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Can I be honest with God? The art of lament

By: Jason Phillips, Lifepoint Church - Worthington


Understanding our Grief

I was 26 years old, recently married, and my wife was pregnant with our first child when my mom entered the hospital for what would be the last time. Two weeks later, she would pass after a three-year battle with Ovarian cancer, and I would be left with the overwhelming feeling that all who suffer loss experience – “it wasn’t supposed to be this way.” 


This feeling isn’t simply a cliché we say when things don’t go the way we hope. It is a deep longing within all people for the reality we were made for, Eden. A reality where there is no sin, death, brokenness, or loss. In loss, we quite literally experience something we were not made for. Yet, the disobedience of our first ancestors not only resulted in the first loss of the perfect relationship between God and humankind, but ushered in a reality where it is a normal part of the human experience. 


People acquainted with cancer, either as a patient or a loved one, experience a variety of losses – the loss of health, the loss of normalcy, the loss of independence, and sometimes even the loss of a loved one. 


Author and founder of Healing Care Ministries, Terry Wardle, says, “Every loss in life deserves an appropriate season of grieving whether you have lost your favorite person or your favorite pen.”

So, how do we respond in a time of loss? What do we do with the various emotions we experience in our grief? And what if our feelings don’t seem respectful toward God or safe to share with Him? 


Our forefathers found an answer to all these questions in the ancient practice of lament


How to Lament

Laments are not simply cries for help or complaints with no purpose. Rather, they are intentional prayers that serve to realign our hearts with God. Pastor and author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop, describes lament this way: “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust… a pathway to praise when life gets hard.” 


Throughout the Bible, heroes like Job, Jeremiah, and even Jesus appeal to God through this practice. The Psalms are also full of this language and provide a basic four-part framework for the art of Biblical lament: 

  1. Turn to God - Many laments begin with language like “How long, O Lord” (Ps. 13) or “I cried out to God for help” (Ps. 77). The first step in lament is choosing to turn to God in our pain. There are many reasons why we may want to avoid God, yet when we finally do turn to Him, it is an acknowledgment that only He can bring true healing and redemption.

  2. Express your complaint - Perhaps the most challenging element of lament. This is when we express our unfiltered feelings about our current reality. Wardle puts it this way, “The language of grief is primitive.” He argues that Christians must be careful not to “Christianize” our language. Rather, we should allow God to hear from us what He already knows to be true in our hearts. It is only when we have emptied out our frustrations against God that we make space for Him to rebuild hope and trust. The sons of Korah lament, “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (Ps. 88).  Some Christians may feel uncomfortable with this level of honesty with God, thinking it shows a lack of faith or is maybe even ungodly. Yet, in our attempts to exercise faith by sanitizing our language or holding back from God, we may miss a more genuine expression of it, one that leads to healing and lasting joy: trusting God with the uncensored reality of our pain. 

  3. Petition God for help - God does something in us following our complaint. Where our hearts previously felt disdain, hope begins to rise based on God’s proven faithfulness. The Psalmists petition God, “Rise up and help us;  rescue us because of your unfailing love” (Ps. 44). In this part of lament, we boldly and in faith appeal to God to listen and act on our cries for help. 

  4. Choose to trust - The entire purpose of the lament is realized in this final element. In fact, lamenters would have no reason to seek God if it weren’t for their genuine desire to renew their trust in Him. In this section, we choose to trust God. Psalm 13 finishes with David announcing, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” Ending in trust does not mean that the source of the lament has disappeared or that God has suddenly changed our circumstances. Rather, through this vulnerable practice, we allow God into the deepest corners of our souls. His presence changes and reminds us that He cares. Even if the pain seems ever present, we can trust Him. And this is a reason for praise!


The Power of Lament

It can be tempting to repress the deep pain of our cancer experiences, not allowing God to have an intimate role in our sorrow. Yet, ungrieved loss will find a way to bubble to the surface and impact our emotional, spiritual, and even physical health. 


It is crucial, then, for Christians to take seriously the work of grief. While there is no promise of bodily healing, we do have access to the only One who has the power to save and heal our wounded souls. We have access to a prayer practice created by God to restore trust, praise, and joy! Joy that says, despite my fear, prognosis, hospital stays, or weakening body, I will trust in You, Lord. May we continuously seek Him through honest laments as we process the difficult and continuous realities of the cancer journey.


Challenge:  Consider which aspect of cancer feels most grievous today and set aside time to write your own lament based on the four-part framework.

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