A few months ago our church sung a song of lament for two consecutive weeks. Such songs aren’t foreign to our church’s song selection, but since they showed up in consecutive weeks, they stuck out to a few people. In one conversation someone asked me, “But what if I’m not sad? Why would I lament if I’m not sad about anything?”
The question, as far as I could tell, came from two sources. First, it came from a misunderstanding of why Christians would sing a lament song when there didn’t seem to be any particular occasion worth lamenting. Aren’t Christians supposed to be joyful?
Second, this man came from a church background that never sang songs of lament. Their services were meant to give members a boost for the week. A lament song would seem out of place, maybe even inappropriate. Sundays were for lifting us out of the mire, not putting us back in.
This man was not the first to scratch his head at our lamenting, and he likely will not be the last, because his church experience is shared by many, if not most, evangelicals in the West. It’s quite possible that most readers of this article do not regularly lament in their congregations on Sundays and might taken aback just as this man was if they experienced it.
But the Bible gives us several good reasons why lamenting should be a part of our normal Christian worship, even if we are not lamenting our own circumstances. In no particular order of importance, here are four such reasons.
1. We sing songs of lament even when we are not lamenting in order to weep with those who are weeping.
Although you may not be weeping or lamenting, it’s likely someone in the congregation is going through something deeply mournful: a wife who has just found out her husband has been having an affair; a couple returning from the hospital after having a miscarriage; a single woman who has lost her mother and now fears the loneliness ahead without her last close relative. On any given Sunday, many people are going through lamentable seasons of suffering, pain, and loss.
Paul calls us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). But we are often ill-equipped to do so. Our individualistic culture has taught us to care for ourselves, not others. We know how to give high fives with our friends, but we don’t know how to weep with them. Singing lament songs together as a congregation not only allows us to fulfill that command to weep with the weeping, but also teaches us how for when we will need to do it in a living room or across a table.
2. We sing songs of lament even when we are not lamenting so that when seasons of mourning come, we know what songs to sing and what prayers to pray.
Few of us understand how unprepared we are for suffering and trials until they come. Only then do we sense just how empty of resources we are. This is especially true of younger Christians, because we are inexperienced in suffering or out of practice.
But on Sundays, when Christians gather to hear the Word taught and sung and prayed, we have an opportunity to practice lamenting. Does that sound strange? Let me illustrate what I mean.
If a Broadway actress comes to her performance with few rehearsals under her belt, she will be stiff, second-guessing cues, lacking confidence in her lines, and so on. But if she’s rehearsed over and over, hundreds of times, she comes to her performance with a kind of freedom and spontaneity that can turn a good performance into a great one.
In a similar way, Christians gather on Sunday to rehearse the things we hope for and sing about the things we have confidence in. We regularly lament because we know that seasons of lament are coming. That’s part of living in a world where lamentable things happen to everyone. Lament even when you’re not lamenting so that when those dark clouds come, you will be spiritually nimble and know what songs to sing and what prayers to pray.
3. We sing songs of lament even when we are not lamenting because the New Testament calls us to.
Paul tells the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19). If we’re addressing each other in psalms, we’re going to lament. In fact, so many of the psalms include lament that an easy case could be made that lament should be part of the steady meditative diet of the people of God.
4. We sing songs of lament even when we are not lamenting because maybe you should be lamenting more than you are.
A wise reader will soon discover that he doesn’t merely come to the psalms to be comforted, but also to be afflicted. As we read, we learn that we don’t often feel what we ought to be feeling. But God’s Word teaches how we ought to feel. When we feel comfortable, the Bible regularly calls us to reconsider what’s giving us comfort.
The apostle James addressed a congregation full of spiritual pride that didn’t recognize the need to lament their sin. And he told them, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:9). Their sin, James claimed, was making them enemies with God (James 4:5), yet they were laughing and joyful. Remember, these were Christians!
Laments poke us in the chest and force us to wonder whether we are making light of our own sin or making light of the suffering in our own congregation and community.
Make room in your singing and in your public prayers for lamenting. Pastors, prepare your congregation for seasons of mourning so they won’t be surprised when it comes. Christians, be acquainted with grief, even if you are not grieving, so you can sympathize and mourn with those who are. That’s what our Savior taught us to do by his example. He left the joys of heaven to be acquainted with our grief, and now he stands as a sympathetic high priest.
John Starke is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.