the shape of leadership

A Time to Weep

Leading your congregation in lament

Cameron Combs on May 16, 2022

It’s not fair,” a grieving woman told me during the response time following my sermon. “It’s just not fair.”

Her tragic story, shared through tears, was difficult to hear. Finding an appropriate answer was even more difficult.

Common replies to expressions of grief can range from unhelpful to irresponsible: “There’s a purpose for everything.” “It could be worse.” “Be grateful for what you still have.”

Such comments benefit the speakers more than the hearers, providing an easy out rather than addressing hard issues. They highlight our discomfort with the reality of suffering.

I couldn’t dodge this woman’s grief, however. I had just preached on lament. In that moment, I felt a crushing sense of responsibility for the open wound she chose to share with me.

What could I say?


Space for Lament

Over the past two years, our communities have faced immense pain and loss. I recently began to wonder, Is there room for suffering in our churches? Do our services make space for the grief people are experiencing, or do we gather only to forget about that for an hour?

We live in a culture that often equates sorrow with weakness. Instead of acknowledging grief, people learn to deny the depth of their pain. Many try to hide it, ignore it, or narcotize it.

Are churches contributing to this denial, or are we piercing through it? Do our efforts to exude energy and enthusiasm during worship services unwittingly push grief in our congregations to the margins?

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

Perhaps we need to rediscover a central biblical tradition: lament.

Certainly, avoidance of suffering would have seemed strange to the Old Testament psalmists and prophets. In fact, Israel’s liberation from slavery began with lament.

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob (Exodus 2:23–24).

God listened to the lament of the Israelites, acknowledged their pain, and responded with compassion.

Speaking to Moses at the burning bush, God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7).

In the generations that followed, the Jewish people turned to God in lament again and again in times of suffering.

Lament is an expression recognizing that things, in their present condition, are not right. Prophetic lament is a cry acknowledging the deep pain associated with telling the truth about our circumstances.

Telling the truth in a fallen world can only begin with the capacity to grieve.


Hope for Tomorrow

Biblical lament is not hopelessness. It is a hopeful cry for help that threatens the established order.

Pharaoh had no tolerance for such lament. He didn’t want the lives of the Israelites to change for the better. His harsh treatment was an attempt to silence their plaintive voices and quash any hope for change.

Pharaoh said, “Lazy, that’s what you are — lazy! That is why you keep saying, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Now get to work. You will not be given any straw, yet you must produce your full quota of bricks” (Exodus 5:17–18).

Biblical lament is not hopelessness. It is a hopeful cry for help that threatens the established order.

The Israelites nevertheless articulated their oppressive reality, and God answered.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). It might seem strange that grief could open a door to blessing, but that is essentially the message of the Cross (John 20:11–18; Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 2:23–24).

Isaiah described Christ as “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (53:3).

On the cross, Jesus spoke the opening words of Psalm 22, a psalm of lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the lament psalms Israel’s “weapons against despair.” The Israelites cried out in lament and even fell into grumbling and complaining at times. Yet they did not give in to despair.

The difference between lament and resignation is that lament refuses to break off the conversation with God. Lament brings complaints before the Lord — not only because He is able to act, but also because He wants to hear from us.

The God of Psalms is not for polite church. He is a broad-shouldered God who says, “Cry out to me! I hear you. I can take it.”

The Psalms point us to Jesus, who is no stranger to weeping (John 11:35). Jesus wept tears of solidarity with the suffering and inhumanity we experience in the world. They are the tears of God.

Pharaoh’s cruel empire has fallen. The kingdom of our loving and compassionate God will never end.

God sees our tears and will one day wipe them all away (Revelation 21:4). In the meantime, the Cross not only makes space for lament, but it also demands it. We mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) and carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).

We don’t hide our weariness; we bring it to Jesus (Matthew 11:28). We grieve, but not like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).


Honesty for Today

The woman in my congregation was right when she said, “It’s not fair.”

Such confessions are liberating. We cannot let the Pharaohs of the world silence them. Like the Israelites, we should cry out against injustice and call on God with hopeful and expectant hearts.

What does this look like in a church service? It begins with recognizing how much space the Bible gives lament and including those passages in our sermons.

After I preached on lament, I told the congregation we were going to walk through a time of lament together. I invited those who were suffering or grieving to come to the altar as a public acknowledgement of their circumstances.

I asked the rest of the congregation to stand in solidarity with those who had come forward. Together, we read aloud from Psalm 88, one of the harshest lament psalms in Scripture.

The honesty of this psalm is breathtaking: “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. … You have put me in the lowest pit … . You have taken from me my closest friends … . Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (verses 3,6,8,14).

Unlike most lament psalms, Psalm 88 does not even end with a turn toward hope. Instead, it concludes with this haunting line: “Darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18).

We made the words of the text our own words. Doing this as one body was incredibly powerful. We ended with silence. Only the cries of those who were suffering could be heard.

I asked the pastoral staff and other lay leaders to join those who were lamenting at the altar — not to offer advice or teaching, but simply to stand with them and listen, joining them in the pit of their sorrow.

In that moment, the woman at the altar lamenting the unfairness of her situation did not need me to defend God or assure her that all things work together for good. She needed someone to acknowledge her lament.

I said quietly, “You’re right. It’s not fair at all. God hears you, and so do I.”


This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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