Lament in Corporate Worship

Contributed by Barton Priebe, DMin, Incoming President of Northwest Baptist Seminary and author of The Problem with Christianity: Six Unsettling Questions You Have Asked and Adopted by God. Barton pastored Dunbar Heights Baptist Church in Vancouver and Central Baptist Church in Victoria before coming to Northwest.

Over my twenty years as a lead pastor, I occasionally held a special “service of lament” when our congregation was facing a season of difficulty, grief, and loss. My aim in sharing the following introductory words to one of these services is to equip churches on how to think about and implement lament into their corporate worship.

Grief in our Church

Our church has experienced a much grief and anguish.  One of our pillar members died of cancer.  We lost two firstborn babies from two different families in only a few weeks. A few people lost their jobs.  Others had elderly parents pass away.  Still others experienced significant relational struggles and mental illness.  Many of you, though not always expressing it, carry great burdens that fill you with grief.

This service is for each of you.  But this service is also for those who come today with carefree hearts.  We are called to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15 ESV).  We are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2 ESV).  So, bring your own burdens and bring the burdens of others.

Our Difficulty with Grief

In our Western world we often avoid grief and suffering.  Even worse, there are preachers and Christians who say that if you just trust Jesus, he will heal all your diseases, solve all your problems, and even make you wealthy.  This is emphatically not the view of the Bible.  In the Bible we read of times when there was tremendous lament.  It is not without reason that we have an entire book of the Bible called, “Lamentations.”  After Jacob died, the “Egyptians wept for him seventy days” (Gen 50:3 ESV) and when they came to his burial place “they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation” (Gen 50:10 ESV).  The Israelites grieved for thirty days after both Aaron and Moses died (Num 20:29; Deut 34:8).  “Jesus wept” at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11:35 ESV).  Ecclesiastes summarizes the need for lamentation well by saying, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc 3:1, 4 ESV).

We have much to learn in this area of lamenting.  This service is designed to help you do that.

Three Types of Psalms

We are basing this service around the psalms.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann helpfully breaks the psalms down into three categories.[1]  First, there are psalms of orientation.  Human life consists of seasons when all feels right.  Psalms of orientation voice our joy and delight by expressing thanks and praise to God.

Yet, life is not always rightly oriented.  For this reason, Brueggemann says the second category are the psalms of disorientation.  These psalms lament before God the disorientation of hurt, injustice, alienation, suffering, and death.

Finally, there are psalms of re-orientation or new orientation.  These psalms are for when God delivers us from our disorientation.  He lifts us out of the pit.  Our sufferings have changed us so that we are never the same again, and yet God enables us to be newly oriented.

Life is about movement between orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation. Today’s service will focus on the psalms of disorientation – the psalms of lament.  We are praying that even in this service God would meet with us and give us a new orientation.

The Psalms of Lament

Let me say a few more words about the psalms of lament.  It is a striking fact that one third of the 150 psalms belong in this category.  This should teach us that God invites us to lament before him.  God was not embarrassed to include lament in the Bible and so we should not be embarrassed to express it.

You will also notice as you read the lament psalms that before they sound a note of hope, they spend a long time lamenting in pain, anger, and tears.  This should teach us that even though we have great hope in Christ, we must not move to hope too quickly.  If we jump immediately to hope, we short-circuit the grief process and make hope seem naïve or even false.  Hope is hopeful precisely because we spent so much time under the shadow of grief.

The lament psalms also allow us to express negative emotion to God.  Walter Brueggemann writes:

The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus, these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.[2]

The Order of Service

Now finally a word about the order of this “service of lament.”  Most of the lament psalms follow a general pattern.  We will follow this pattern today.

  1. Cry: they begin with a short cry for God to hear us.
  2. Lament: they have an extended period of lament. We will not move to hope too quickly today.
  3. Plead: they plead with God for deliverance. We will spend time asking God to come and bring relief, encouragement, healing, and comfort.
  4. Praise: they often, though not always, end with a short note of praise. We will do this as well, but we will not do it until the very end.  Even then we want to end this service with disorientation.  For although we walk out with hope, we do not necessarily walk out feeling fully oriented.

So let us to join together as we cry, lament, plead, and praise.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms – A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984), 19.

[2] Ibid. 52.

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