The world presses in around me and the silence screams. My own mind feels like a room with no windows or doors, and I suffocate at the realization that I can’t get out. As hell seems to be clawing at my heels, the panic starts to settle heavy in my chest. “How do I do this alone?” I ask. “You can’t, because you suck,” is the response some part of my mind produces.
Breaking Benjamin’s “Dear Agony” plays somewhere, a clear echo of how dearly I wanted the pain to “just let go of me.” Suddenly, I am reminded of why music has had such a grip on me throughout my life: it speaks when I don’t know what to say.
Various lyrics race through my mind, like the sun’s rays breaking through the clouds. Rock anthems of heartfelt and honest pain lift me from the ground, showing me how unalone I really am. One song stands out among them: “Vices” by Dead Poetic. “Feeling cold, feeling empty. I am low, unworthy… I feel the stabs on my wrists and ankles every time I try to forget you… Oh, but Jesus, I’ve got vices like any other man. Vices that you’re so used to. Vices that won’t make you think less of me.” In these words, I find my way out.
Rock music has a unique way of communicating pain. Its often visceral and raw sound is the perfect complement to the weight hurt often carries. When all within us wants to shriek and scream, metal expresses for us what’s going on internally. Our heart’s cry is answered in the honest words of a song. Far too often, we need to lament, and the music in our churches offers us little outlet. That is where rock stands in the gap.
Mike Donehey, singer of the CCM band Tenth Avenue North, shared a TikTok video recently where he spoke about something not often discussed: lament. His central question was: “Where have all the lament songs gone?” He likened lament, in terms of how it is found in the Bible, as “Nothing is awesome. Oh God, will it ever be awesome?”
A foundational aspect of Mike’s perspective is that he doesn’t believe in a God who fixes things, but a God who redeems things, which is why he refused to change the ending of their song “Worn”. It ends on an unresolved lyric: “Let me see redemption win,” as opposed to what may more commonly be expected from CCM: “Now I know redemption wins.” It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. What follows are thoughts that were sparked by Mike’s video, serving as a deeper exploration of lament.
The difference in the two potential ways “Worn” could have ended highlights why lament is important. In the final version that ends unresolved, we see life as it normally is: with a big question mark. Life is messy, and the truth is, sometimes things don’t work out well. This isn’t a truth many will like to hear, but it is one that the Church needs to do a better job of entering into. So many are looking for real-life answers to the real-life situations they are in, including the nastier side of life where hope struggles to shine through.
An interesting way to think about lament is that it is a combination of the following: sadness, brokenness, and questioning. In the Bible, lament is often an initial response of absolute frustration and confusion because, “What I expect and know of God is in absolute conflict with my life story, or the way of the world at this particular moment.” It is seen in Job’s cursing the day of his birth because of how absolutely broken he was; it’s Jeremiah weeping over the fall of the nation of Israel; it is Habakkuk asking God, “How long do I have to watch all of this evil before you’re going to do something about it?” Lament takes our pain, fear, sadness, confusion, and anger directly to God and (and this is important), invites God into that space.
In the span of the last few years, we’ve seen (aware of it or not) a growing need to practice this form of expression. To be honest that we’re frustrated and wondering what God is doing is normal and the fact that we don’t practice lament only serves to further allow our faith to be shaken. The simple fact is that lament stands between pain and promise. When we’re able to admit that things are not as they should be, we don’t understand it, we’re angry about it, and it hurts, there can be so much room for growth.
It’s fitting that the music scene prompted this discussion, because it is often through music we find ourselves able to lament. Where our words fail us, music often speaks. There are a number of songs that display the power in lament. A simple example of this is the song “Black Light” by the band My Epic. Written in the aftermath of lead vocalist Aaron Stone’s wife having a violent miscarriage, the song is a lament of that horrible situation. In an acoustic performance, he explains that he encouraged his wife to hate what happened. To feel every ounce of the anger and sorrow and that it was okay and, in fact, good to hate it, because God hated it too. While God is a good Father, their situation was awful. While Aaron believed that God can take awful things and make them beautiful (redeem them), he doesn’t torture us.
God does not look at our circumstances and tell us to be tough and get over it—he says to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. In the song, he sings: “This ain’t a blessing yet… it isn’t beautiful to say it is… It leaves you cursing while you’re trying to pray. This time, I think they’re one in the same.”
It serves as a powerful reminder that prayer can be as messy as our lives. Lament is meant to stand between our pain and our God. It gives us the space to pour out and lay bare the story of our lives: to scream, shout, yell, be pissed off, kick, and fight about how things don’t make sense.
As a personal example of this, my wife and I found ourselves in a situation where the only response we could even find ourselves capable of was wrestling with God and demanding an answer. It feels petulant to lament because it is a refusal to dismiss how I really feel. We had been verbally attacked by some people in a church, and it was damaging enough that our kids were afraid to set foot inside the building again for fear of being yelled at again. Our initial response was anger and sadness. I distinctly remember telling God that, “If this is what your people are like, then I want nothing to do with them.” We were broken and refused to say we weren’t.
Music became our refuge, as well as some very carefully selected friends, during that time. One piece of music that carried me was “Breaking Down” by the band Disciple. This is a desperate song that, much like “Worn” by Tenth Avenue North doesn’t have a resolved ending. The closest to resolution is Kevin Young’s singing, “I surrender all.” But the vulnerability in the rest of the song, admitting to being broken and needing to be put back together was my heart song in that time.
In biblical times, those who undertook lament often did so immediately, outwardly, and without resolve. We see all throughout the pages of the Bible example after example of how people responded to their tragedies (whether personal or public) and seldom did they respond by saying, “Everything is awesome, we’ll be just fine.” Often, it was like what David said in Psalm 12:1-2: “Help, LORD, for no faithful one remains; the loyal have disappeared from the human race. They lie to one another; they speak with flattering lips and deceptive hearts.” Or his words in Psalm 22:1-2: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me? Why are you so far away? Won’t you listen to my groans and come to my rescue? I cry out day and night, but you don’t answer, and I can never rest.” Or, again, David’s words in Psalm 13:1-2: “O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?”
The important aspect of lament is that it doesn’t just stay in the grieving process; it grieves towards God. It appeals to God to be who we know him to be. It’s admitting that something hurts and we don’t like hurting, but it is also hurting with hope. It’s important not to diminish that life is difficult, but we cannot stay in the hurt. We need to cleave to the hope of who we know God to be. That does not mean there isn’t hurt or that it’s unimportant. As Levi Lusko puts it, “Hurting with hope still hurts.” Even when we know who God is and have our hope centered in him, life can still hurt like hell. Another way to say that lament stands between pain and promise is to say that it acknowledges that life is painful, but God is good, even when it’s hard to see and feel. Each of the Psalms quoted above also has David clinging to who he knows God to be and appeals to that knowledge. The laments eventually give way to songs of thanksgiving and praise.
I can hardly think of a better example of this than Habakkuk (an under-studied book of the Old Testament). Remember, Habakkuk vented his frustration directly to God by asking, “How long do I have to watch all of this evil before you’re going to do something about it?” As he glues himself to who he knows God to be (even though his world and circumstance contradicts that knowledge), he finds himself saying the following: “Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the LORD! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign LORD is my strength!”
In other words, “Even though my cupboards are bare, my life has fallen apart, and I don’t know how I am going to survive, I am going to trust and follow my God. I don’t know how the sun will ever shine in my life again, but I know who God is and I am going to praise him.” This sentiment is carried on into what is, in my opinion, one of the strongest songs Fresh Life Worship has ever produced: “Saturday.” “Even if the sun grows cold, and even if the rain falls hard; even if my heart would break, You will never let me go.”
It is high time we changed the stigma of the struggle within the church; for too long has it been viewed as some sort of moral shortcoming for Christians to struggle. What foolishness. We need to learn how to practice lament in our day, and to enter into it without resolve. To admit that life is painful, things aren’t always okay and don’t always come packaged with a pretty bow, to acknowledge that we’re not always okay (and that others aren’t either). But we can’t remain there, we also need to glue ourselves to who we know God to be, invite him into the space of that pain, and feel free to express exactly how painful it is. Not only is it something displayed in the Bible as a natural part of the engagement with God, but it is something that God doesn’t squash down or discourage.
To engage in the music of lament, we made a playlist: