*I was recently asked to share a devotion for the Child Safety Protection Network's Response Team Training. These are my thoughts from that devotion. It's a long one, so grab a cup of tea and settle in."
Matt, and I were talking about about the topics we'd like to cover each week during the Response Team Training. For the first week we decided we wanted to start with the idea of lament. As I began researching this topic and gathering scripture passages, I realized that this was exactly the message I needed to hear. God had something he wanted to teach me.
As Child Safety Workers, coordinators, social workers, consultants - we hear a lot of difficult information. How do we engage in these difficult topics when there is so much hard stuff in this world. Some of the things we hear are hard to process and that's not a bad thing or a weakness. Each time you do a response or hear the hurt of a child or victim you may be flooded by different emotions: anger, frustration, motivation, profound devastation, heartbreak and more. I know I have felt these ways - sometimes more than one emotion at the same time. That's why it's so important for us to discuss the idea of lament.
What exactly is lament?
The dictionary defines lament as "to express sorrow, regret, or unhappiness about something; an expression of sorrow especially: a song or poem that expresses sorrow..." (dictionary.com). To lament is to express deep regret, grief, or sorrow. We can lament through words or actions.
Often in the world of child safety we will hear people discuss 'compassion fatigue.' Wikipedia.org defines compassion fatigue as "a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as a secondary traumatic stress (STS)."
I wonder if we suffer from compassion fatigue because we don't truly experience and practice lament.
Lament is a common theme in the Bible. In fact, there is an Old Testament book named Lamentations. Michael D. Guinan describes that lament is a "prayer for help coming out of pain" and that it's so common in the Bible - over 1/3 of the psalms are laments.
He further explores the different ways in which people lament (https://www.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit-blog/biblical-laments-prayer-out-of-pain).
As I read through his descriptions of the reasons why people lament I am struck by how many of them connect back to the field of child safety.
1. We lament when we grieve over the loss of someone or something dear to us.
Guinan describes that "grief is a common human experience, and Jesus entered into that grief with us when he was on earth (Luke 8:52)." We see this when Jesus' friend Lazarus dies and his sisters, Mary and Martha, grieved over his death (John 11:17-37), and Jesus was so touched that he wept with them (John 11:35).
Many child safety workers have personally experienced harm or know closed family members and friends who have experienced harm. The loss of someone's innocence, safety and security can lead us to weep with them and grieve that they've experienced this trauma. It feels like a loss or a death.
2. We lament in prayer when our hearts are broken.
Guinan shares that "many of the psalms are songs of lament, expressing a range of emotions when the authors were going through sorrowful times." For example Psalm 130:1 says, "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!"
I don't know about you but when I hear horrific story of abuse after horrific story of abuse, when I sit across from someone as they share the most terrible moments of their life, when I see a young child devastated by abuse my heart breaks. There have been times when I have felt so broken that my whole body aches. In the room with the individual I must hold my emotions together and remain calm but often I am brought to my knees in tears when they leave. I know many child safety workers feel this way.
3. We lament when we feel helpless in our situations.
Guinan's third point unfortunately, comes up way too often in the realm of child safety - we lament when we feel helpless. Psalm 6:3 shares this time of helplessness when the author cries out, "My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?"
As a Child Safety Coordinator I truly desire to help, to fix, to make things better or right but sometimes we are put in impossible situations where we can't. Yes, there are many times when we can put action plans and safety plans and institutional plans in place but sometimes no amount of planning seems to help and we are left feeling helpless. For example, what if a minor is abused in a different country by someone they don't know or have no way of identifying and it happened years ago. There is no way to report it, there is no way to stop that person from doing it again, it's too late for a rape kit, too late for evidence. Sometimes in these moments, it can feel truly helpless.
4. The Bible instructs us to lament over sin.
In 2 Corinthians 7:10 it says, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." As Guinan explains "repentance is agreeing with God about how bad our sin is and purposing to turn away from it...when we see our sin the way God does, we lament over it."
The truth is that there is sin in this world and in the area of child safety we see the depravity of sin. We lament over this depravity.
I love how Dr. Glenn Packiam says that "lament is not our final prayer" but rather "it is a prayer in the meantime." We know that while the battle is not over the war has been won. Sin is the now, but we have hope for a future where there won't be anymore sin, tears or pain. "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelations 21:4).
So what is lament? Lament is the deep sorrow and grief we feel due to the loss of someone or something dear, when our hearts are broken, when we feel helpless and in response to sin.
Why do we lament?
"Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. We cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God." - Michael D. Guinan
We lament because we need to feel. We truly need to feel grief, pain and anger sometimes. It is better for us to feel things to get through them so we don't become numb - to give ourselves space to feel it.
N.T. Wright wrote an article in Time regarding COVID and he reminds us that lament leads to hope. He says, "It is no part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain - and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell." I don't know about you, but I want to be a shrine where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. Especially when things are so heartbreaking and devastating all I can do is mourn - in those moments I desire for the Lord to dwell within me.
But as we talk about lament it is equally important for us to know that lament does not equal complaining. Dr. Glenn Packiam explains, "In common usage, the words lament and complaint are interchangeable. But in Scripture, complaint and lament occur in different contexts and can be distinguished as different concepts." For example the Israelites complained in the wilderness that God had brought them to die. They complained over and over again, even though they saw God come through for them over and over again.
Packiam explains, "a complaint is an accusation against God that maligns His Character, but a lament is an appeal to God based on confidence in His Character." In essence we are asking 'who is God? What does he promise us? What do we know about his character?' We are crying out in pain, anger, sadness and devastation and saying, 'God I know who you are. I know what you've promised. I know what you can do, and I ask that you do that.' We cry out because we know who God is and that he is there.
As I was researching for this devotion, I found a story by Dr. Russell Moore that he shared in his book Adopted for Life. Moore was visiting orphanages in Russia and he described the silence in the baby nursery as extremely eerie. It was silent because the babies in the cribs never cried - not ever. It wasn't that the babies didn't need anything - they did, but they didn't cry because they had learned that no one would answer. Children who cry out, do so because they know their caregiver will actually answer. Dr. Glenn Packiam explains that " for the Christian our lament, when taken to our father in heaven, is proof of our relationship with God, our connection to a great caregiver." We lament to reinforce our bond of intimacy - we are asking the father God to hear our cries. Shema is the Hebrew word for 'hear' and it appears 79 times in the psalms. Literally the psalmists are imploring the Lord God to hear their cries.
Dan Allender in the book The Hidden Hope of Lament, writes that "Lament opens the heart to wrestle with God who knows that sorrow leads to comfort and lament moves to praise as sure as the crucifixion gave way to resurrection." I don't know about you, but when bad things happen I definitely feel like I need to wrestle with the Lord. Jacob wrestle with God day and night and in our lament it often takes days and nights to work through the things we struggling with. We are wrestling with our emotions when we lament.
Emily and Amelia Nagoski share in the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle that "emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get struck in the emotions." I think this comes back to what I was mentioning earlier about compassion fatigue. We feel fatigued and exhausted when we don't truly feel our feelings and how can we feel them if we don't practice lament.
Jessica Brodie a writer for christianity.org writes that "lament psalms teach us that it's never wrong to cry out to God. God hears us in our pain and welcomes us close...lament is a powerful tool that God's people use to navigate our pain and suffering."
When we truly feel the pain we are crying out to our Father because we know he hears. Why else would the psalmist have written, "out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice" (Psalm 130:1), or "my soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?" (Psalm 6:3), or "All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sightings is not hidden from you. My heart pounds, my strength fails me; even the light has gone from my eyes" (Psalm 38:9-11) or "Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1). We fall to our knees with deep emotions, so that we can work through them.
Now that we know why we need to lament it begs the question of how do we lament?
How do we lament?
When we understand that what we are feeling, He is also feeling, we can have hope for the future. We are asking for his strength to be empathetic, to continue to fight, to have the words.
Due to confidentiality those of us in the child safety world we often hear hard stories but we can't share those stories with others. Lament gives us an opportunity to process what we are feeling with someone - with the Lord. Brodie writes that "Lament has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divenly-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows with the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God." So how do we lament?
Mark Vroegop in Desiring God speaks of 4 elements of Lament. When we truly understand what those 4 elements are, we can be guided into the process of lamenting. Below I describe those 4 elements and then provide an example of a prayer of lament for child safety workers.
1. Turn to God.
When we study the Psalms of lament we see that they often start by turning to God and addressing him. For example we see is Psalm 13:1 it says, "How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" We call out to Abba Father, God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Messiah, Saviour, etc. The point as Vroegop explains is "that the person in pain chooses to talk to God about what is happening."
Father God, my heart is aching and it cries out to you. Over and over again I hear heartbreaking stories of abuse, harm, rape, molestation, bullying, self harm, injury, neglect. Are you there Lord?
2. Bring your complaint/concerns/feeling.
Once we turn and call out to God we should bring our lament to him. Psalm 13:2, "How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?" Vroegop shares that we must humbly and honestly identify our pain before the Lord, bringing our questions and frustrations to him.
Lord this most recent story I've heard breaks my heart. How could there be such evil in this world and why do these horrible things have to happen to such young children. I know this isn't what you want. I know this isn't what you desire for the world. Why or why then do you allow it? Why or why then didn't you intervene for her or him or them? God I feel helpless - there is nothing I can do to fix this situation or make it better. Why would you bring me here, if there isn't any way for me to help? What's even the point?
3. Ask boldly for help.
"Seeking God's help while in pain is an act of faith," Vroegop. Psalm 13:3-4 illustrates how we must boldly ask for help and call out to the Lord. It says, "Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy says, 'I have prevailed over him,' lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken." We can hope in an all powerful and faithful God who promises us that he won't forsake us.
I know in my time of heartbreak you have not forsaken me Lord. I plead with you to intervene - to bring hope and healing. I can't do this but I know you can and I ask boldly that you would part the read sea. Father help me find a way to help. Father help me find hope in the hopeless. You are the great physician and while no one on earth could heal this hurt, I believe that you can. I believe that you can redeem and restore and I come before you on my knees asking for your heavenly intervention.
4. Choose to trust.
Finally, our lament concludes by choosing to trust. Vroegop explains that "this is the destination for our laments. All roads lead here...more than the stages of grief, this prayer language moves us to renew our commitment to trust in God as we navigate the brokenness of life." We lament not so that we can stay in the pain and emotions but that we can come to a place of hope and healing. Psalm 13:5-6 demonstrates this hope when the psalmist writes, "But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me." In lament we turn to God not away from him. Vroegop explains that lament is the way we can interpret the world through a biblical lens, for we know that God's story is creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
Father I choose to trust you and who you are. I choose to lean on you when everything is shaking and falling apart. I choose to remain fixed on your steadfast plan. I praise you, for even though I don't see it yet, I know you will provide.
Where Should We Start?
Looking for ways you can lament? Try:
- Reading through the psalms and identifying the ones that are lament.
- Read Psalm 10, 13, 22, and 77.
- Study a lament psalm and look for each of Vroegop's 4 elements: turning to God, bringing your complaint/concerns/feelings, asking boldly for help and choosing to trust.
- Listen to the psalms read to you.
- Find songs based on the psalms of lament and listen to them on repeat.
- Write your own lament psalm, similar to how I did above, using those 4 elements.
The truth is that letting the Lord into our pain and torment is trusting that he has the ability to save us from that trouble. I once heard someone say that "while lament seems like hopelessness, it is actually a profound act of hope."
And finally, I'd like to share this Prayer of response I found online (author unknown).
In the garden of Gethsemane,
Christ prayed to you with a troubled spirit.
Through prayer You parted the waters
Of Christ's death-like sorrow,
To lead him through his overwhelming anxiety,
Into the resolve of faith, hope, and love.
May my own cries to you,
as anguished as they may be,
Help me to discover how to walk
according to your will
In just such a time as this.
I believe, help my unbelief.