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How Scripture can Help People in Crisis

“How much longer will you forget me, Lord? Forever?”

The speaker’s voice was full of emotion, demanding attention. “How much longer will you hide yourself from me?”

A woman walked across the stage holding a sign that read, “human trafficking.” Her mouth was taped shut, hands tied together and head bowed down. “Look at me, O Lord my God, and answer me.”

I felt the immensity of her pain and could not look away from her suffering. Then the speaker’s tone changed. “I will be glad, because you will rescue me.” Her words ignited hope, as they affirmed that God would acknowledge her plight and take action.

Last week I gathered with a unique group of people in Philadelphia for the fourth annual Trauma Healing Community of Practice. Pastors, missionaries, psychologists and educators from around the world met for development and support in their work with people encountering traumatic events. After considering systems and situations that induce emotional and psychological wounds, we learned that the best way to respond is often through the biblical tradition of lament.

Voicing our Needs

Scripture teaches us to voice our needs to God through the passionate expression of grief and mourning. In fact, over a third of the Psalms are devoted to individual and communal laments. We even see the use of lament in Jesus’ final words on the cross when he quotes Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me” (Matthew 27:46 GNT).

Lament helps us articulate deep emotions and complaints, but it doesn’t leave us in self-pity. There is often a transformation, an enlargement of vision, and a new connection with God. Psalm 22, for instance, begins with perceived abandonment but ends with affirmation: “People not yet born will be told: ‘The Lord saved his people’” (Psalm 22:31 GNT). His words are both an expression of grief and a declaration of God’s salvation, allowing the same Psalm that begins in anguish to conclude with praise.

As we help others express their suffering through lament, we give them permission to overcome cultural and personal restrictions and cry out to God. We give them a means of unburdening their hearts as they voice anger, sadness, hopelessness and rage. They are able to be truthful about their feelings and doubts, while asking God to act on their behalf. Through lament, people know their pain is acknowledged and they are not alone.

We find seven parts in biblical laments:

  • Address to God
  • Review of God’s faithfulness in the past
  • A complaint
  • A confession of sin or claim of innocence
  • A request for help
  • God’s response (often not stated)
  • A vow to praise God followed by a statement of trust in God

Not every lament has all of these components; only the complaint is crucial. Historically, laments have been written, sung, or enacted through dance or drama.

Using Lament in Ministry

As leaders in the church, we can easily be overwhelmed with the task of helping our people go through crises. We are often left feeling burdened by their tragedies, powerless to assist in their healing. Yet Scripture points us towards God’s power to transform our pain into opportunities for growth and new beginnings. The practice of lament can help us experience that—individually and in community.

You might try reading a lament Psalm with someone in your church who is going through a painful situation. Create a safe space for them to explain their situation then open to Psalm 13. Tell them this is their prayer, and they can be as expressive as they want with it. It begins with a complaint about abandonment, but then moves through a request (vs. 3-4), a statement of trust in God (vs. 5a), and a vow to praise God (vs. 5b-6). Once you are finished, ask how this lament helped articulate their deep emotions. Is there anything they would want to add to the Psalmist’s words?

The same approach could be taken when a church or community faces a crisis. Christians often try to mute their complaints, assuming that expressing disappointment with God would indicate a lack of deep faith. But as leaders, we can use laments to encourage honest interaction with God, navigating the way toward new hope and healing. Don’t shy away from the public reading of “difficult” Psalms, such as 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 83, or 137. (And there are about 60 more that could be considered laments, plus a number of similar passages in the prophets.) There are certainly dramatic and musical possibilities in presenting laments to a congregation, but be careful about that. The goal is to draw people into the lament, not to do their lamenting for them. Leave time, space and silence for their participation.

The biblical process of lamenting does not deny the strong reality of trauma, but it moves through it honestly, step by step, until we can finally say with the Psalmist, ““I will sing to you, O Lord, because you have been good to me” (13:6 GNT).

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