Imagine you're going to church. The worsip band is on stage. You see on the screen all the normal information: Copyright Vineyard Music, 1998; in the key of B flat, written by Brian Doerkson. The worship band starts up, but you notice something strange, because the song says a lot of things to God that sound rude: Lord, how could you let that happen?
Why did you abandon me? I'm one of your own. Why didn't you protect me? If you had been there, this never would have happened (John 11.21)! And this hurts your cause too, Lord. People are scoffing at you in your absence. Come and visibly intervene for me! But no matter what, I will trust you forever. No matter what, you are my God forever.
That's the situation we get in the Book of Psalms: a miktam, of David, to the tune of "Doe of the Dawn"—those titles head the hymns we approve and also the laments that strike us as rude. But both equally count as worship in the Bible, even though for many of us, asking lament-type questions sounds like the opposite of worship.
Could I suggest, knowing I'm generalizing, that we in North America need to "biblicize" and complicate our worship by making lament a regular feature? To be a real biblical lament, it has to include a confession of trust and unconditional loyalty from the lamenter; without that, it's just complaining. But I also want to emphasize that, unless we lament, we're being unbiblical and unhelpful.
Reasons for Lament
Lament witnesses to and proclaims the Lord Jesus in his fullness. You have probably noticed how some Christians know only the meek and mild Jesus. Others know only the returning King, come to tread the winepress of his wrath.
Laments acqainst us with the full character of Christ—not just in his trial, sufferings, and death, but much earlier in his life, too. We won't fully know the one "intimate with grief" (Isa. 53) without these texts. They witness forward to the suffering of the Messiah, where God won the greatest victory possible for his cause in the form of the greatest defeat imaginable. We as Christians participate in this suffering and death (Matt. 16.24, Rom. 6:1-4, 2 Cor. 4:10; and note the original context of Paul's quotation of Psalm 44 at the end of Rom. 8). Without laments, we won't fully understand and "see" our Savior who died in shame and defeat and was raised in victory. It will be easy to worship a shallow version of Jesus without these psalms.
Our contemporary worship scene, by too frequently neglecting laments, unintentionally excludes people. There are people in every church service whom God is baptizing into the way of the cross, the way of following Jesus. But it can be hard when you come to church bleeding and beaten, you want to worship, you know you should be worshiping, and everyone around you seems so happy and carefree. Biblically, asking the questions of lament, together with a confession of trust, is an act of worshiping and honoring God, not dishonoring him. It is a ministry to Christians who are hurting, who are struggling with the distance and inactivity of the God they are trying to trust, to shape and interpret their experience through the genre of lament. You will help those Christians draw nearer to God than they ever have before.
Lament will also deepen our music. Too much of our worship music songs sound like U2. I own several U2 albums, so I am in sympathy. And there is something genuinely worshipful about their sound. But too many of our contemporary worship songs sound like the same song, over and over. In contrast, the Book of Psalms shows great variety in individual compositions—you can hear individual voices in different poems, and the "music" of the poetry varies greatly as well, sometimes resonating in pain, sometimes joy. Remember that music does not just accompany lyrics and singing, but actively shapes the audience's response. Worship music that carries some pain without destroying harmony can help represent the fullness of Christ's person and include all his disciples in worship.
Plea to Songwriters
If any Christian musicians are reading this article, you would do a great service to God's people if you can provide us with music and lyrics for reverent, painful, trustful, God-honoring laments. Can you find ways to hold forth the One "intimate with grief" (Isa. 53), now reigning in glory at the right hand of the Father, but still bearing the scars of his torture? Can you find ways (musically and lyrically) to help Christ-followers lift up their agony and their trust to Christ?
Such music may not always be easy to hear. And perhaps not everyone will appreciate it, or even fully understand. But you have an opportunity to present the crucified and risen Lord for us as we learn what it means to take up our crosses.
Eric Ortlund is husband to Erin and father to Kate and Will. He studied Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and New College in Edinburgh and currently serves as associate professor of Old Testament at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, Saskatchewan in Canada. He blogs regularly at Scatterings.