The Power of Lament Prayer
This devotional is excerpted from a forthcoming commentary on Habakkuk by Heath A. Thomas. Permission is given by the author.
Habakkuk and the Power of Lament Prayer (Habakkuk 1:2-4)
Lament is a tool that God’s people use to navigate pain and suffering. Lament is vital prayer for the people of God because it enables them to petition for God to help deliver from distress, suffering, and pain. Lament prayer is designed to persuade God to act on the sufferer’s behalf.
This definition of lament is controversial theologically, however. Is it possible (at all) to persuade a perfect, unchanging, omnipotent, impassable God to do anything, much less move him to act? Does this not imply some change within the Godhead? In the end, it is difficult (and speculative) to determine the mechanisms of the inner working of God. Scripture, which sometimes strangely is left out of theological discussions, does not disclose God’s inner life in full. This is one of the reasons why Christians have exerted their minds and will for centuries to catch a flash of light that would illumine ever greater the Triune God. But capturing “flashes” of his brilliance remain the best that we can hope for, because God exists in mystery unfathomable, in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). Still, God is knowable, and from Scripture. The Triune God has revealed himself preeminently in and through Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18). The Bible indicates that prayers go to God who has the power and authority to change states of affairs, and so while prayer certainly may change us it is apparent that prayers are designed to move God to act, which he does in the biblical testimony. The internal workings of how or why that might be the case do not fall into the purview of biblical reasoning. God does respond to the persistent cries for “help!” or “justice!” of those who are suffering or oppressed (Luke 18:1-6). But when and how he answers, as we shall see in Habakkuk, is on the basis of his divine prerogative. It is appropriate, then, to say that God hears and knows our distresses and our prayers, but he is not bound to our requests. His divine response may come, but it may not come in the form we have asked.
This point about the direction of lament prayer remains important, because it reveals lament to be a kind of petitionary prayer. It asks of God something in order to generate his response; normally, the expected response is ameliorating suffering or pain (of various types: emotional, psychological, physical, or spiritual). Now, whether he will answer the request or not (or how he will do so), however, is out of the lamenter’s hands. God is not a glorified gumball machine. Lamenters pray to their only hope, God himself, in hopes that HE will respond to the prayers on the basis of his character: covenant love, mercy, and justice. So Miller says: “[The] fundamental ground of prayer, that is, the responsiveness of God to the cry of human need, is lifted up. All the description of the plight of the afflicted, wherever it occurs in prayer, assumes God’s care and compassion, especially for those in distress.”
 I affirm this with the recognition that God’s self-revelation was sufficient to generate faith prior to the incarnation (cf. Gen. 15:6). This is precisely because the Son is not a newcomer on the scene only at the incarnation. As a Triune God, whenever God is presented in the Old Testament, the reality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is ontologically there. This is a specifically Christian understanding of God in the Old Testament.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together / Prayerbook of the Bible (DBW, 5; ed. G.B. Kelly; trans. D.W. Bloesch and J.H. Burtness; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p.155.
 Hermann Gunkel and Joachim Begrich, An Introduction to the Psalms (trans. James D. Nogalski; MLBS; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998).
 See especially distinctions between petitionary prayer and meditation in H.A. Thomas, “Relating Prayer and Pain: Psychological Analysis and Lamentations Research,” TynBul 61/2 (2010), pp. 183-208 (197-206).
 Miller, “Prayer as Persuasion,” p. 359.
Self (and sin), enemies, and God are all potential sources of pain in laments, and thereby the substance of the prayer to God, as Claus Westermann has ably shown (Praise and Lament in the Psalms (trans., K.R. Crim and R.N. Soulen; Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), p. 169.
Questions for Reflection
1. Where do you have need to lament today?
2. Where has Christ met your need?
3. What is the ground of your hope in prayer?