Living with Grief

Rivers are beautiful and useful features of the natural world, but under certain conditions, they can be dangerous. When the waters rise above the height of the banks or when a swimmer is pulled down in the current, the river is no longer useful; it’s a threat.

Likewise with the emotions of grief and regret expressed in lament. Under God’s fatherly guidance, even dark feelings like these can be used for our good; but if they rage out of control, they can be destructive. So how do we handle them properly? By channeling them into the form of a lament.

Biblical laments have a particular structure: address, complaint, request, rationale, and praise. These five elements may not always be in the same order, but they’re nearly always there. It’s this structure that makes a lament what it is. There seems to be a very practical reason for this—namely, this structure helps prevent us from mishandling our grief in the two most common ways.

First, we might try to rush through it as fast as we can. But often a hasty resolution is not what God has planned for us in our sorrow. The lament structure helps us work through the struggle thoroughly and honestly. Face our pain. Feel what we need to feel.

The opposite but equally unhelpful option is to wallow in our sorrow. Pain spreads. It will expand to fill as much space as we give it. The structure of a lament is a particular way to contain the suffering within certain boundaries. These five elements, when used to give shape and voice to your grief, can be a very helpful way of confronting your pain without being controlled or defined by it.

So first, the ADDRESS. In many psalms, this element is quite short and direct. “O LORD” is the address in Psalm 13. But don’t let its brevity fool you into thinking it is unimportant. The address is one of the key features that distinguishes a lament from a simple complaint. A lament is addressed to God! This is what separates the book of Ecclesiastes from the book of Lamentations. Ecclesiastes is full of complaint, but there’s not one word of lament. Why? No address to God.

As one writer put it, lament is groaning with God rather than without Him. It is a prayer, recognizing that God is the only one who can do something about our problem. It is giving voice to our complaint to the only One who can really help us, expecting, hoping, praying that He will.