I lead worship every week for my community, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as well as disease, unemployment, divorce, and many other struggles – are always in the room with us.
If a theology of resurrection (the empty tomb, renewal, personal transformation, healing, miracles) does not stand together in worship with a theology of suffering (the full cross, intercession, trouble, sorrow, struggle), then I contend our worship is out of accord with both the Scriptures and the daily news.
Worship That Is Both “Now” And “Not Yet”
The Kingdom of God is both “now” (among us), and “not yet” (to come in its fullness one day in the future). Our worship life should reflect this tension, or I contend we misrepresent Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom.
Yes, post-resurrection all things are being made new. Yes, we are a people of praise, thanks, and joy. Yes, Joy is the major theme. But also, yes, suffering is the minor theme, and is everywhere – from the masses being slaughtered by radical groups today, to the struggles you and I will have with relationships, jobs, and emotional and physical health. Jesus said we will have trouble.
We must be present to this as leaders, and it must shape our language. This is the “now” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God, and we live in the tension – the radical middle.
The following article is precious to me, and is written by my brother-in-law, Ed Gentry. I hope it impacts you as much as it has impacted me.
5 Reasons Lament And Praise Must Stand Together In Worship
Worship in our various traditions includes proclaiming God’s goodness, power, and majesty. With confidence we speak of God’s nearness to the brokenhearted, of His tender care, and His faithful presence. All this is deeply, profoundly, and ultimately true. But is it always true of our lived experience?
If we are honest, often God seems far away; He does not always answer when we call; His presence does not feel as close as we proclaim. Sometimes horrible things happen to us or to those we love, and the God of healing and salvation seems reluctant or slow to act. How should the community of faith respond when our lived experience does not correspond to our faith-filled proclamation?
Psalms Of Both Lament And Praise
A common and often helpful response is to continue to proclaim the truth of God’s character and to recount His past faithfulness during times of suffering and difficulty. The Bible certainly echoes this kind of response to adversity, where praise becomes an act of faith. But scripture is not limited to responding in this way. In fact the more common response in the Bible is to be very candid about the experience of adversity and to cry out directly to God for relief. This cry for help is most often and clearly seen in the Psalms of complaint or lament.
More than one third of the Psalms are laments, which makes lament by far the most common kind of song in Israel’s songbook. The disparity between Israel’s songbook and a modern worship notebook or hymnal is remarkable. In both you will find songs of adoration, exuberant praise, and bold declarations of God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. What is conspicuous by its absence in our worship corpus – modern or traditional – are songs of lament or complaint. Typically only a small fraction even gives a hint of our experience of adversity, weakness, and suffering. Few, if any, plumb the depth of suffering, or cry to God for justice like the lament Psalms.
Recovering the practice of lament will help us be more authentic, biblically faithful, and culturally relevant followers of Jesus.
1. Lament And Praise Respond To Reality
Songs of lament and songs of praise are both a response to reality. In our songs of praise and adoration, we respond to the reality of God’s revealed character: His holiness, goodness, faithfulness, majesty and tender care. While God’s unchanging character is certainly the only ultimate reality – until the final consummation of the Kingdom of God – there is also the reality of our broken world, which constantly impinges on our lives. It is to this reality that the Psalms address themselves.
Laments face head-on corporate and individual grief, pain, suffering and the resultant alienation. Their shrill tone gives voice to this suffering and keeps us from responding to our pain with denial or unmerited guilt. Much personal psychological pathos could be more easily resolved if we would learn to express our pain, anger, guilt, frustration, and disappointment.
Laments encourage us to face our individual and communal pain and demonstrate that the first and best response to pain and suffering is to bring it before God. Laments help wrestle with suffering when we are relatively or totally blameless. Instead of feelings of vague guilt, lament give us form and language to bring our case directly before God. From the sublime to the horrific, the Psalms illustrate that we can and should respond to all our lived experience before God in worship.
2. Lament And Praise Share Theology
Songs of lament and songs of praise share the same theology. Both recount God’s past faithfulness and proclaim His righteous character. But after affirming God’s goodness, the laments go on to provocatively ask how this good God allows the current experience of suffering. The laments, then, are very much about theodicy or the problem of evil. But for Israel theodicy was not an abstract philosophical puzzle; suffering was a direct challenge to their covenant with God. According to their covenant, God would care for and protect Israel if they kept its stipulations. Deut 28 for example, proclaims that all will go well for Israel if they only observe the covenant.
But, laments sometimes claim that Israel is suffering unjustly; despite their current situation, the psalmist and the community are innocent! They have kept the covenant and, therefore, do not deserve their current calamity (e.g. Ps 44:17-22; 74:20-23 cf. Job). Lament responds to this covenantal crisis with anger and rage oriented directly toward God! Laments also often express dismay and anger that God has apparently abandoned them (Ps 22:1, Lam 5:20). Laments illustrate then that there is no necessary contradiction between faith and doubt. Indeed expressions of doubt, anger, and frustration to God are, in the Psalms, an act of faith and even an act of worship.
3. Lament And Praise Strengthen Community
Songs of lament and songs of praise are both congregational expressions. Both adoration and grief, praise and pain can and should be expressed in community. When we are not aware of our own suffering, Lament becomes an act of solidarity with those suffering among us. Perhaps one of most devastating effects of suffering is the isolation that it causes. Whether through sickness, oppression, or injustice, the sufferer often feels alone, disconnected, and abandoned (e.g. Ps 22:1 which Jesus quotes on the cross).
This sense of isolation can be exacerbated when entering a worship service which does not give space or voice for pain and grief. The practice of communal lament helps build authentic community because those who are suffering realize they are not alone. Rather, they are in the company of a community which helps them give expression to their grief. To those suffering, expressing laments in community may give permission and language to say things that might otherwise be difficult. Lament, then, engenders healing and intimacy. Instead of pious niceties community is built on our real-life joys and pain, Lament becomes a means of bearing each other’s burdens, proclaiming we do not suffer alone (Gal 6:2).
4. Lament And Praise Lead Us To Mission
Songs of lament and songs of praise are both deeply connected to our place and role in the world. Israel’s prophetic tradition provocatively proclaims God’s abhorrence of praise and adoration that are not also accompanied by acts of justice and compassion (e.g. Amos 6:21-24; Isa 1:12-17, 58). Fundamentally, lament is not just about catharsis or solidarity, but it is a cry to God to establish justice. For Brueggemann, our cry for justice must start directly before God:
A community of faith that negates lament soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions at the throne… they soon appear to be improper questions in public places, in schools, in hospitals, with the government, and eventually in the courts. Justice questions disappear into civility and docility.
Lament then is a kind of corporate intercession where the suffering of the community and of the world is brought before God’s throne. Lament as intercession is already itself an act of compassion and justice which is meant to motivate action both from God and from the community. As intercession, lament validates the pain and suffering of the broken world, directs itself at God and demands “let Your Kingdom come!” (Matt 6:10).
5. Lament And Praise Stand Together
Lament and praise should not be separated; they are actually two sides of the same coin. Praise without lament can lead to a superficial spirituality which does not recognize or take seriously the pain and grief that accompany our journey. Lament without praise can easily lead to self-pity, and eventually unbelief since we never remind ourselves of who God is and what He has done and will accomplish.
As the Church struggles to reinvent and rediscover itself it would do well to remember that one of our primary missions is mediation. Just as God called Israel after the exodus He still calls the church to be a Kingdom of Priests (Ex 19:6). The church then is called to be priests who mediate between heaven and earth. Lament and praise function together to do exactly this. Together, lament and praise keep the community connected to heaven’s ultimate reality as well as to our lived experience on earth.
Praise brings heaven to earth; lament brings earth before heaven.
Together they express the suffering of the world before God and proclaim that one day we will lament no more! The mourners will indeed be comforted (Matt 5:4).
Brueggemann, Walter. The Psalms and the Life of Faith. Fortress Press, 1995.
Ed Gentry has been a lecturer in Biblical studies in various contexts, including at St. Stephen’s University in Canada. He has served as a senior architect in a major software company, as well as being a worship leader and musician in various settings for over 20 years. He and his wife Anne live in Waynesville, NC with their three children.
 Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 107.