Lament in Worship

Sometimes as a worship leader, it can feel like your role is to be a cheerleader. And not even a cheerleader for a good and mighty God, but for the church itself, propping people up every week to sing and shout and clap about how good it is to take these actions together. Frankly, that part of the job can be depleting, and can also be completely disingenuous.

Last week especially, I was not in a place to be anyone’s cheerleader. Following another senseless gun massacre at a high school in Florida, and the fresh round of blame shifting and divisive conversation that came in its wake, my mind and my heart were vacillating between feelings of anger, grief and despair. The last thing I wanted to do was pick songs of celebration, get in front of the congregation and attempt to convince them that I believed everything we were singing. It isn’t that I had stopped believing in God’s goodness, but rather my heart was heavy with the pervasiveness of tragedy affecting our world.

In a church culture that often values big sound and big emotion, it can be easy to lose the importance of lament. Lament, which in the bible is a prayer for help that comes from pain, is a way for us to connect with God in times of human suffering and despair. It is a natural response to painful circumstances, and it is a common and important practice of worship throughout the scriptures. Over one third of the Psalms are laments, and even Jesus himself prayed lamentations about the faith of the people and the grief of what He had to bear. Lament allows us to share our sorrow with God (and even bring our questions and doubts), center ourselves on His promises and faithfulness and know better how we should respond.  

Why do we find it difficult to lament in our churches today? I think the answer has multiple layers, but ultimately there are two I believe we can easily identify. The first is that lament requires space, and space is difficult to program. Our church services thrive on programming, making sure each segment, song and moment is planned out in advance to stick to a schedule. And as with most of western culture, our churches love to operate on schedule. But to lament, we must feel our grief, and that requires us to slow down, find stillness and quiet, and have space to let the weight of it fall. This also brings up the second reason that lament is challenging in our churches: lament requires vulnerability. It is easy to stand in front of a group and proclaim how grateful we are for God’s many blessings, especially when we want the church to be a beacon of hope and goodness to the world. It is much more difficult to openly express pain, confusion and questions about God’s goodness in the face of tragedy. I once sat in a church service with a friend where the pastor spoke about the power of healing prayer, and that if we would simply pray fervently with great faith, we could overcome any ailment. This friend had recently lost his mother to a progressive, debilitating disease that she’d suffered from for most of his life. I asked him on the way home if those kinds of messages made him feel like his faith wasn’t enough to heal his mother, and his response was a broken, “of course.”

If our entire church culture is built around the “ra-ra” mentality of our faith in God somehow giving us the ability to be above all human suffering, than we miss a vital component of our own existence. Our worship is incomplete because it is dishonest. We must take time to recognize our pain, our doubt and our unanswered prayers and bring them to God in our cries of lament. It is here that God makes us whole. He feels our sorrow. He grieves with us. And He reminds us of His eternal perspective. Let us never forget that crying to God for help is an act of great faith. I pray that this will be a more regular occurrence for us, and it will help us to better recognize God’s goodness and will in the darkest of circumstances.