Shifting from Agony to Hope: Learning How to Lament
Prologue: My Story of Agony
“We waited a few weeks to tell you this, but your dad has cancer.”
It was a phone call I never expected to receive. My mom called from Korea and said that my father had been diagnosed with cancer. I was in the United States at that time, but bought a ticket to Korea as soon as I could. I knew it was important for me to see my dad, and to be with my family during this difficult time.
The following three months were filled with hospital visits: accompanying my dad to the big hospitals for appointments, waiting in front of the surgery room while he underwent surgery to remove the tumor, and accompanying him throughout his first round of chemotherapy. At that time, we did not know if my dad would survive and there was this sadness in us, unsure if there would be ‘another time’ to share the mundane things we were doing together. In those three months, I was filled with agony, despair, and so much emotional pain. I struggled to process my sadness and didn’t know how to worship God amidst it all.
All of us live in a fallen world. That means that we will go through brokenness at one point or another. It may be losing a loved one, going through a broken relationship, or even navigating a health crisis. When (and not if) brokenness happens, what then? What do we do? How do we still worship God?
In short, we are to lament before God. We don’t need to only sing happy, joyful songs of worship to God. Lamenting is also a form of worship to God.
The Importance of Lament
Lamenting is no ‘stranger’ to the Bible.
We see laments in the books of Lamentations, Job, and in so many of the psalms. However, lamenting seems to be a ‘stranger’ in our churches. I have not observed much lamenting in our worship services, whether in the U.S. (where I grew up) or in Asia (where I’m living now). We need more churches to teach about lamenting, and that lamenting is necessary and good for a Christian.
Christians need to know that when we “complain” or raise our concerns to God, it doesn’t mean that our faith is weak. We need more churches where lamenting in the worship service is not out of the ordinary. After all, worship is more caught than taught. People learn to worship, and in this case, learn to lament by experiencing the act of lament firsthand and by lamenting with others in the worship service. Lamenting in our churches is much needed because all of us need to lament at some point in our lives.
How Should We Lament?
So how should we lament? What do laments before God look like?
The following are six parts of lament categorized by Dr. Andrew E. Hill (Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, Illinois, U.S.):
Address to God
Confession of Trust
Vow of Praise
Words of Assurance
Note that these six parts of lament can change in its order. That means the lament can end with a vow of praise instead of a word of assurance; it doesn’t necessarily have to flow according to the list. Let me now break down what these six parts are.
1. Address to God: The lament should begin by addressing God because you are bringing your complaints to God. If you complain to yourself, that’s called “complaining.” But if you bring your complaints to God, you begin the process of lamenting. You can begin your lament by saying “Dear God,” “O Lord, My God,” or any other way of calling out to God.
2. Complaint: Having addressed God, this is where you pour out your complaints and worries before him. You can be totally honest with him. You can ask questions such as, “Why is this happening to me?” or say things like, “it’s really difficult for me, I don’t know what to do anymore.”
3. Petition: But don’t stop at complaining to God. The next step is to bring your petition before him. If God asks, “What would you like me to do?” – how would you respond? Here is where you bring your requests to him. It could be, “I ask for healing,” or “I pray that You will strengthen us in this difficult time,” or “Help us to see this situation with Your eyes.”
4. Confession of Trust: A Christian lament is different from other laments in that the Christian doesn’t stay in the state of grieving even when lamenting, because we have a God we can trust. The Christian’s faith in God is now to be expressed.
One should confess their trust in God. It could be the trust you have in God’s faithfulness, sovereignty, or goodness. A confession of trust will help you to remember that God is still the same good God as before, and that you can trust in His unchangeable character.
5. Vow of Praise: Remembering who God is and what he has done for you will then enable you to still worship him in the midst of grief, hopelessness or despair. It could be a simple phrase of praise such as “I will still worship you,” or in the words of Job, “Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).”
6. Words of Assurance: As Christians, we remain confident in God’s truth. Here is a good place to proclaim God’s truth found in Scripture, such as: “I know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).”
Psalm 13: A Psalm of Lament
Let’s now look at how these six parts of lament are found in the Bible. Let’s look at Psalm 13, a psalm of lament.
Psalm 13 (NIV)
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
In these two verses, the psalmist addresses his complaints to God (#1 Address to God and #2 Complaint).
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
In vs. 3, the psalmist makes a request (#3 Petition) to God saying, “look on me and answer ... give light to my eyes.”
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5a But I trust in your unfailing love;
In verse 5a, the psalmist confesses his trust in God (#4 Confession of Trust).
5b my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6a I will sing the Lord’s praise,
The psalmist now declares praise unto the Lord (#5 Vow of Praise).
for he has been good to me.
In closing, the psalmist looks back at his life and acknowledges God’s faithfulness (#6 Words of Assurance). His past experiences of God’s goodness give him reason to still worship and trust God. Just as God has been good to him in the past, God will continue to be good to him.
In this psalm, the psalmist honestly pours out his complaints to God and is not afraid to show his raw emotions to him. This is just one example of lament, which can be found in Scripture time and time again.
Christians must therefore know that coming before God in complaint is needed and even good for our Christian walk. However, as mentioned before, Christian lamenting does not stop at complaining to God. As the psalmist has shown, we are to petition to God, trust in him, and worship him despite our brokenness. Such worship may not look like joyful songs and may be fraught with tears, but it still is worship.
The Christian lament begins with agony but ends with having hope in God. Realistically, this shift from agony to hope, from complaint to vow of praise, will take time. It could take weeks, sometimes even months, to experience the shift. But I want to assure you that it is okay to take your time.
Take your time in coming before God and pouring out your broken heart before him. Remain plugged into a community with others, even when you find it difficult. Keep reading the word of God and be reminded of his wonderful promises for you. Hold onto that hope you have in Christ.
Epilogue: My Story of Hope
After lamenting to God about my dad’s cancer, my agony eventually shifted to hope because of the hope I had in heaven. Heaven is a place where there are no more tears, pain, or death (Revelation 21:4). I knew that heaven would be a place where my dad would be healed completely, living with God forever. And so I held onto that hope.
Praise God, my father is cancer-free now! But I ended up co-writing a song based on the experience I went through. This original song is called “Kingdom of Heaven” and is about the hope I found in heaven. You can listen to it here: https://open.spotify.com/track/4nHtPGc1zL4f35Iubywjzd?si=59ebb67137da4ad6
A Word of Assurance As You Lament
When you go through suffering or hardship in life, bring them to God in lament. He cares about your pain. God wants to listen to you and be with you. He is not a distant God but is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).
And the amazing truth is that it is not just you trying to draw closer to God, but God already has his arms wide open for you. We are simply to respond to his invitation and come to him in all of our brokenness.
May you experience God’s comfort in his loving presence, and may your agony turn to hope as you lament.
Written by Dr. Esther Shin Chuang
*This post was originally published as an article on Asian Beacon (https://asianbeacon.org/shifting-from-agony-to-hope-learning-how-to-lament/).
*Photo is by Louis Galvez from Unsplash