The Prayer of Lament: What To Do When We Don’t Know What To Do

Our only hope is to march ourselves to the throne of God and in loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls.” Ann Weems

Our hearts are heavy this day and tears are close to the surface as we watch the unwatchable, think about (and try not to think about) the unthinkable, bear the unbearable, cry out for solutions to the unfixable. Our groanings are too deep for words. Tears come at the oddest moments. Despair crouches at the door, waiting to set up housekeeping in our souls.

“A voice is heard in Ramah [and in St. Paul and in Orlando and in Charleston and in Baton Rouge and in Dallas], lamentation and bitter weeping. Mothers weep for their children; they refuse to be comforted for their children, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)

How does one respond to events that are as tragic and disturbing as what we have witnessed in our country the past few days, weeks, and months?

While there will necessarily be a call to a variety of actions and responses to the injustice and the racism, the hatred and the violence we must eschew, our Christian tradition offers us the prayer of lament. This prayer gives us a way of being with God and with each other during times of deep and incomprehensible loss.

The Lost Prayer

The prayer of lament is that unsettling biblical tradition of prayer that includes expressions of complaint, anger, grief, despair, and protest to God. Many of us have never been taught this way of praying and it is often missing in the worship of many congregations.

As Samuel Balentine describes it, “The church taught me how to pray and, more subtly, how not to pray. One was to praise God, but not protest; to petition God, but not interrogate; and in all things to accept and submit to the sometimes incomprehensible will of God, never challenge or rebel. Yet when life’s circumstances would not permit either such passivity or such piety, this advocacy of a rather monotonic relation to God seemed destined to silence if not exclude me. ‘You must not question God.’ If one cannot question God, then to whom does one direct the questions?”

Lamenting Together

The prayer of lament is a place to begin as we seek to respond to the sin, the brokenness, and the complexity of our life together as human beings. It is tempting to rush to problem-solving and fixing when the situation is so dire, but I hope we won’t.

Let us stop, at least for a moment, and lament together. Let us stand in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters who continue to experience such tragic loss; let us mourn with them the loss of another black male and affirm that black lives matter. Let us grieve for the law enforcement officers who lost their lives while trying to keep the peace. Let us acknowledge complexity, that we don’t have answers, and cry out to God together for the peace and justice that seems to illude us.

prince-riversPlease join us as board member Rev. Prince Rivers, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, shares his lament offered from within the black community.  Let it lead us in opening to God together during these difficult days.

A Prayer of Lament for Those Who Cannot Breathe
Rev. Prince Rivers

Holy God, a cloud of grief hangs heavy over my head and I feel like I cannot breathe, so give me the strength to pray. I raise my hands toward the sky and I lift my eyes to the hills which is where my help comes from. Lord, when the names of people who have been choked, shot and assaulted is too many to count I know that not one soul has been forgotten by mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, cousins and friends. They remember…

…laughs and smiles,

…dreams and struggles,

…talents and personalities.

Now these men and women are gone. Father, how long must we listen to the cries and screams as blood stains the sidewalk? How many videos must we watch before we begin to see a change?

Help me, God. Help us. Help the people of St. Paul, MN. Help Baton Rouge, LA. Help our nation. Help us examine ourselves. Help those of us who are sad and angry not to let these deaths be in vain. We do not pray for vengeance, but we do thirst for justice. We hope for healing between neighbors and officers called to protect and serve. We long for the day when young men will live long enough to be old men and parents will not have to say ‘good-bye’ too soon.

My hope is in you, God. Deliver me from all my fears. O God, come quickly to help us. O Lord, come quickly to save us. In the name of the one who came that we might have life and have life more abundantly.


Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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Thank you for providing the lament service for us on the 13th. Thank you for including race as a part of our spiritual transformation process. One of the most overlooked realities by the Christian church, which has left us so feeble and unformed. Thank you for going where many don’t want to go.

You are so welcome! And thank you for entering in so fully…it is not easy to “go there” and yet we did. Together. What I have noticed is that once we do go there, it is impossible to just shove it all back in the box. May God show us what is ours to do next and next and next as it relates to the tragedy and brokenness of race relations in our country…and may we say yes. Always.

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a little book entitled “Lament for a Son” over the passing of his 25 year old son in a mountain climbing accident. It is his story of grief and lament which I think gives us a window into the idea of grief and lament and how they impact us.

[…] God and in loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls.” Using this liturgy from the Transforming Center, we opened our hearts to the One hears and knows our deepest pain, sorrow and […]

[…] God and in loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls.” Using this liturgy from the Transforming Center, we opened our hearts to the One hears and knows our deepest pain, sorrow and […]

Our pastor lead our congregation in the prayer of lament by Rev. Prince Rivers this morning. Thank you for sharing it. Our congregation experienced an incredible presence of God today. My prayer is that the people of God everywhere avail themselves of the privilege of the presence of God. He promised never to leave us and He is true to His Word.

Thank you all for such heartfelt comments and for joining us in learning about and engaging in the prayer of lament. I am grateful our eReflections community is ministering to one another in offering resources on this powerful and significant way of praying. One more resource I value and leaned into for the writing of this article is Rachel’s Cry: Prayer of Lament and Rebirth of Hope by Kathleen Billman and Daniel Migliore. We are still working on our Service of Lament, otherwise I would offer it. In the meantime, even if you are not able to join us in person on Wed. July 13, perhaps you would consider setting aside that hour (12:00 CST) to be silent, present, prayerful and with us in spirit.

[…] The Prayer of Lament: What to Do When We Don’t Know What to Do by Ruth Haley Barton […]

Thanks so much for this article and the prayer. May God heal our nation and our world from all of this bloodshed

Please add Dallas, the city where I live, to this prayer along with St. Paul (where my son is a pastor) and Baton Rouge. Thursday night was a terrible night in Dallas, especially when the police have led the country in diversity and striving to build citizen relationships and when they were in the middle of doing that very thing during the protest that was going on when the attack occurred. Very painful for us.

Yes, we noticed these omissions right after we sent the e-mail and added them right away in the blog. So many are in pain right now… we lament with you.

Thank you for this very helpful resource. I plan to use it for a gathering I host each month a learning group from our church, where we engage with the racial dynamics in our country.

Beautiful prayer I prayed today by Rev. Rivers. Thank you for his words and heart at this time.


While I agree with Ann that lamenting is deeply personal and comes from living out our pain in the presence of God, I found a couple of helpful links that can guide you / provide structure for the writing of laments. I think it’s a practice we can learn. Here you go:

I hope that’s helpful. I am also ‘learning to lament’ as a practice for pouring out the pain …
God meet you,

[…] The Prayer of Lament: What To do When We Don’t Know What To do by Ruth Haley Barton […]

This article is a bit helpful in giving some guidance about prayer of lament, based on the structure of the psalms:

The heading of this article caught my eyes and gave articulation to my hearts cries over the last month since I lost my husband. But even as I could identify with my own need to pray the prayer of lament I don’t know how. Can someone teach me?


In my personal experience, I don’t think the prayer of lament can be taught. I found it comes through living & experience our deepest pain in our souls.

When I lost my husband, I could not pray or read scripture but had to depend on the “company of angels” who were praying for me.

Michael Card wrote a book that was so helpful to me on lament. It is, A SACRED SORROW.” Working through the teaching & questions was most helpful. It took me a while to do it, but I pondered, & soon my prayers of lament came spontaneously.

I am so sorry for your loss. If I can be a listener, let me know!

Shalom & blessings,


Thank you so much Ann. I know you understand and that brings much comfort to me. I appreciate the tip on the book and will order it.
God bless you to be a blessing to many.



I meant to reply to your question, but accidentally put it in the main section instead. Please scroll down to see it under “Jenny Gehman says.”


Thank you for the links. I will check them out. Appreciate the time you took to respond to my comment.


Michael Card also has a wonderful CD called The Hidden Face of God. These songs help place you in an attitude of prayerful worship along with laments.

Ruth or anyone,
Could you direct me to a simple outline for conducting such a service?

I wish I could! We are having to develop our own and are still in process.

Thanks for response, Ruth.
Well then, I’m rolling up my sleeves and see what Jesus and the “tears of things” would bring to pass.

Thanks for your heart of compassion and understanding. What a powerful quote by Ann Weems which gives comfort to our souls particularly as we search for answers and understanding. There is a Balm in Gilead that we desperately seek and need. Interesting times we live in for sure. May the Spirit of God descend upon us with comfort, wisdom, understanding and peace.

I provided two spiritual direction sessions in my home today. Both individuals, one retired clergy and another a faithful lay woman, began with the distress they felt over the recent news of yet more killings. Both asked about the appropriate spiritual posture. Is it righteous anger? Is it holding all in prayer, victim and even the perpetrator? Is it turning off the news and going into a kind of bubble? Great questions and it seemed that just airing them was important. I think that this reflection on lamentation and the accompanying prayer are incredibly important for people like these seekers. I hope to send them a link to this page so that they may be nurtured by these thoughts and deep feelings, as I am. Thank you for them.

As a spiritual director myself, your comment is very meaningful to me. My heart is stirred to know that people are bringing these events into spiritual direction conversations so they can listen to God regarding what the appropriate spiritual posture might be. If this article can be a resource for them in that place, I am even more grateful. Grateful they have someone like you to listen with them.

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