Teaching Our Children the Language of Lament & Praise

There are certain passages of Scripture that I struggle to teach our children. Laments are one of those. They are raw, uncomfortable, and sometimes awkward, like a dissonant note in a symphony. However, like that note of dissonance, they add a complex beauty to the full symphony experience. Rather than hurriedly skipping over those parts in our family teaching times, I sometimes need a reminder to slow down, and help our children sit in the dissonance as they learn the language of lament.

As children grow, they tend to internalize from the world around them that vulnerability is a sign of weakness, and the expression of vulnerable emotions is something to be avoided. I’ve witnessed my own children come to understand their emotions this way, and although I hate to admit it, I must acknowledge that I am often guilty when it comes to this influence. When I see someone weeping, especially one of my children, I want to quickly fix their sorrow or at least tell them everything will be all right.

That is the same dissonance I feel when I read a lament. I want to skip to the parts that make me feel better rather than sit for a while in the place of the writer’s pain and try to understand it. Scripture shows us, however, that lament and praise are equally important means of communicating with God. Both are necessary if we are going to have a rich, deep relationship with Him. David both mourned and danced. Jeremiah both wailed and praised. Jesus both wept and rejoiced. Lamentation and praise can co-exist with one another—and should co-exist. Lament enhances our worship through bringing our raw humanity before the One who desires all of our hearts. Because of this, it is our privilege and responsibility as parents to teach our children the language of both.

How do we practically do this when it is culturally counter-intuitive? Perhaps the most important thing we can do is allow our children to be exposed to the trials and suffering of this world while they can process them in the safety and shelter of our homes. Attempting to completely shelter them from life’s difficulties is not only impossible, but also detrimental for their emotional well-being. Children, like all human beings, need to experience hardship in order to experience the full range of emotions that God has given to humanity, and it is our job as parents to help our children process difficult experiences as well as the emotions that go along with them.

For young children, this may look like using an emotions chart to help them conceptualize what they are feeling in different situations. When reading the Bible together, we can ask questions like, “What do you think this person was feeling when that was happening?” or “Who can you most identify with in this passage? Why?”

For school-age kids, we can go a step further and help them make the connection between suffering and specific people we know in our own community. One thing I did a few years ago was identify all the people I knew who were going through particularly difficult trials at the time—parents battling cancer, premature babies fighting to survive, foster parents raising sick children. I printed pictures of each family and we began to pray daily for them and send them words or pictures of encouragement. One of the babies we were praying for had been put on hospice and only had a short time left to live. I distinctly remember the day that she surprisingly received a full abdominal transplant and was given the chance at a new life. How we rejoiced at this news! This joy was mingled with sorrow, however, when I had to explain to our children that another child had died in order to give the organs to the child we had been praying for. This was the perfect opportunity to enter into both joy and grief through the same experience, and to bring up the more glorious fact that this was what Jesus did for us when He died for our sins. He willingly yielded His life so that we might have eternal life with Him!

As our children get older, it is important to open their eyes to the sinfulness and brokenness of this world. Serving at an inner-city soup kitchen, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or going on a family mission trip would be excellent experiences for exposing our children to a world vastly different from, and often more broken, than their own. These hands-on experiences also create an opportunity to bridge the sin and misery of this world to the redemptive story of God’s presence with us through challenging times.

It is also critical that we model healthy grief before our children. Earlier this year, when a colleague died due to pregnancy-related health complications, we grieved as a family and as a community. We went and sat for days upon end in her home, as is the cultural custom where we live in Kenya. We witnessed the wailing and tearing of clothes that is so often the expression of grief mentioned in Scripture. Though completely out of our Westernized comfort zone, we chose to enter into the depth of loss together, as a family. For us, this was the ultimate picture of grieving with hope.

Setting examples for our children during times of crisis or suffering is significant, but we can also set examples for them during daily life. Creating a regular rhythm of praise and lament would help them better understand and experience these emotions. Participating in a daily or weekly reflection together or teaching our children to pray through ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) are simple ways to do this. In performing these small daily practices, we are able to model how to search our own hearts, lament sin and brokenness, and grow in our gratitude for the hope we have in Christ.

More than anything, we must remember our primary call as Christian parents: to teach the whole Word of God to our children. Of course we must teach with age-appropriate discretion, but we must not diminish the consequences of the Fall in the story arc of redemption. Many children grow up learning a lot of Bible stories, but miss out on the theme of those stories woven together as a frayed tapestry being wholly restored. One place to start in teaching this theme is through a study of the Psalms. I was amazed to discover that more than half the psalms are laments, and all but one of them end in praise. This fact shows that our sorrow is not the end of the story, which is itself Good News! When reading the Psalms with our children, we don’t need a specific curriculum. Just read one Psalm each day. Read it ahead of time so that you are familiar with the passage. If there are portions you feel like you need to skip over because of the age or maturity of your children, feel the freedom to do that. The point is to draw them in to the dissonance, allow them to ask questions, but not to feel pressured to have all of the answers. At the end of a week or two, help them write their own lament or choose one to memorize as a family. In doing this, we are weaving both lament and praise into their hearts, allowing our children to develop a language they can use to communicate with God in the future.

I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Card’s insight in his book, A Sacred Sorrow, in which he writes, “Lament is not a path to worship, but the path of worship.” As we lead our children through the dissonant notes of Scriptural lament, our goal is not to rush through to the parts we consider more “worshipful” or uplifting. Instead, our aim is to help them sit in the place of hardship and empathize with the one who is suffering. Indeed, this is what Christ has done for us. What a privilege we have in shepherding our children along this journey and giving them the language of both lament and praise.