“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I have attended worship services in a variety of traditions throughout my life, but they tended to have one thing in common–they began with praise to God and then moved to confession. This is a good and appropriate model to follow that has a lot of merit. When we see how holy and good God is, we see more clearly by contrast that we are not.
In all my years of churchgoing, however, I don’t think I have ever been to a service that began with lament, with a cry to God about a terrible situation. The only possible exceptions have been funerals and requiems. This should be surprising for several reasons. First, in the Bible’s songbook, the Psalms, there are more psalms of lament than any other kind–more than psalms of praise or thanksgiving. More than sixty psalms of personal and corporate lament give voice to acute anguish and suffering.
Second, neither our lives nor the world lack for reasons to grieve and cry out in distress. Friends contract cancer or lose jobs. Loved ones are robbed or walk away from faith. Family members are struck by dementia or suicidal tendencies. Our community may also be in pain when it is hit by a natural disaster, or when those who gun down our youth are never brought to trial. Nations may be cursed with famine or an interminable civil war. Countries may systematically persecute believers–or simply not have the strength to stop those who do. Massive segments of the world may be stuck in multigenerational cycles of poverty, while a few in their midst control immense wealth.
God does not approve of any of these things. So why should we not also express our grief and pain? Jesus’s cry on the cross in Mark 15: 34 is not a polite Sunday school prayer. It is a forthright complaint to God that is common not just in the Psalms but elsewhere in the Old Testament. God heard the cries of the people enslaved in Egypt (Exod 3:7). Joshua asked God forcefully what the point was of bringing Israel across the Jordan just to be destroyed there (Josh 7:7-8). Gideon had similarly blunt questions (Judg 6:13), as did Jeremiah (Jer 14:8-9). Something is terribly wrong and they are not afraid to confront God. Why is it sometimes hard for us to do the same?
An unfortunate and unbiblical idea that is widespread, suggests that Christians aren’t supposed to be sad or negative in any way. This is not new. A hundred and thirty years ago Ralph E. Hudson added a refrain to an Isaac Watts hymn that expressed this wrongheaded notion that lives on in the minds of many.
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
Jesus for one was not happy at the cross. The Son of God had no hesitancy expressing deep anguish as he died. Neither should we when the situation calls for it, which it often does. To do otherwise is to deny reality, which is a way of lying to ourselves–and to others. When our oldest son was in his late teens, we asked him why he listened to alternative rock (much in vogue in that day) rather than to Christian rock music. “Because,” he said, “Christian rock doesn’t let me feel sad.” He was right to not deny the reality in his heart, or to pretend that the world was different than it actually was.
In his book Prophetic Lament Soong-Chan Rah offers a powerful meditation on the book of Lamentations which reveals the consequences of ignoring this vital dimension of the Christian life. Withdrawing from the world (ignoring the pain around us) or accepting simplistic answers (naïve, quick, and easy solutions) shows a dependence on “human effort or human problem solving, while lament acknowledges who is ultimately in control. In the midst of a crisis, Lamentations points toward God and acknowledges his sovereignty regardless of circumstances. . . . The lamenter talks back to God and ultimately petitions him for help, in the midst of pain. The one who laments can call out to God for help, and in that outcry there is the hope and even the manifestation of praise.”
the psalms of lament are both personal and corporate, the book Prophetic Lament does not shy away from the more difficult problems of our day that are worthy of lament such as ethnic divisions, entrenched power groups, individualism, materialism, and reliance on methods and know-how instead of God.
Not every worship service, nor every moment of personal prayer, needs to be one of lament, just as not every one needs to be focused on praise. But lament in our personal and corporate worship can balance our view of the world, of ourselves, and of our God.
Each Wednesday until Easter I am posting a Lenten reflection, excerpted and adapted from Mark Through Old Testament Eyes. Used by permission of the publisher.