The Psychology of Lament: God's Method for Processing Struggle and Grief
God’s Method for Processing Struggle and Grief
I value self-control. I feel best when my emotions, actions, and attention are well-regulated. When I am in this state of equilibrium, I can best handle the uncertainties of life. I suspect this is a common trait among teachers. We know pretty well that if the teacher doesn’t possess self-control, unhappiness abounds.
God has a plan that addresses [our mental health needs]. He instructs us to lament. … Lamenting expresses and processes strong emotions. To lament is to ask God why? Stiff emotional regulation was essential in March 2020 when we turned teaching practice inside-out to accommodate COVID safety measures. The ability God gave us to set aside our strong emotions so we could focus on the task ahead allowed us to dig down deep into our reserves and find problem-solving abilities we may not have known that we possessed. Psychologists refer to this as surge capacity, and it results in sharpened senses, making crisis survival possible. However, it does not work as well in the long term. When we deny the intense emotions experienced in a crisis, we develop a kind of superhero syndrome. First, we convince ourselves we are on our own, which subtly turns us away from God. Then Satan and the world convince us that “You’ve got this.” Through this self-bolstering of courage, Satan begins to minimize our awareness of the need for God, and we take on an increased burden.
The shift toward superhero syndrome poses two threats: to our faith and to our emotional health. Thankfully, God has a plan that addresses both concerns. He instructs us to lament. Lamenting is found throughout the Bible from Job, Jeremiah, and many of the Psalms. Lamenting expresses and processes strong emotions. To lament is to ask God why? The most striking example we find is in two of the Gospels:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33, Matthew 27:46 ESV).
The act of lamenting is not evidence of weak faith. It is instead an honest expression of faith—an expression with an emotionally healthy purpose.Jesus endured abandonment for our sakes. In our case, our feelings of abandonment are limited to our perceptions. Still, we can rest assured that our Savior has experienced whatever strong, uncomfortable emotions we endure. God calls us His children, so it is permissible for us to ask the question, “Why have you forsaken me?” Judging from our reactions to intense emotions, it would seem we are much more comfortable reciting the following verse: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4 ESV).
We have convinced ourselves that our faith is at its strongest when our fear does not show. Yet, the act of lamenting is not evidence of weak faith. It is instead an honest expression of faith—an expression with an emotionally healthy purpose. Through the action of lamenting, we can fear no evil because we lament that fear to God. In the process of lament, we are as crying children releasing our grief. In that release, we feel the comfort of God’s love urging us closer to Him.
The first action of lament is to return to God. When we unconsciously turn away from God in the throes of superhero syndrome, we steel ourselves to endure and conquer alone. Very quickly, we realize we are incapable. In our struggle, we feel that God was the one who turned away from us.
In Psalm 6 we see an example of returning to God in lament:
“My soul also is greatly troubled. But You, O LORD—how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love” (Ps. 6:3–4 ESV).
In these two verses, David pleads with God to turn so that he can be in the light of God’s face once again. Here we find the heart of lament. We feel forsaken, and our grief is sharper because we remember the peace of God’s presence. We want that peace and come to our loving Father in prayer.
We know we can make this request because of God’s steadfast love. Steadfast love is more than a faithful emotion. Steadfast love is an action on behalf of a person in need—a combination of compassion and mercy. Steadfast love does not merely exist; it works in our lives. Realizing our need for God’s mercy allows us to take off the superhero cape. In that state, we come to realize that God’s grace awaits us.
At the end of verse three, David asks, “how long?” This reminds me of the complaint of a child. “How long before we get there?” “How long do I have to stay in time-out?” “How long am I grounded?”
Because we are children of God, we can engage in this kind of dialog. We can ask how long the suffering will last, how long we will feel God has turned His face from us. The phrase “how long” is found 22 times in the Psalms, often several times in a single Psalm. Our grief is palpable and unbearable. We need to know when it will end, and God permits us to ask tough questions.
The second step in lament is to describe our grief. We do not do this because God needs our explanation. We do it because we need to let our emotions do the work God designed them to do. A crisis often evokes emotions that require time to process. Yet, the same crisis does not afford us that time. The first emotion we feel in a crisis is typically an intense uncomfortable emotion. When we cannot process, we might cope by moving to a secondary emotion. The secondary emotion might help us deal with the crisis, but like superhero syndrome, it does not work long term.
For example, at the beginning of the COVID crisis, it was legitimate to feel fear. However, our brains do not like fear. We might resist fear because it seems inappropriate or it keeps us from thinking clearly. The brain then substitutes a more manageable emotion like anger or blame. A secondary emotion might help us survive the situation, but eventually it will cause problems because the substitute emotion does not fit. For example, we feel angry when sadness is the appropriate response. Our brain does not know how to process this confusion, and often our reactions do not make sense to others.
When we describe our uncomfortable emotions in a lament, we allow ourselves to accept and feel that emotion. As a result, we can better process it and move on because that primary emotion is not lingering behind the scenes.When we describe our uncomfortable emotions in a lament, we allow ourselves to accept and feel that emotion. As a result, we can better process it and move on because that primary emotion is not lingering behind the scenes. Psychologists sometimes refer to this process as emotional diffusion, and it allows us to move out of the emotion adaptively. If we stay in a secondary emotion, we will ineffectively react to the crisis.
Go to your Bible and read verses two through seven in Psalm 6. Note the verbs and adjectives that describe David’s grief. He tells God he is weary, weak, and troubled. He languishes in weeping. His emotional expression is raw and honest, and there is no searching for a more comfortable feeling. David accepts that he is weak and in need of God’s help.
“Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of You; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps. 6:4–5 ESV).
In our petition, we can be like children again and remind God of His promises. In verse five, we see we can argue with Him as David does when he reminds God that worship involves the living. God promises steadfast love, a summary of His covenant with us. We can be specific regarding what we want and expect kindness and mercy from a God who wants what is best for His children.
In the completion of this step, we visualize the solution to our situation. This process tells our sympathetic nervous system, the system that puts us into a state of heightened awareness, that we can calm down. The good news is that when we imagine our solution, God will respond instead with a course of action that brings us good. Our faith tells us that the burden for deliverance does not rest with us. Therefore, we can step aside and let Jesus do the saving.
When we read the last three verses of our Psalm, we see a stark change in the passage’s tone. Because of the confidence of faith, the psalmist speaks as if the problem no longer exists and the grief is no more. God hears our plea and accepts it because of His steadfast love.
“The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer” (Ps. 6:9 ESV).
Notice the confidence and gratitude of the psalmist. When we take the time to pair our worries with gratitude, our brains encode the information together. In future situations, we not only process the grief but remember the deliverance. Memories such as these create a spirit of trust, not in our capabilities, but in God’s promise.
When our brains pair our experience of difficulties with God’s providence, we no longer focus narrowly on the problem. Instead, we can take a step back and see the possibilities of what God can do for us. This pairing is evident in this verse:
“In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:1 ESV).
Here we see the answer to our fear. Instead of pushing it aside in favor of a secondary emotion, we process the fear along with the trust God gives us in His promise. We fear because we are weak and helpless. However, we do not continue in this fear because we are precious children of a mighty God.
Concordia Publishing House offers two new books for dealing with strong emotions by connecting them to God’s truth:
- Finding Hope: From Brokenness to Restoration. Heidi Goehmann. CPH (2021)
- Overcoming Life’s Sorrows: Learning from Jeremiah. R. Reed Lessing. CPH (2021)
Lamenting is something we can do on our own, but it has an additional purpose when we lament as part of worship, as is the intention of the psalmists. God’s frequently used tool for bringing His people through challenging times is social support. We share God’s love, His comfort, and His praise with each other. Corporate worship is an environment wherein we can process the cause of our lament more readily. We lose our fear of appearing weak and seek and gain support from each other.
I want to clarify that even though I have connected lament to half a dozen psychological concepts, I do not need science to back up God’s word. His word is truth. The psychological terms merely help me to understand God’s purpose for lament. Our faith is not for show. Our faith does not prove us to be infallible in any crisis. That is a definition of faith used by the secular world, leading us to ignore what we are experiencing and to wrongfully depend on our abilities. No, our faith is our connection to God, and it is a gift. In our faith, we can safely and effectively express fear, anger, and grief. Jesus knows. Jesus loves. Jesus saves.
- How might lamenting help you be a more effective church worker?
- How might you incorporate lamenting into devotion practices?
- Are you more comfortable with solo or group lamenting? Why?
Dr. Kim Marxhausen writes, teaches, and consults in the areas of social-emotional skills, cognition, and neurodiversity. Her most recent book is <em>Weary Joy: The Caregiver’s Journey</em>. She is currently working on a Bible study on lament.
Photos of art: All in public Domain.
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