This book seeks to restore the lost art of lament in order to help readers discover the power of honest wrestling with the questions that come with grief and suffering.
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About the Author
Mark Vroegop (MDiv, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a conference speaker, a council member with the Gospel Coalition, a trustee of Cedarville University, and the author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy. Mark blogs at markvroegop.com.
Joni Eareckson Tada is founder and CEO of the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, which ministers to thousands of disabled people and their families through programs of practical encouragement and spiritual help. She is also an artist and the author of numerous best-selling books such as Joni; Heaven: Your Real Home; and When God Weeps.
Read an Excerpt
Keep Turning to Prayer
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan.
Who taught you to cry? The answer, of course, is "no one." Although you don't remember it, the first sound you made when you left the warm and protected home of your mother's womb was a loud wail. A heartfelt protest.
Every human being has the same opening story. Life begins with tears. It's simply a part of what it means to be human — to cry is human.
But lament is different. The practice of lament — the kind that is biblical, honest, and redemptive — is not as natural for us, because every lament is a prayer. A statement of faith. Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God's goodness.
To Lament Is Christian
Belief in God's mercy, redemption, and sovereignty create lament. Without hope in God's deliverance and the conviction that he is all-powerful, there would be no reason to lament when pain invaded our lives. Todd Billings, in his book Rejoicing in Lament, helps us understand this foundational point: "It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petitions to the Lord. ... If the psalmists had already decided the verdict — that God is indeed unfaithful — they would not continue to offer their complaint." Therefore, lament is rooted in what we believe. It is a prayer loaded with theology. Christians affirm that the world is broken, God is powerful, and he will be faithful. Therefore, lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.
To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.
A few years ago I was leading a prayer meeting for our church staff. I placed an empty chair in a circle of other chairs. While we were singing, praying, and spontaneously reading Scripture, I invited people to make their way to the middle chair and offer a prayer of lament to the Lord. We'd been studying the subject as a church. I thought it would be good to put this minor-key song into practice. I also knew there was a lot of pain in the room.
After a few minutes of awkward silence, a brave young woman nervously moved to the middle chair. She clutched a small card and sighed. Painful emotions were just under the surface. Her husband, who also served on our staff, quickly joined and knelt beside her. Others soon followed, placing hands on their shoulders — a simple but touching demonstration of entering their grief. With a trembling voice she read her lament:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you withhold the blessing of a child from us? How long will we cry to you — how many more days, months, or years will pass with our arms remaining empty? How much longer will we struggle to rejoice with those who rejoice while we sit weeping? 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! Thank you, Father!
In one short prayer she vocalized her deep sorrow while simultaneously reaffirming her trust. She wept and remembered. She sobbed and trusted. She lamented.
After she prayed, another staff member made his way to the same chair. "Here I am again, Lord! I don't like this chair, but I know I need to come. My wife and I long for another baby to adopt, and we are so tired of waiting and the emotional roller coaster. But we are trusting." By the time the prayer summit was over, four couples mourned empty cribs. Lament provided a language that anchored these grieving couples to what they knew to be true while they waited.
One reason I have written this book is my love for people who know the unwelcomed presence of pain. As a follower of Jesus, I have personally walked through my own trauma of unexplainable loss and wrestled with troubling questions. As a pastor, I've wept with countless people in some of the darkest moments of life. Every Christian experiences some kind of suffering and hardship. And I've seen the difference between those who learn to lament and those who don't. I've observed the way lament provides a critical ballast for the soul. No one seeks out the pain that leads to lament, but when life falls apart, this minor-key song is life-giving.
What Is Lament?
Before we start our journey exploring four psalms and the book of Lamentations, we need to define lament. Allow me to give you a brief overview, and then we'll see what it looks like in Psalm 77.
Lament can be defined as a loud cry, a howl, or a passionate expression of grief. However, in the Bible lament is more than sorrow or talking about sadness. It is more than walking through the stages of grief.
Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.
Throughout the Scriptures, lament gives voice to the strong emotions that believers feel because of suffering. It wrestles with the struggles that surface. Lament typically asks at least two questions: (1) "Where are you, God?" (2) "If you love me, why is this happening?" Sometimes these questions are asked by individuals. At other times they are asked by entire communities. Sometimes laments reflect upon difficult circumstances in general, sometimes because of what others have done, and sometimes because of the sinful choices of God's people in particular.
You might think lament is the opposite of praise. It isn't. Instead, lament is a path to praise as we are led through our brokenness and disappointment. The space between brokenness and God's mercy is where this song is sung. Think of lament as the transition between pain and promise.
It is the path from heartbreak to hope.
The Pattern of Lament
Most biblical laments follow a pattern as God takes grieving people on a journey. This poetic odyssey usually includes four key elements: (1) an address to God, (2) a complaint, (3) a request, and (4) an expression of trust and/or praise. For the purposes in this book, I'll use four words to help us learn to lament: turn, complain, ask, and trust. Part 1 explores these steps, helping us to know what they are and how to put them into practice.
Each step of lament is a part of a pathway toward hope. In the address, the heart is turned to God in prayer. Complaint clearly and bluntly lays out the reasons behind the sorrow. From there, the lamenter usually makes a request for God to act — to do something. Finally, nearly every lament ends with renewed trust and praise.
In this first chapter we will see how lament begins by turning to God in prayer. We'll discover the supply of grace that comes as we take the step of faith to reach out to God. Lament invites us to turn our gaze from the rubble of life to the Redeemer of every hurt. It calls us to turn toward promise while still in pain.
The Psalms are where our journey begins.
Psalms of Lament
The book of Psalms is filled with lament. No doubt that's why it is a cherished portion of Scripture. Aren't the Psalms one of the first places you turn to when you're in pain? The Psalms were the songbook for God's covenant community. They reflect the joys, struggles, sorrows, and triumphs of life. It's noteworthy that at least a third of the 150 psalms are laments. It is the largest category in the entire Psalter. Whether the lament is corporate, individual, repentance-oriented, or imprecatory (strongly expressing a desire for justice), you cannot read the Psalms without encountering laments.
One out of three psalms is in a minor key. Just think about that! A third of the official songbook of Israel wrestles with pain. But consider how infrequently laments appear in our hymnals or in our contemporary songs. I find this curious and concerning. Could it be that our prosperity, comfort, and love of triumphalism are reflected in what we sing? Is it possible that our unfamiliarity with lament is a by-product of a subtle misunderstanding of Christian suffering? Don't get me wrong, there certainly is a place for celebration and joyful affirmation of the truths we believe. But I wonder about the long-termeffect if the contemporary church and its people consistently miss this vital dimension of Christianity. The number of laments, their use, and their message invite us to consider the value of this biblical song of sorrow.
Laments are in the Bible for a reason.
When you put all this together, it's clear that this minor-key song is vital to the life of God's people. There's something uniquely Christian about lament, something redemptive, and something full of faith. I hope this book helps you to discover the grace of lament.
With this background, let's learn to lament by looking at the first element: turning our hearts to prayer.
Psalm 77: Keep Praying
I've chosen to start with Psalm 77 because it provides a wonderful example of the connection between lament and turning to God. It shows the beauty of pushing the heart toward God in our pain. This psalm is filled with honest struggle, deep pain, tough questions, determined trust, and a biblical grounding. To learn how to lament, we must resolve to talk to God — to keep praying. I know that this sounds pretty basic, but it is where we have to start. Lament begins with an invitation to turn to God while in pain. Let me show you.
Cry Out to God
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted. (Ps. 77:1–2)
The opening line of this lament, "I cry aloud to God," frames the tone of the text. The psalmist is in pain, and yet he's not silent. However, he is not just talking, complaining, or whimpering; he's crying out in prayer.
Other references to prayer follow in the first two verses: "He will hear me" (v. 1b), "In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord" (v. 2a), and "In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying" (v. 2b) (a reference to a prayer posture).
Clearly the psalmist is reaching out to God in the midst of his pain. Please don't miss this or take it for granted. It's really important — in fact, it may be one of the reasons why you're reading this book.
It takes faith to pray a lament.
To pray in pain, even with its messy struggle and tough questions, is an act of faith where we open up our hearts to God. Prayerful lament is better than silence. However, I've found that many people are afraid of lament. They find it too honest, too open, or too risky. But there's something far worse: silentdespair. Giving God the silent treatment is the ultimate manifestation of unbelief. Despair lives under the hopeless resignation that God doesn't care, he doesn't hear, and nothing is ever going to change. People who believe this stop praying. They give up.
However, lament directs our emotions by prayerfully vocalizing our hurt, our questions, and even our doubt. Turning to prayer through lament is one of the deepest and most costly demonstrations of belief in God. James Montgomery Boice (1938–2000), who pastored the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty-two years, helps us see the spiritual value of praying through our spiritual questions:
It is better to ask them than not to ask them, because asking them sharpens the issue and pushes us toward the right, positive response. Alexander Maclaren writes, "Doubts are better put into plain speech than lying diffused and darkening, like poisonous mists, in [the] heart. A thought, be it good or bad, can be dealt with when it is made articulate."
I wonder how many believers stop speaking to God about their pain. Disappointed by unanswered prayers or frustrated by out-of-control circumstances, these people wind up in a spiritual desert unable — or refusing — to talk to God.
This silence is a soul killer.
Maybe you are one of those who've given God the silent treatment. Maybe you just don't know what to say. Perhaps there's a particular issue or struggle that you just can't talk to God about. It feels too painful. I hope you'll be encouraged to start praying again. Or perhaps you have a friend who is reallystruggling in grief. Maybe this person prays some things that make you uncomfortable — even wince. But before you jump in too quickly and hush his or her prayer, remember that at least your friend is praying. It's a start.
Prayers of lament take faith.
Pray Your Struggles
However, praying in the midst of pain isn't a guarantee the emotional struggle will immediately lift. The psalmist's description of his ongoing tension is clear:
My soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. (Ps. 77:2–4)
He's praying, but it's not bringing immediate comfort or resolution. His prayers are not "working." Yet, he still prays.
You need to know that lament does not always lead to an immediate solution. It does not always bring a quick or timely answer. Grief is not tame. Lament is not a simplistic formula. Instead, lament is the song you sing believing that one day God will answer and restore. Lament invites us to pray through our struggle with a life that is far from perfect.
Pray Your Questions
Painful circumstances surface big and troubling questions. The psalmist wrestles with why God isn't doing more. He begins to "consider the days of old," to "remember my song in the night," to "meditate in my heart," and to make "a diligent search" (77:5–6). He is thinking and reflecting.
This painful search leads to six pointed rhetorical questions:
1. "Will the Lord spurn forever?" (v. 7).
2. "Will [he] never again be favorable?" (v. 7).
3. "Has his steadfast love forever ceased?" (v. 8).
4. "Are his promises at an end for all time?" (v. 8).
5. "Has God forgotten to be gracious?" (v. 9).
6. "Has he in anger shut up his compassion?" (v. 9)..
Does the psalmist really believe God isn't loving, doesn't keep his promises, and is unfaithful? I don't think so, and the rest of the psalm will bear this out. But he does something important here. Honestly praying this way recognizes that pain and suffering often create difficult emotions that are not based upon truth but feel true, nonetheless.
Honest, humble, pain-filled questions are part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We'll explore this more extensively in the next chapter when we learn about complaint. For now, I simply want you to see that lament is humbly turning to God through the pain. It takes faith to lay our painful questions before the Lord.
Anyone can cry, but it takes faith to turn to God in lament.
Prayer Turns Us Around
Lament is a prayer that leads us through personal sorrow and difficult questions into truth that anchors our soul. Psalm 77:11 includes an important and repeated word: "remember."
Then I said, "I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High."
I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. (Ps. 77:10–12)
This is where the lament prayer makes its turn toward resolution.
In all we feel and all the questions we have, there comes a point where we must call to mind what we know to be true. The entire psalm shifts with the word "then" in verse 10 and the subsequent appeal to the history of God's powerful deliverance.
Important phrases are connected to this remembrance: "I will appeal ... / to the years of the right hand of the Most High" (v. 10), and "will remember the deeds of the Lord" (v. 11a). This reflection becomes personal, as if the psalmist is talking directly to God: "Yes, I will remember your wonders of old" (v. 11b), and
I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. (v. 12)
He is looking back and reflecting on the works of God in the past.
Then the focus shifts again from the historical works of God to the very character of God.
Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? (v. 13)
Notice how different this rhetorical question is from the previous six questions! This is an important turning point. It makes lament full of grace as we turn from honest questions to confident trust.
The aim of this book is to help you understand this shift and to make it your own.
Earlier in this chapter I said that laments are possible only if you believe that God is truly good. You see, the character of God — his sovereignty, goodness, and love — creates a tension when we face painful circumstances.
Lament is how we learn to live between the poles of a hard life and God's goodness. It is an opportunity to remind our hearts about God's faithfulness in the past, especially when the immediate events of life are overwhelmingly negative. While we're still in pain, lament reminds our hearts of what we believe to be true.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy"
Copyright © 2019 Mark Vroegop.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Joni Eareckson Tada 11
Introduction: Life in a Minor Key | A Personal Journey 15
Part 1 Learning to Lament | Psalms of Lament
1 Keep Turning to Prayer | Psalm 77 25
2 Bring Your Complaints | Psalm 10 41
3 Ask Boldly | Psalm 22 55
4 Choose to Trust | Psalm 13 71
Part 2 Learning from Lament | Lamentations
5 A Broken World and a Holy God | Lamentations 1-2 89
6 Hope Springs from Truth Rehearsed | Lamentations 3 105
7 Unearthing Idols | Lamentations 4 121
8 A Road Map to Grace I Lamentations 5 139
Part 3 Living with Lament | Personal and Community Applications
9 Making Lament Personal 157
10 Let Us Lament 175
Conclusion: Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy | The Journey Ahead 189
Appendix 1 Twenty Complaints 197
Appendix 2 Psalms of Lament 201
Appendix 3 Learning-to-Lament Worksheet 203
Appendix 4 But, Yet, And 209
General Index 215
Scripture Index 219
What People are Saying About This
“I had never read a book like this before. If you are hurting or trying to help someone who is, or if you are attempting to lead your church to recover and experience what God’s Word teaches about lament, this is a book you will want to read.”
Daniel L. Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Born in a father’s grief and marked with a pastor’s wisdom, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy teaches each of us and the church how to pray along the journey of loss and despair. Vroegop presents biblical guidelines for bringing honest complaint and bold petition before God and for choosing to steadfastly trust in the One whose mercies never end.”
M. Daniel Carroll R., Blanchard Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College
“Too often Christians feel the pressure to pretend the gospel diminishes pain, while others lament their pain void of biblical truth and hope. I have longed for years for a book to demonstrate a balance on this issue. Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy captures beautifully the unique and powerful grace of the gospel in Christian lament. The book is well written, winsome, and refreshingly transparent. I wept as I read it.”
Brian Croft, Senior Pastor, Auburndale Baptist Church, Louisville; Founder, Practical Shepherding; Senior Fellow, Church Revitalization, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Lament is the language of exiles and aliens, of the suffering and downcast. But it is also the language of a people who know how the story ends. This book teaches us that pouring out our complaint to God is an act of faith and hope. In a world where sorrow has been politicized and death hidden away, let Mark Vroegop teach you the Christian language of lament that gives voice to our sadness and our desperate need for God.”
Abigail Dodds, author, (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ
“Until Christ returns or calls us home, lament will be our God-given language for finding faith to endure in a fallen world. This book will help the church become more fluent in the language of lament and thus more conversant with the God who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
Collin Hansen, Editorial Director, The Gospel Coalition; author, Blind Spots
“When our lives encounter inevitable pain, we need perspective and power to survive and thrive through the weight of the burden. Vroegop masterfully converges his own testimony of anguish with rich insight into the nature and promises of our God, who weeps, grieves, and cares deeply for his children. This book will serve as a toolbox and treasure to your soul.”
Daniel Henderson, President, Strategic Renewal International; author, Transforming Prayer and Old Paths, New Power
“This book gives real hope to those in deep valleys. Vroegop challenges us to speak up through tears and tell God what hurts in a raw and real way that results in even deeper reverence. I recommend this book to everyone who wants to hope against hope in a God who listens even when we complain, who answers even when we doubt.”
Garrett Higbee, Director of Pastoral Care, Great Commission Collective
“Lament is not just tears or pain in our own soul; lament is inviting Christ to come alongside our casket of loss. Lament is not just a prayer; it is a prayer expressing our pain in our fallen world. Lament does not stop at pain; through Christ’s comforting presence, lament enriches our trust in our Father of compassion. Anyone who wants to learn biblically and experientially how to candidly call out to our comforting Father would benefit greatly from this book.”
Robert W. Kelleman, Vice President of Strategic Development and Academic Dean, Faith Bible Seminary; author, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses and Grief: Walking with Jesus
“Profound. Tender. Strengthening. Crucial. Wise. This book helped me see something that’s basic to Christianity that I hadn’t fully grasped as basic. I began rereading it with my wife before finishing it the first time. Every pastor, counselorand indeed, every Christianshould read it.”
Jonathan Leeman, Editorial Director, 9Marks; author, The Rule of Love
“Mark Vroegop reminds us that grief and sorrow are not the denial of God’s presence or a lack of faith in God’s sovereign care. God calls us to lament, to give expression to our pain and sorrow, which in turn leads to authentic hope, healing, and health. Vroegop shepherds our hearts and shows us the path to discovering ‘deep mercy in dark clouds.’ This book is a hope-filled treasure!”
Crawford W. Loritts Jr., Senior Pastor, Fellowship Bible Church, Roswell, Georgia; author, Unshaken; Host, Living a Legacy
“This book shouts to us from the Psalms and Lamentations: It’s okay to cry, to grieve, to wonder why, and to come to God with our doubts and fears. Our heavenly Father can handle it. And in the end, he shows us grace and mercy. This book is a wonderful antidote to the feel-good, happy, and superficial platitudes of so much of modern evangelicalism.”
Erwin W. Lutzer, Pastor Emeritus, The Moody Church, Chicago
“There were seasons in my life when I really needed this book but did not have it. So I have read it now with both delight and regret: delight that it is finally here and regret that it was not here sooner. I have found myself saying, ‘I wish I had known that,’ or ‘I wish I had done that.’ The sooner you read this book, the less you will say those things to yourself!”
Jason C. Meyer, Pastor for Preaching and Vision, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis
“Mark Vroegop winsomely introduces us to the lost art of lament. From the outside, the world of lament looks dark and foreboding, but as you enter it, light will shine on your soul in startling ways.”
Paul E. Miller, author, A Praying Life and J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life
“Mark Vroegop has written a book that is a gift to the churchboth to the one suffering and to the one who wants to help the sufferer. Through his own personal loss and practice of lament, he helpfully guides us in lament, showing us that to lament is Christian and to lament is to find hope even in the greatest pain.”
Courtney Reissig, author, Teach Me to Feel and Glory in the Ordinary
“Vroegop’s message is forged out of his personal journey, which validates the high value of healing through lament. But more importantly, he takes us to key passages of Scripture that assure us that God welcomes our agonizing cries of complaint as a step toward his grace and strength in our time of need.”
Joseph M. Stowell, President, Cornerstone University; author, The Upside of Down and Redefining Leadership
“This book is born out of personal tragedy and loss. It is a gold mine of help for those who have suffered deep wounds from loss. Mark Vroegop masterfully blends his personal life, pastoral experience, and biblical exposition into a volume that shows how God’s grace in lament and the cry of the heart in prayer teach you to trust God’s purposes.”
John D. Street, Chair, Graduate Department in Biblical Counseling, The Master’s University and Seminary; President, Association of Certified Biblical Counselors
“If you allow it, this book will draw tears, unveil smiles, heal old wounds, increase your biblical understanding, and bring peace. Mark Vroegop gracefully points the way to the biblical light of mercy and hope amid misery and despair. Your pain can become a platform for helping others rather than a pit of self-pity, and this book will help you arrive at that better destination.”
Thomas White, President, Cedarville University
“I am intensely grateful for Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy and would place it among the most important and influential books I’ve read in the past few years. If you are going through hard times, this book may provide more insight and comfort than any other book except for the Bible. If you are in ministry, please allow Vroegop to help you discover how ‘the grace of lament’ can serve the many hurting people in your congregation.”
Donald S. Whitney, Associate Dean and Professor of Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; author, Family Worship; Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life; and Praying the Bible
“God has lovingly immersed one of his outstanding Bible expositors into the depths of human sorrow so that the rest of us can learn from him the important grace of lament. Through the tragic loss of his daughter, Mark has reflected deeply, studied the Bible carefully, and written beautifully to help us all walk more closely with our Savior.”
Sandy Willson, Interim Senior Pastor, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama
“I have watched as Mark Vroegop and his wife have navigated the difficult journey of loss, and I have witnessed in their lives the sweet fruit of godly lament. Vroegop provides a hope-filled guide to experiencing the mercy of God in the darkest nights, through the vital, healing grace of lament.”
Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author; Teacher and Host, Revive Our Hearts