Lament as a Spiritual Practice

Paula Frances Price

I love praise — it fits my culture. As a Southern woman, I’ve been told not to “air my dirty laundry on the line,” and I am asked to be “nice” and to avoid making things messy. Because of that pull to create a happy community, I’ve leaned into praise. I love the order and simplicity of singing praise to the Lord.

But coming from a culture that (over)values praise, I get stuck when I hit pain and injustice. In college and the years after, I was able to push aside the pain, but with the murder of Trayvon Martin and the shootings of the unarmed black men that came after, my world broke and I did not know how to engage the Lord. My prayers of praise felt empty and disingenuous.  

And I turned to lament.

I lamented my own history — a history of people who looked like me enslaving others, a history of my home state fighting for segregation, and my personal history of ignorant and racist comments. And I connected with the pain God felt. As I cried out in that pain, my heart grew in empathy and conviction.

Soong-Chan Rah says that “lament recognizes the struggles of life and cries out for justice against existing injustices.” My own lament connected me with God’s call for justice and gave me a chance to understand my pain. Rah continues: “To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.” My tears showed me a God who was still worthy of my praise in troubled times.

Crying out to the Lord showed me God’s goodness because I could see that he cared about his people’s pain. As my tears began to show me a fuller picture of God, my heart began to praise him with renewed joy and hope. My pain wasn’t erased but was met with God’s own tears, and I saw a God who was big enough to carry my pain and good enough to fight injustice.

Perhaps you, too, have overemphasized praise and celebration at the expense of lament. Consider these elements to incorporate lament into your own spiritual practice:

Rest. In order to lament, we must learn to slow down. Too often, we use busyness to hide our pain. But when we slow down, we become more aware of our emotions. Put aside the to-do list and allow yourself to rest, giving yourself a chance to engage with your emotions and your own pain.

Remember. As we begin, we remember the pain and injustices that have affected us individually and as a culture. When we refuse to remember our past, we refuse to acknowledge the hurt that others are feeling. The prophet Jeremiah captures this idea: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Remembering allows us to fully experience our emotions as well as those of our neighbors. To remember, consider pulling out newspaper articles and eyewitness accounts of injustice. Listen to the experiences of others who have encountered this injustice.

Repentance. As rest and remembrance lead us to mourn, we become aware of the part we have played in the world’s injustice. Repentance is a godly response to our sin. Heidi Weavers writes, “Lament leads those who weep and mourn to protest this mischaracterization of the God who washed our feet so that we might receive his peace in our hearts and in the world. Repentance is the only fitting response, and it mysteriously produces healing for both oppressed and oppressor who are willing to embrace it.”

Lament without repentance stalls with tears. Repentance turns those tears into a healing force, for both ourselves and for others. As you continue to lament, repent for the ways you have participated in injustice or turned a blind eye to the pain of God’s people.

Recompense and Restitution. Repentance is turning away from sin towards the Lord, but lament also requires that we make whole what injustice has broken. For me, this is the hardest step. But lament connects us to God’s heart, and he desires restoration. We may struggle with recompense and restitution — we may fear that to make amends means our own loss. Yet we must attempt to make whole what we have broken out of obedience to the Lord. To follow this step, ask the Lord for practical ways that you can take steps that lead to wholeness. Be sure to check with the community that has suffered to be sure that your actions do not further victimize those who have been hurt by injustice.

In practicing lament, I have recognized that it is consistent with my Southern culture after all. Even though lament is messy, it helps me to welcome others with love and genuine Southern hospitality.

As you practice lament, may your soul be deeply restored and your view of God enlarged.

Paula Frances Price has worked for Greek InterVarsity in Athens, Georgia, for ten years. She trains sorority and fraternity students to lead Scripture studies in their chapters and helps them figure out how to follow Jesus in college. She and her husband have a one-year-old daughter who keeps them on their toes.

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