W e are people of faith who are bound to hope,” says Shelvis Smith-Mather, who serves through RCA Global Mission to bring trauma healing and reconciliation to people in South Sudan. “But I’ve become more aware of how my lean has been to the hope side—sometimes to the detriment of the struggle side—which depreciates the value of the hope that’s present.”
Even with hope as a framework for our lives, serving a risen King, we cannot ignore the weary world around us. Even as we hold the promise that God “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3), we cry out to God and ask, “How long, O Lord?”
Lament is a deeply biblical and spiritual practice. Sometimes the cries of the heart manifest as audible sobbing or silent weeping. Sometimes there is despair, swirling questions, or deep wrestling. Sometimes joy comes with the morning, and sometimes a season of lament drags on. Here, six members from across the Reformed Church in America talk about how lament’s pause—and its honest pleas before God—can be instrumental in our healing and finding hope once more.
“[In my work,] I’m not asking people to make that leap … and get better, but to pause, to sit, to cry, to write, do artwork, to struggle, to talk about how other people have dealt with similar struggles,” says Smith-Mather. “If you can do that type of work, you’re breaking up that ground. It’s so painful. But it’s such a necessary step to open yourselves up to a possible new beginning.”
Defining lament: Lament is the cry of your heart, crying out to God in such a way that he knows your pain without you having to express it in words. … I think it’s through lament that you can really get an image of God’s heart—you’re able to understand God’s pain, but also his love for us.
The relationship between lament and hope: Sometimes when you’re in deep lament, you just can’t see the hope. But I know that God works through everything, and lament is never useless. … I think of gold being refined—how it has to go through incredible, intense pressure to be produced into something really beautiful. That’s how I see lament: God is working in that pain. I find hope in that.
Lamenting well: It’s very easy to squirrel things away. Don’t be afraid to revel in that lament. You read Scripture and you see people lamenting, you see God working in that, and you see that amazing things happen once you put that lament out there. Lamenting is a chance for you to connect with God and a chance for him to work in that. Don’t deny that chance. I think it’s important to allow yourself to understand what you’re feeling and then own it. Be in it. Don’t try to rush through that stage.
I just remember the time that Lazarus was dead. Jesus went, and he could have easily said, I can fix this. But he didn’t. He took time to lament and be with them, his friends and family. He lamented as well. I think it’s important to allow God to work in that and to connect in that way with others.
The importance of lament: As a psychologist and pastor, I’ve always talked about growing in storms and struggle. It’s a wonderful thing to do personally and teach others to do. It’s transformative. You journey through the valley, and that valley experience is what leads you to heal and get to the mountain of God. … The fear, doubt, bewilderment, anger, shame—you have to work through it, not just yell about it. Grapple with what you need and what you’re holding in your chest, your heart, your mind. Remain hopeful and faithful with all parts.
Lament practices: Playing the trumpet, memorizing Scripture. I fast once a week for a day, with intercessory prayer. Lament is an expression of grief and sorrow and the true heart—a space where I need to open up and let God move.
Advice for lamenting: We tend to put God in packages of our expectations and understanding, but our God is so much more. Remove limitations from God as you lament, and just give yourself to God. God is relational. To lament to God is to move into a deeper relationship with God.
Defining lament: Lament is an acknowledgment of the wounds of the heart and the loss that the heart has suffered. … When we acknowledge the wounds of the heart, it’s generally not one thing, but a number of things that are tethered and lost together.
For a world that is fighting with normal because of all the things that have happened, there is a big, huge heartbreak—tangible losses, thousands who have lost their lives, others who have lost lifestyles or been physically altered. … People are juggling so many things, including mental stability, and trying to grapple with all the loss happening at this time. It’s just needed to acknowledge that this is hard.
The relationship between lament and hope: We are daughters and sons of the resurrection. We have a God who died and was raised again. While that’s the language of who we are, … there’s a simple phrase from Martin Luther King: “there’s not Easter Sunday without Good Friday.”
Easily one of my favorite passages in Scripture is Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” Paul is seemingly trying to give some wise council to Christians who are existing in a very messy world. The messiness is both the good and the bad. There are moments in which we are faithfully being asked to do one of those things, to be totally present to rejoicing in hope, for example. But there are plenty of times that we’re asked to grapple with all three of those things.
Experience with lament: Since 2008, [our family] has been evacuated for security or medical reasons four times, and total relocation followed. We mourned the community we’d lived in, no longer able to engage in the same ways. In the new place, it was in our face every day that we had lost things. In those moments, we had to create space to pause and say, “Wow, this is really painful, hard, overwhelming.” We had to take time to grieve and lament before moving forward.
Being in South Sudan, nearby Rwanda, which has had terrible genocide over the years, I’ve seen how powerful it’s been that Rwandan brothers and sisters have normalized loss. They’re continually coming back to emptiness and hurt and lost communities—an acknowledgment of what’s wrong and the ability to imagine what can be. It’s a beautiful process that’s continuing to unfold in Rwanda.
The importance of lament: It is a theme we see represented repeatedly in the Bible, and it is a tool we can use to connect to our pain and trauma and the pain and trauma of others. We live in a broken and hurting world, and we cannot give up hope for healing.
Relationship between lament, hope, and faith: Lament is sometimes referred to as crisis language. Lament allows us to join with others—and with ourselves—in the pain and suffering experienced living in a world that is not yet reconciled to God (nor us reconciled to one another through God). To deny or minimize this pain and suffering—whether the pain and suffering is experienced by us personally or by others—is to deny or minimize the brokenness of this world and the biblical mandate that we be reconciled with God and with one another. Hope is the motivation we need to live out the role God has given us as ambassadors or Christ, emboldening us to accept God’s invitation to join in the ministry of reconciliation. Faith is knowing that God has already reconciled us and the world to God through Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).
In my role as refugee ministries coordinator, I have an amazing opportunity to help educate people on the global crisis of forced displacement and to care for those who are seeking refuge. I have the opportunity to engage in the ministry of reconciliation and healing God has given, and to invite others to join me. Yes, this means opening our eyes—and our hearts—to the pervasive and complex suffering and trauma experienced by others, but it also grants us the opportunity to witness and proclaim the grace, mercy, and love of God, and how that manifests not only in the lives of individuals who have been displaced and are seeking refuge, but also through the healing and reconciliation of tribes, nations, and even the land on which we live.
Lament practices: Communally, I’m grateful to have a minister who regularly includes songs, prayers, liturgies, and biblical texts of lament into worship. Individually, I spend time learning about pain and suffering that is happening in our world. Sometimes I do this through reading books and articles or listening to podcasts about current events. Other times, I do this by creating a safe space for people who are experiencing pain and trauma to share their stories.
Experience with lament: It’s my testimony. I’ve always asked, “Why, God? Why am I going through this? Why is there bad?” Now, my perspective has changed, especially since renewing my relationship [with Christ]. I lament how I’ve had my relationship with Christ—being so into it, then letting it go and falling into the world. I say, “Why didn’t I take this more seriously before?” … I needed those times to bring me out of the way I was going, which was the road to destruction.
Lament practices: It starts with me by myself, asking questions and realizing I’m asking these questions. I ask these questions to my wife, and I turn to my pastor. Praying, talking to God, being in the Word. Some days there’s something, sometimes not for a few days. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—that’s pounding through me.
Advice for lamenting: Be real with yourself. That’s where God wants to start—with you and him. You have these questions, and it’s okay to ask. God is always there. Talk to him.
Current lament: As an educator of 20-plus years, I have spent my entire career lamenting over the disparity in educational outcomes for black youth.
The importance of lament: When we are dealing with pain and suffering, we have the opportunity to cry out to our Father in heaven and know that we will be heard and that our pain will not last always.
The relationship between lament and faith: Lament allows us to petition to God. Our faith tells us that we will be heard. My faith is built on the hope that I will be delivered from my suffering.
Lament practices: I first turn to listening to and singing gospel music. I find that I am able to cry out to God. Another practice is journaling. I can complain and vent to God and know that I will be heard. I can go back to my writing from time to time as a reminder of what God has brought me through.
This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.