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The Five Stages of Lament

We are not God, but we cry out to the one who is.

Lament. Lament is an old word we are hearing more. Lament is a prayer that expresses frustration with the world. The most common Biblical Psalms are laments. They address God with poetic depictions of struggles and usually a confession of trust and vow of praise and thanksgiving. They often seem to be written retrospectively, when one is out of the pit. Psalm 88, the darkest lament, leaves us with no answer. It ends with “darkness.”


What we are lamenting is too obvious today. We grieve COVID-19, racism, political conflict, inequity, insecurity, violence, environmental degradation and more. We have lost jobs, social life, freedom, and some have lost health and life. We lament in truthfulness, calling for justice, resisting evil. Lamenting names the problem to bring it into the light to stimulate creative action. Lamenting is an act of faith, hope and love. Yet “Hello, darkness, my friend” (as Simon and Garfunkel sang).

The Cry

Psalm 88 cries to the LORD. This is the personal, promising, present God. “LORD, you are the God who saves me, day and night I cry out to you” (v. 1). In verse 9 “I” comes before “LORD.” Then in verse 13 “LORD” is the third word. The distance is growing.

This is the “dark night of the soul.” Saint John of the Cross wrote about it in the 16th century. Mother Theresa spoke about it. Many of us know it in the darkness. Jesus screamed into the darkness on the cross, quoting the lament Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Darkness. No answer.

The Crisis

Life’s troubles overwhelm us, but the crisis is greater. The crisis is theological. The Psalmist declares, “You [the Lord] have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths” (v. 6). It is your wrath, your overwhelming waves, that has left me alone. Somehow God is at work in this, but why? This makes no sense. Death does not honour God (v. 10-12).

The Psalmist cries out like Job, but he does not make the mistake of Job’s friends. He raises the questions and the crisis, but he does not give an answer, nor does God. Job’s friends, and too many people today, try to explain God. They call these troubles God’s judgment or discipline. They defend God by calling evil good. Theodicy, the defense of God and the explanation of evil, is not Biblical. In the Bible the ultimate nature of evil is left with no answer.

The Confusion

This leads to the confusion of Ecclesiastes. Human wisdom does not answer the questions. Human pleasures will not satisfy the soul. Human work gives no ultimate meaning. Death confuses all things. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” (Eccles. 1:2, 12:8). We humans on our own have no answer.

Job receives a response from God, although not an answer. God challenges Job asking, “do you understand how the world works?” and “are you in control of all things?” Fundamentally, “are you God?” God decenters Job, knocks him off his throne. Job responds, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). We are not God, but we cry out to the one who is.


The sign over the entrance to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy is “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” In graduate school we put this over the steps to our library basement study carrels. I understood this as hopelessness, but one interpretation is that it is the directions for leaving hell. Dante’s Devil is furiously flapping his wings trying to get away from God. In so doing he is keeping himself frozen in the ice. If he stopped fleeing and flapping, we would be free. The gates of hell are open, but no one leaves because they are seeking their own ways and answers.

Lament abandons our answers for God’s. Writer T. Scott McLeod says, “You necessarily have to be lost, before you’re found.” John of the Cross says in The Dark Night of the Soul, “Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason.” In the darkness Jesus got no answer to his cry, but a few days later the “Lord, who saves me” answered. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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