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Suffering in God's Presence: The Role of Lament in Transformation - Elizabeth Lewis Hall

Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
March 25, 2019

What is the role of lament in our transformation? Lament is an ancient Christian practice modeled for us by Jesus. Its purpose is to assist us to reconstruct meaning when suffering leaves us disoriented. Drawing on the psychological literature on stress-related growth, I show how the structure of the psalms of lament facilitates the process of growth through meaning-making. The trajectory of lament involves a psychological move from distress to praise, and from disorientation to new orientation. The outcome of lament—the meaning that is achieved—is not primarily rational or propositional, but instead is anchored in the intimate, dialogical relationship with God.

Elizabeth Lewis Hall, Ph.D. is Professor at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University, where she teaches clinical and integration courses. Her research focuses on meaning-making in suffering, women’s issues in the evangelical subculture, and the integration of psychology and theology. Dr. Hall is Associate Editor of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. She was recently awarded the 2016 Narramore Award for Excellence in the Integration of Theology and Psychology bye the Christian Association for Psychological Studies.


In December of 2013, I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. In the year that followed, I endured three surgeries, five months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation. As a clinical psychologist, I had been forced to confront the suffering of others but this diagnosis pulled me out of my normal life and really forced me to examine suffering in a whole new way. Now in the big scheme of things my suffering was relatively minor. It was temporary. I’m now as far as I know cancer-free.

It was something that did not involve you know personal betrayal. It didn’t involve the loss of a loved one which I think would have been much worse. But small as it was, my suffering changed me. And one of the primary vehicles I think for that change was the ancient practice of lament and so that is what I want to speak to you about today. Like other Christian practices such as fasting or meditation on scripture or communion, lament is a spiritual discipline. in that, as we practice it regularly it shapes us in the developmental pathway of our faith. Specifically, lament is a powerful practice for embedding us firmly in the Christian story. And that helps us to find meaning in our suffering.

A quick search in dictionaries for the definition of lament reveals that it is to express sorrow, regret or unhappiness about something, or it’s a formal expression of sorrow or mourning. But biblical lament is actually much more than this. It’s not just a formal expression of sorrow it also calls out to a specific person, God. It’s not just an expression of deep emotion but it calls to God for action. And it contains a rather unexpected element that differs radically from that sorrow or regret or unhappiness of this definition.

It ends in praise to God. We find lament throughout the Old Testament. Most clearly in the Psalms and these passages of lament are referenced extensively throughout the New Testament. As a practicing Jew, Jesus would have participated in the communal praying and singing of the Psalms including the Psalms of lament. And this formed the backdrop for his own practice of lament. We read that Jesus, consistently brought his before suffering God. Hebrews 5:7 says, “In the days of his flesh Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to him who is able to save him from death.” Jesus practiced handing over his suffering to God.

When Jesus was faced with the suffering of others as when Lazarus died, he lamented. When faced with his upcoming death in the Garden of Gethsemane, he lamented. On the cross he cried out, “My god , my God. Why have you forsaken me?” Quoting a Psalm of lament. And shortly after that he cried out, “Father into your hands I command my spirit.” Before dying quoting yet another Psalm of lament. So when we follow Jesus’ example in suffering, we find at our disposal the resources that he drew on including lament. But why is lament such a powerful spiritual discipline for those going through times of suffering? Suffering is profoundly disorienting.

It shakes up our assumptions about the world, about our place in the world, about the way that we think things should be. Psychologist Crystal Park offers a model for understanding why it is that hard things cause suffering in our lives. According to her model, hard things cause suffering when there is a discrepancy. A gap between our world view on the one hand and our understanding of the hard event on the other hand.

So for example, my initial understanding of my cancer diagnosis as a threat to my life and a potential tragedy in the lives of my husband and sons was incompatible with my view of God as a loving God. And according to Park’s model to reduce distress people need to either adjust their views of the event or adjust their beliefs about the world to accommodate this new information. This involves a meaning making process. That changes either the specific situation, the view of it, or it changes our beliefs about the world and ourself.


So meaning making turns out to be a really crucial coping mechanism in dealing with times of suffering and this is where the structure of lament comes in. In praying through lament, the structure of a lament begins to restore some sense of order in the midst of chaos. The structure of lament at a very basic level helps us to find the words to express the experience of suffering. Those of us who are therapists know the power of offering interpretations and often interpretations are simply articulating for clients.

Putting into words what they may be experiencing but having a hard time putting into words. So, what happens when we are able to verbalize their experiences for them is that it allows that suffering to be expressed interpersonally. It brings it into the relationship. But words don’t simply express or reflect experience. Words also shape experience. So for example, writing of lament Theologian Walter Brueggemann notes, “Language does not simply follow reality, reflect it, but it leads reality to become what it is not.

The speaker calls forth a new reality.” So the shape of lament causes our verbalized experience to be molded by encountering the reality of God. When we express our suffering, our experience in the form of lament and allow our experience to be shaped by the words of lament, our experience itself is transformed. Now let me turn now to the components of lament and how they may assist us in this meaning making coping. The Psalms of lament typically begin with a agonized cry out to God. My God or oh Lord. So for example Psalm 13, which I’ll be using as an example this evening, starts out, “How long Lord?”

I think the point here is that lament is an interpersonal process. It’s a turning to God. It’s not a lonely catharsis. We’re allowed to bring our suffering to God. We can actually take initiative in the relationship with God and be responded to. Have yo ever wondered what it would be like if we had the kind of God with whom we could not initiate? What if the only thing that we could do was respond to God Perhaps in praise or worship? What this would do is it would make our experience invisible in the relationship. God wouldn’t be responding relationally to our requests he’d only be one sidedly acting. So our initiating in the relationship is what allows for intimacy. For the development of trust in God.

And there’s actually a bit of empericle support for this. In a study which college students we’re encouraged to pray through the Psalms, they found that increased involvement with the Psalms was actually co-related with greater reports of intimacy with God. And so the address is important because it allows for that relational responsiveness on God’s part. The second component of lament is complaint. Here the cause of the suffering is brought before God and the disorientation that we experience in the midst of suffering is expressed. So for example Psalm 13 says. “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

When you look over the Psalms of lament in The Book of Psalms, there’s actually a really remarkable array of causes of suffering that are represented. As summarized by the biblical scholar Glen Pembleton they include things like bodies that aren’t working well, disease and pain, disappointments in life, depression, people in our lives who have become our enemies who lie about us, who take advantage of us and sometimes God himself is the cause of the lament. When he seems to be unresponsive. When we don’t know what is going on and when sometimes he acts in ways that strikes us as frankly quite bizarre.

It’s important that nothing seems to be off limits in terms of what we can bring to God in our suffering. This expression of suffering in lament is a crucial element because what happens then is that our suffering is not denied and our suffering is not minimized. Suffering is not dealt with by explaining it away or by distracting ourselves from it. It’s recognized.

And when it’s recognized, that means that our suffering is legitimated. Research suggests that processing our suffering cognitively and emotionally is necessary in order for growth to occur. In fact some studies have suggested that the amount of perceived growth is directly related to the amount of intentional engagement with the suffering. We process suffering by trying to figure out initially how to cope in concrete ways with the suffering but that often leads into what I think is perhaps the more substantial way of coping with it which is to figure out issues of meaning. How this event fits in with our view of the world. Our beliefs about the world.

This is a challenging aspect of lament for us and our culture because really the currents in our culture kind of go against this. The suffering of others often makes us very uncomfortable and consequently I think that we often try to help other people who are going through suffering by trying to distract them or point out the silver linings or other things that avoid engaging with them in coping and processing their pain. The Psalms of lament which again we’re often prayed communally suggest that there is another route to helping people to go through their suffering instead of trying to help them go around their suffering.

The next component of biblical lament is the request. So lament doesn’t get stuck in the experience of the suffering but instead there is a kind of a constructive peace to lament. Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann wrote, “There is not a single Psalm of lament that stops with lamentation. Lamentation has no meaning in and of itself. The lament appeals to the one who can remove suffering.” In Psalm 13, the request is, “Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes.”

Nick Walter Stolf distinguishes two kinds of requests for deliverance that we bring to God. First is deliverance from the suffering itself but he also notes that we seek deliverance from this threat of meaninglessness. Psalmists often asks, “Why is this happening? What sense does this make?” And I think this distinction between the event itself and the disorientation that it brings helps to highlight the distinction that is part of Crystal Park’s model. We bring both of these things to God for deliverance and lament. This is also the part of lament where I think we see the presence of hope. We are not left to wallow in our misery when we ask God to change things. It brings with it the reminder that God can act and that situations can change and so there begins to be kind of this imagined possibility of alleviation of the suffering through God’s intervention.

Hope is a central component to meaning making in fact most major theories of meaning making have hope as kind of a central component. Meaning making has to evoke hope in order for it to lead a sufferer into a better place. And there is research support for this, for example one study found out that hope mediated the relationship between the sense meaning in life and well being. In plain English hope is an important reason why people who report meaning in life also tend to flourish more. But hope as we use the word in our general culture can be very vague.

We might use it to express kind of a sense of optimism or even wishful thinking. And this is not the biblical notion of hope. There is a distinct theological content to hope as it’s used in scripture. In the New Testament in particular, it’s given kind of a particular flavor, a particular vision and that vision id of suffering leading to glory. To our ultimate transformation into Christ-likeness. In other words suffering is linked to growth.

So for example in 2 Corinthians 4 Paul says, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving of us eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” The hope that is offered to us by our faith doesn’t pit our current suffering against that eschatological glory that we hope for. We don’t just grin and bear it because it will be better some day. If this was the case then our faith would I think be a faith that silences our suffering. What our hope does instead is it legitimizes our suffering in two ways.

First of all the suffering itself is re-conceptualized. It’s a mechanism that can bring us closer to that eschatological vision. As we see in this verse, our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us. Our suffering plays a role. Second, the difficult events in our life are not diminished by minimizing their consequences in our lives or by denying their existence but instead we see our current suffering against our backdrop. In light of that eschatological hope, in this verse, an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. So as we put our current circumstances against that backdrop We’re reminded that we live in this transitional age.

That our current suffering is transient but our future hope is eternal. That Christ has defeated suffering and death but we’re still living in anticipation. of the end of the story. And what this means is that there’s still a need for lament in our hope. In Romans 8 language, “We grow on as we wait.” Right? Our suffering doesn’t disappear but it’s set in a different context. And that context ,makes all the difference. To put it in terms of Crystal Park’s theory, the meaning that we attribute to our suffering and how we embed it in out larger world view is what makes all the difference.

The motivation component of lament is the one that might sound strangest to our modern years. Songs of lament often include reasons why God should answer the petition. To put it I plain terms. The Psalmist even often seem to engage in a kind of divine arm-twisting if that’s what it takes God to answer. And so there are a variety of common reasons that are given for why God should intervene but often it’s his reputation. His consistency with past actions, his name, that are invoked. Either overtly or implicitly. In Psalm 13, I think we see it more implicitly in terms of kind of an association, “Or I will sleep in death and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.”

Now regardless of the intent of the psalmist in doing this bit of divine arm-twisting. I think this part of The Psalms of laments serves an important function in our lives because it reminds us if who God is. In this part of the Psalms of lament, we see God for who God is. In the first place we see we are reminded of kind of our position before God. That God is God. We are not. God is the creator. We’re the creature. God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. We are not, One of the things that suffering does very well Is it makes our limitations very clear to us. It provides us with the opportunity of acknowledging our finitude, our vulnerability, our lack of control. In short, our need for God.

And ironically again research shows that the more overwhelming that we find our circumstances, the more out of control we feeL, the more we report experiencing growth. It’s through suffering. We need God. And so lament reminds us of our position in relation to God. Our divine arm-twisting can also remind us of the character of God. We are reminded of how God has powerfully acted in the past. We’re reminded of God’s name. God is a just God. He is a powerful God. He can act on behalf of the sufferer. And so this very act of crying out to God shapes relationally by reminding us of who we are in relationship to God and who God is. Lament ends with sometimes startling expression of confidence in God.

The transition into this part of the Psalms of lament is often marked with the word ‘but’. And I think that very important small word marks a contrast movement into a new way of experiencing reality. In Psalm 13, we read, “But I trust in your unfailing love. My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise for he has been good to me.” Now one really interesting thing about the Psalm of lament is that they are often most of the time silent regarding why or how the shift to praise occurs. Is it because God has already acted? Maybe. We don’t actually really know. But I think that even when God has not yet acted that this movement through the lament can actually lead us to this place of praise.

As we pray through the Psalms, again our desires, our affections, our Perspectives are molded and changed. Eugene Peterson says that this is the lesson of the Psalms, “That all true prayer pursued far enough will become praise. It does not always get there quickly, it does not always get there easily but the end is always praise.” So to summarize. In addressing or lament to God. Lament introduces that possibility of intimacy with God as we experience being deeply seen in the relationship with God.

Bringing our complaint to God shows us that nothing is off limits and allows us that transformative experience of sitting in our grief and pain. The request for God to act elicits hope and in reminding God of why God should act we ourselves are reminded of who God is and who we are in relationship to God. And that final expression of confidence is I think both a pathway and an outcome. It directs our attention away from ourselves and toward God and helps to mold and shape us until we can finally reach this place of trust and confidence in God. Park’s meaning making model suggests that distress is caused by a discrepancy or gap between our understanding of the event and the our-world view.

This gap can be bridged by either changing our view of the distressing event or by changing our world view. The Psalms of lament can assist in this process. When our theological world view is weak lament bolsters it by reminding us of that foundational reality of a loving God. Lament also helps us to bridge this gap by putting our suffering, our view of the particular event in the larger context of the world view bringing those two together so that we are increasingly bringing our suffering into the redemptive domain of this loving God who is in control of this world that we find so incredibly uncontrollable. And so we find relief from our suffering when the source of our suffering becomes woven deeply into the fabric of God’s faithfulness. Which is celebrated in the Psalms. And so let me encourage you to use this rich resource that we have been given.