"Jesus wept" (John 11: 35). It is the shortest verse in the Bible, yet when we examine its context, it amazes us with its depth and gentleness. On his way to his friend’s Lazarus tomb four days after his death, Jesus came face to face with the pain and anguish of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, and his soul was shaken. Jesus was not immune to his friends’ pain, and he wasn’t cold, detached from the bitter reality of loss. He let the tears of his friends shake him and make him weep. All of this, with the knowledge that he will raise Lazarus from the dead in mere minutes!
If Jesus, fully human and fully divine, wept, what about us?
Wherever we look, there is devastation and pain. Our hearts are burdened when we watch the devastation of the explosion in Beirut, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the floods in Sudan, and the occupation in Palestine, not to mention the harm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In our local societies, corruption is pervasive, violence is normalized and the weak are taken advantage of at every opportunity. In our personal lives, we may lose loved ones or we see the failure of endeavours we invested so much in.
As Christians, where do we go with this pain and fatigue? Who do we turn to with our heart’s longing?
Some prefer to ignore these feelings, lifting their eyes to the sky to remind themselves of heaven where there are no tears or sadness. This group views acknowledging pain and distress as a sign of weakness of faith or a lack of prayer. A weeping Jesus challenges this perception, for Jesus is neither weak nor lacking in prayer!
What is lament?
The Bible provides us with a channel to pour these thoughts and feelings into: lament. Lament is a prayer offering our pain to God. It is an altar where we offer holy tears, acknowledging the depth of our pain. Our lament might be personal and concerned with an individual distressful event, or it might be communal and spurred on by wider societal phenomena.
In personal lament, we refuse to be numb and to deny reality by facing the loss and the pain . In personal lament, we refuse to disregard the emotions that God gifted us with, and instead, we choose to deal with them maturely and sensitively.
In societal lament, we identify oppression and acknowledge that the world is sinful, therefore declaring in a prophetic voice that our conscious knows that what is happening around us saddens God’s heart . Societal lament is a sign of our sensitivity to creation’s groaning (Romans 8:22), and it is an act of obedience to the Lord who asks us to be sensitive towards those around us- weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). In societal lament, we refuse to belittle people's distress and instead choose to empathize with them as Christ did.
Some people have likened lament prayers to children’s cries to their parents when they are hungry . Children do not go to the neighbours to ask for food- they go to their parents, trusting that they love them and can provide them with food. Lament, therefore, does not mean that we do not believe that God is good and sovereign but the contrary: because we know God is omnipotent and good, we can approach God sincerely with our grief. In lament, we seek God as we hold on to God's good nature . Indeed, at least a third of the Psalms in the Bible are psalms of lament! (see Psalms 6, 10,13,38,102)
Lament, then, is a central practice in a Christian’s life, both in a personal context and in a collective one. Lament is a sign of a functioning internal moral compass that sees and interacts with the fallen nature of the world. Lament begins when we look outside ourselves, ask why is evil occurring in the world, and do not receive an answer .
As we spend time in lament, our trust in God is renewed as God reveals God’s heart to us, guiding us to be participants in God’s plan to restore creation and build God’s kingdom. The call to lament is not a call for permanent sadness or succumbing to grief. The Bible encourages us not to mourn like those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) but rather let God's love, through lament, overflow from our hearts and help us empathize with God's creation. Christian lament is not simply the tears we shed, but rather a prayer firmly grounded in God's goodness and our hope in God.
Lament’s disappearance from Christian life
Unfortunately, the theology of lament has disappeared from our churches today. What a strange reality this is, as lament is weaved into the pages of the Bible. Our church services lack lament prayers and our sermons and songs centre around positive thinking and victory in Christ. Of course, declaring victory in Christ is important and necessary, but it has to be coupled with a real engagement with the painful reality of a broken society.
One can speculate over the reasons for the disappearance of lament in our theology. One possible reason might be the expansion of the prosperity gospel, which teaches that true Christians will not be in pain but will rather always be physically healthy, wealthy and happy . This is false teaching and distorts the salvation that the Lord offers. Another reason for the lack of lament might be an overemphasis on the reasonability of faith which results in dismissing natural human emotions that God has gifted us with. A third reason might be the man-made divide between spiritual and worldly, which teaches that Christians ought to be detached from current events and only focus on heaven to come. Or it might be the influence of our Arab culture, a culture that marginalizes and shames emotions, preferring to suppress them as it is unacceptable to express frustration or sadness except in certain contexts and through specific ways.
The reasons are many, but the result is one. The disappearance of lament from our pulpits and churches excludes those in pain and causes them to feel more lonely . Dismissing pain or shaming it leads people to the conclusion that they cannot bring up certain topics in church, and that certain questions are not legitimate in the house of God . Ignoring difficulties or minimizing personal pain are not signs of a healthy strong faith, but rather are signs of an imaginary faith that is detached from reality. Simply, the loss of lament means that we are wearing the mask of positivity in front of God’s throne.
The loss of societal lament has similar results: by ignoring the oppression happening around it, the church isolates itself from society and loses its prophetic voice. It is revolutionary to declare that the situation as it currently stands is wrong and saddens God's heart. Through this declaration, we challenge systems of injustice and demand change. By excluding societal lament as a central practice in the life of the church, we assume that God is indifferent to issues of justice, does not care about systemic discrimination and that God's power does not extend to healing our societies from violence and oppression in all their forms .
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote: “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
How to pray a prayer of lament?
Lament psalms often follow a similar structure, and meditating on them might help us in beginning the practice of lament. The psalm begins with a personal address to the Lord ("Hear my prayer Lord" Psalm 102:1a). The psalmist lays out the struggle and describes the pain (“[the wicked] boasts about the cravings of his heart; he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord” Psalm 10:3). Then, a demand for God to intervene is made, with a reminder of God’s unchanging goodness (“turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” Psalm 6:4). The psalmist concludes with a strong resolution to praise God (“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” Psalm 13:5-6). Lament, therefore, is the bridge between pain and praise!
In closing, it is important to remember that lament is not our final prayer. It is our current prayer as we wait for the Kingdom of God to come fully (now and not yet!). My prayer is that God extends our hearts, makes us sensitive and aware of the happenings around us, and grant us the humility to pour out ourselves to God in lament, and subsequently the courage to obey God’s voice wherever God leads us to build God’s kingdom.
I conclude by offering my prayer of lament as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, from the heart of Nazareth: Jesus' hometown. I offer this prayer in lament of the pain that surrounds me, as well as complete trust in the kindness of the God who sees, who listens and who has mercy.
A prayer of lament from the heart of Nazareth
From the depths of our hearts, we cry to you, Lord.
How long, Lord-
How long must the pandemic take away precious lives from our societies?
How long must it steal livelihoods and celebrations?
How long must doctors and nurses stand in exhaustion in the hallways of hospitals?
How long must teachers tire in front of screens?
How long must workers put their lives in danger to earn a living?
Intervene, Lord! With your strong hand, nourish and sustain.
Because you "see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in your hand,"
You "respond to the prayer of the destitute, and do not despise their plea" .
I trust in your mercy, Lord.
Ahmad Hijazi’s mother cries out in anguish over the loss of her son ,
a nursing student,
by a stray bullet fired from an unknown gun.
Wafa’a Masarwi’s child witnesses the murder of her mother ,
by her father.
Our society is torn apart by violence and systemic neglect.
Our brothers and sisters in an-Naqab fight to live in dignity
in villages that the state refuses to acknowledge
or supply with clean water and electricity.
Humans are accused of crimes because of the colour of their skin,
and competent people are rejected because of an accent disliked by the employer.
The wicked have insulted you, God, by taking advantage of the weak,
and disrespected Your Image in the marginalized.
Carry out your justice, my God!
For the truth is the foundation of your throne .
You have called the hungry your brother,
and the foreigner your sister .
“You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed."
I praise your name in all the earth.
How long will our young people suffer from depression and anxiety?
And how long will our society ignore those with disabilities?
How long will women be abused behind closed doors,
and be mocked by decision-makers?
Break through and intervene, Rock eternal !
For you are "a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows" .
You listen to our cries from heaven and you respond.
"I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation" .
Some speak in your name in vain, Lord,
They judge and incite violence.
Won't you silence them, Almighty God? Won't you show your glory?
Leaders who spoke of your love and glory,
as they abused women made in Your Image with cunning deceit,
building systems to protect them.
Won't you bring your justice upon them, God of all authority?
For you are God, reigning with a mighty hand.
Won't you heal their victims,
and embrace each one with the warmth of your love?
You are the Truth.
I wait for the Lord and put my trust in God,
for “whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you” .
All in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
*This article was published originally in Arabic in the book Isaac and Mansour, eds. "Towards a Renewed Mind" (2021) Bethlehem Bible College.
** Lamma Mansour is from Nazareth. She is a DPhil student in the University of Oxford majoring in Policy Evaluation and Social Intervention.