After a tragedy, people often respond by saying their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims and their families. I believe in praying for people, but I also understand why this phrase makes so many people angry—it can feel dismissive and insincere. And yet there’s something self-righteous about the keyboard activists making memes about “actually doing something.” Neither response really gets to the heart of the pain and sorrow that people are experiencing, or inspires any kind of commitment to accompanying them in the depth of their agony.

We’re in this situation because we have forgotten how to lament.

Honesty and Hope

Lament is a common form of prayer across all cultural and religious traditions, not least in the Hebrew prayer book, the Psalms. There are more “lament psalms” than “praise psalms” (roughly 45 per cent of the Psalms involve lament), where Israel formally addresses God with a complaint and a petition. The lament gives God a motivation for action and expresses the belief that God will hear and respond with mercy. Lament can be thought of as prayer in the form of protest and the honest expression of pain, sorrow, doubt, accusation, anger or rage. Yet this prayer is offered within the context of deep faith, trust and hope. The Psalmist usually starts praising God for his faithfulness before the lamentable situation is even fully resolved. Psalm 4 affirms that God has granted relief “when I was in distress” (NRSV). Psalm 23 declares that God has set a table for me “in the presence of my enemies.” This faithful hope and trust does not necessarily remove the lamenter from the situation, but allows them to deal with it courageously, and to lend courage to others as well. It is this faith, hope and courage that keep the lament from descending into a whine.

True lament refuses abstraction and romanticism. It deals with the real, the particular, the specific. It mourns and rages and hopes at THIS moment, in THIS circumstance. It insists upon flesh and blood and brick and mortar. It embodies. One of the great dangers of modern religion is the retreat to theoretical prayers and theoretical answers to prayer. We do not lament well because we are not willing (nor encouraged) to go deep enough into our own pain, anger and disappointment. In this we lack courage. We do not lament well with others because we are not willing (nor encouraged) to go deep enough into the brokenness of our neighbours. In this we lack love. And we do not lament well to God because we are not willing (nor encouraged) to go deep enough in our prayerful, and often doubtful, wrestling with him. In this we lack faith.

Embracing and practising lament can therefore teach us to better love God, our neighbour and ourselves. It requires and produces honesty and vulnerability. It creates the necessary conditions for empathy. And it begins, exists and is fulfilled within the idea that God hears and knows our suffering, and is faithful to answer our cries and meet us in our need.

Jesus prays a lament on the cross, when he cries out the opening lines of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a troubling question, as are all laments. But he does not end with this anguished scream of protest. Jesus also prays out the last line of Psalm 22: “He has done it!” (see John 19:30). This means that Jesus inhabits the whole of Psalm 22 on the cross—the pain, the doubt and the questioning, as well as the faithful, hopeful, victorious resolution. Jesus demonstrates how to pray and live lament, through the worst of possible circumstances.

A Communal Experience

So how do we practise lament? On a personal level, we need to be willing to sit with our sadness and disappointment. This does not mean being trapped in our misery. It means that we develop the courage to avoid denying, repressing or shoving our pain away. Instead, we acknowledge and lament pain, and then ask for the ability to hand it over to the Lord with faith, hope and gratitude. This is hard, but we can begin to practise this with all our emotions, including happiness. This is one of the ways we learn the essential discipline of detachment and the fruit of contentedness. 
“Thoughts and prayers” … I understand why this phrase makes so many people angry.
When we practise personal lament, we can also learn to engage in communal lament. This is something we have found necessary in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a community extremely familiar with suffering. We have started setting aside time in our holiness meetings for communal lament. Expressing disappointment, sorrow and anger is very important, but we are often afraid to do so in prayer or worship. So we open up space for people to bring their pain, sorrow, doubt and even anger before God. And then, like Job’s friends (before they got all preachy), we take time to weep alongside one another, or to respond with holy, faithful, compassionate fury, or with deep, body-wracking sobs. There are times when we even dare to scream, “Enough!” God is not intimidated by our honesty and vulnerability.

We do this because we believe, and have experienced, that shared pain is somehow lessened, just as shared joy is increased. We cannot know the deep experience of joy until and unless we are willing to experience the deep well of lament. Lament is not despair; it is careful observation of a fallen world matched with accurate and appropriate response. It is this that clears the way for unreserved joy.

More than “Thoughts and Prayers”

One of the most important stories in our corps’ history illustrates this. During a painful and confusing season, we met for prayer, asking one another if our marginalized friends were really welcome in the heart of our supposedly loving and incarnational fellowship. Did we really listen to the voice of the Lord through the cries of the oppressed and broken in our midst? We prepared to pray silently to consider the matter.

As we began, we heard the loud, obnoxious cries of our friend Leena, newly released from jail, who had decided to attend our gathering. As she walked up the stairs, noisily crying and complaining, we knew there would be no silent prayer. She crashed into our meeting and began approaching each person in the room to give them a hug and to yell: “I love you!” Ten minutes later, she finished by sitting down in the centre of our circle. Leena is the most marginalized woman we know, the least welcome everywhere, the embodiment of pain. That night she came to us with her brokenness, her need, her lament, her insistence and her love. She spoke the words of God over us, and showed us what it means to have a heart close to Jesus. Leena showed us that God offers more to us than “thoughts and prayers.” He offers his presence. He hugs us and tells us that he loves us.

Aaron White is the ministry director of 614 at Anchor of Hope Corps in Vancouver.

For Further Reading 

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times 
by Soong-Chan Rah 
The Psalms as Christian Lament 
by Bruce K. Waltke, James M. Houston and Erika Moore 
A Grief Observed 
by C.S. Lewis 
A Sacred Sorrow 
by Michael Card 
Joy in Our Weakness 
by Marva J. Dawn 
Rejoicing in Lament 
by J. Todd Billings 
Where is God When it Hurts? 
and Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey 
The Cross and the Lynching Tree 
by James H. Cone 

Feature photo: © mimadeo/

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