I am keenly aware that this article may find you at a moment of profound sorrow. Of course, you may just be intellectually interested in the subject of lament, or you may be a practitioner who regularly helps those in grief and tragedy—an elder, counselor, or church member. But for some of you, this article will find you in deep sorrow. I open by saying that I know it is difficult to teach in the graveyard where tears are better companions than words and phrases strung together on the page. Grieving reader, I want to begin by saying, “I’m sorry. Could we gather together around the Bible, in your time of sorrow, and let the Lord place His arm around our shoulders, hearing Him invite us to do what His people have done and will always do until the day of no more tears—to mourn, to lament, to grieve?”
I must begin in an odd place, seemingly. And that is only because lament is so very misunderstood today. Lament, commonly practiced, is thought to be a continuous, unbridled, emotional outburst, the opening of the floodgate of dark and sorrow-filled affections. It is like the man who punches a hole in the drywall, who, for the sake of his fist and drywall, would never counsel such a thing, and yet in his senseless and passionate rage finds himself very much wanting to damage both. Mourning and rage, it is thought, have this in common: the loss of control, the loss of careful thought, the bare flailing of a life caught off guard by circumstances never wished for and always avoided.
But biblical mourning is not unbridled grief or emotion. Paul counsels grieving Christians at Thessalonica, saying:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess. 4:13–14)
Here Paul is setting limits on grief, offering doctrine to guide mourning. He is correcting and teaching in the graveyard. Those who have hope, factual and supernatural confidence in the promises of God, will, when they are mourning biblically, mourn differently from those who have no hope. This same pattern shows up in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, where he compares two kinds of grief over sin, saying, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). The many psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations show an artistic precision and theological depth that were not written during an uncontrolled emotional outburst, some sort of grief-stricken stream of consciousness. No, biblical lament is something other than unbridled sorrow. It is precise, planned, and governed by Scripture.