the privilege of offering the spiritual language of lament to a world that is suffering!

So… how do we lament?

In their book ‘Healing our Broken Humanity,’ Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill offer this helpful framework:

The psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations provide a model for present-day lament. This model is flexible and adaptable and shouldn’t be used rigidly. But it shows us that lament typically has nine elements:

  1. Invocation. We address our lament to God. “How long, LORD?” (Ps 13:1).
  2. Worship. We describe who God is (loving, just, merciful, and good) and how God promises to be with us in time of crisis. “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises” (Ps 22:3).
  3. Description. We describe the lamentable, sorrowful, and shameful situation. Complaint about the problem and description of the problem often go together in lament. This is often expressed as questions to God a) about God’s action or inaction, b) about our enemies, c) and/or about our suffering and pain. “Dogs surround me” (Ps 22:16).
  4. Connection. We connect the lamentable situation and our pain and suffering with individual and corporate sins (such as pride, racism, sexism, idolatry, power seeking fear-mongering etc). “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence” (Ps 90:7-8).
  5. Repentance. We express deep sorrow for the sins and travails of our people, and our desire to change. “If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:11-12).
  6. Confession. We confess our sin, complicity, sorrow and desire to repent and change. “We have sinned, even as our ancestors did: we have done wrong and acted wickedly” (Ps 106:6).
  7. Petition. We cry for God’s intervention and mercy, and that God would bring healing, hope and restoration as we come to God in lament and repentance. “Relent, LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Ps 90:13-14).
  8. Trust. We express our trust in God because of who God is and in remembrance of God’s past saving and redeeming actions. We acknowledge that God listens and responds, “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me” (Ps 22:21 NRSV).
  9. Praise. We offer thanksgiving and praise to God for who God is and what God has done. We offer praise in trust that God can and will bring change. “From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly” (Ps 22:25).

An even simpler framework grounds lament in these four elements: turn to God, bring your complaint, ask boldly for help and choose to trust.

We could all probably write very personal prayers of lament for the brokenness we experience close to home. And for the crises faced by our world today, praying prayers of lament can be a meaningful, powerful response – and, reflecting on Soong Chan-Rah’s ideas mentioned earlier, they can bear witness to the presence of God and the hope of God’s kingdom, bringing salt and light to a hurting world.

Here’s a prayer of lament in response to the crises converging around the world at the moment, based on the framework above:

A Prayer of Lament

Oh God, we bring you this cry. You are the God who calms storms and makes wars cease; you provide food for the hungry, refuge for the oppressed.

How are we facing yet another global crisis? Nations that have suffered greatly are burdened once again. The most vulnerable are being crushed, creation is crying out, and the progress we have hoped for seems so far out of reach. The earth gives way, nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall.

We recognise and repent for our individual and corporate sins reflected in the factors driving this crisis. We confess our failure to care for your creation, our failure to care for our neighbours. Those in power have acted without compassion; the needs of the vulnerable have been overlooked. We long for a different story to be written – show us the path to restoration.

Come quickly to the aid of those on the edge of death! Open your hand to provide for those whose needs are not being met. Tear down the barriers that are blocking relief, peace and healing.

Your word reminds us that you always hear the cries of the oppressed. We remember how you have moved in mighty ways to feed the hungry before, and we trust you to do it again, Lord. We trust in you as the Prince of Peace, and praise you for your redemptive power. Your arm is not too short to save! Our hearts rest in your promises and in your power to provide.

We bless your name and lift our eyes to you in hope, our Redeemer. Amen.

What pain are you being invited to talk with God about through lament? Is God stirring your heart to lament for an issue of justice? Write your own lament, or spend some time reading psalms of lament to voice your prayers (Psalms 10, 13, 22 and 77 are good places to start). Then, consider sharing your prayer of lament with others – it may just be what the suffering world around you needs to hear.

Melody Murton is Content Lead for Tearfund.