“For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace” (Psalm 102:3).
When my lips cried these words in a public prayer service, it felt like I was exposing a wound. I had just been diagnosed with a lethal, incurable cancer. My expected lifespan had been chopped by decades. The cancer had already burned through the inside of my bones—like a furnace.
Praying this Psalm of lament felt a bit like speaking a foreign language. As a young Christian, I had been taught that prayer consisted of ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. I found that structure helpful, and I still do. But there’s something missing: lament. Lament is not confession, and it can’t be reduced to bringing our petitions and supplications before God. Lament is bringing our grief and our protest before the Almighty when life doesn’t make sense.
After my cancer diagnosis, I experienced a flood of emotions. Within a week, not just my emotional life but my body also was forced to adjust to changes through intensive chemotherapy treatment. People would ask, “how are you?” At any given moment, I was not sure. I was not the expert on how I was doing. Moreover, I didn’t always have the time to grieve, or the energy to bring anger before God.
But as I spent time praying through the Psalms, I noticed how many Psalms I had skipped over before: Psalms about enemies, about blaming God, about lamenting to God.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident (Psalm 27:3).
He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations’ (Psalm 102:8, 23-24).
I felt trapped by an enemy, something I never experienced so viscerally before my “war” on cancer. And deep down, I felt alienated and abandoned; the Psalmist dares to bring these before the Lord. The Psalmist trusts God’s sovereignty enough to even blame Him when His promises don’t seem to be coming true. “He has broken my strength midcourse.”
As I learned this new language of lament, I realized that I should have learned it much earlier in my Christian life. Whether our burden is an illness, the loss of a relationship, the loss of a dream, or fear about the future, laments in Scripture give us a path for bringing our anxiety and confusion before the Almighty.
Over a third of the Psalms are laments. Paul speaks of the whole creation groaning and lamenting, and the Spirit intercedes in “wordless groans.” Jesus laments in protest—turning over the tables at the Temple—and in grief—sweating blood in the garden of Gethsemane, praying for the cup of the cross to be taken away. Jesus even utters a cry that simultaneously expresses our feelings of abandonment, and heals them, in trust of the Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Lament is deeply personal, but not private. In the midst of crisis, I did not always have the emotional and physical energy to weep, to cry out in grief and protest. In those moments, I was grateful for my brothers and sisters in Christ who bore my burden, not just by praying for me to be healed, but by lamenting with me.
After I had started chemotherapy, I talked with a friend on the phone: giving an update, how my wife Rachel was coping, how it affected my children, ages 1 and 3. After the conversation, she sent me a note, bringing her own emotions before the presence of God. This is how it ended:
I hate this for you more than anything. I hate this for your family. I want you to beat the heck out of it. Forgive us all for the stupid things we say and don’t say. I am praying tonight for you and Rachel.
When I received this note, the treatment had left me too exhausted to even be angry. But I was grateful for my friend’s words. I was grateful that she trusted God enough to bring her anger before the Lord in prayer. I was grateful that she was helping to carry my anger. I was grateful that she wasn’t just expecting a “quick fix” with her prayers.
In moving beyond the ACTS approach to prayer, I also realized how self-centered my own prayer life had been. When I prayed for others in need, I tended to pray that they be “fixed”—for those who had lost a loved one, for the poor in my midst, for the persecuted Christians around the world, and so on. I was right to offer “supplications” on their behalf. I still do so. But these are bigger problems—and losses—than a “quick fix” can amend. We need to unite our supplications to lament, joining the cry of the suffering: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
As I learned the biblical language of lament, I also came to see how I had been praying as a person of privilege, as a white, middle-class American: I assumed that God owed me a long life with a career, retirement and a chance to see my kids grow to adults. But in praying with the Psalmists, I came to see how God does not owe us these things. God has promised us His steadfast, covenant love. But He can display His love in lifespans that are shorter as well as longer, in life-stories that seem to have senseless endings, as well as those that fit with our common expectations.
Precisely because we trust that God is the sovereign Lord, we can wrestle with Him in lament. This good world is in the hands of God—but the world is also not the way it is supposed to be. Its wounds are too deep for Band-Aids and quick fixes.
In addition to adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, we need to join the Spirit in lament—joining our suffering brothers and sisters in lament, until the Kingdom of Christ has fully come. With the martyrs in Revelation we cry out to the “Sovereign Lord” and ask “how long?” And expectantly, we petition, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
J. Todd Billings is a professor at Western Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @jtoddbillings. He's the author recently of Rejoicing in Lament.