Did you know that laments outnumber any other type of psalm in the Bible? This may come as a surprise because most of us rarely hear lament psalms in church. The truth is, they make up 40% of the book of Psalms! (See Katongole, 104)
Not only that. By my count almost 25% of the psalms include "imprecatory" language, which is when the psalmist prays for God to bring harm on his enemies. For reasons I'll share below, I believe that these psalms are for Christians, too. Why can we not get along well without lament? Here are four reasons:
1. God's character is the basis of lament.
As Emmanuel Katongole reminds us,
"At the heart of Israel's social, political, and religious life is the central conviction and experience of Yahweh as a saving God. Yahweh is not only the creator of the world and sovereign ruler of nations; Israel is God's chosen nation, which, through a covenant relationship, enjoys God's special favor and protection. For biblical Israel, therefore, safety and security are found not in military strength or wealth or technological advantage, but in the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Thus in the moment of crisis, because they believed that God can, should--and indeed, would--do something to save them, they complained, mourned, wept, chanted dirges, and cursed." (Born from Lament, 103-104)
This point is especially true of imprecatory psalms (the ugly, violent-sounding ones). If we cut out the violent parts of the psalms, we deny part of God’s essential character. YHWH’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7 highlights divine mercy, but it also says of God: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV). The God of the Old Testament is YHWH, the covenant-making and redeeming God who rescues and saves, who demonstrates love and who takes sin seriously.Would we prefer it otherwise? Would we prefer a world where rampant evil goes unchecked? Where corrupt despots get rich by oppressing others? Would we prefer for people to be allowed to destroy each other’s lives and reputations by spreading false rumors about them with impunity? Or are we grateful that God wields his power in loving ways by putting a stop to injustice?If we believe that God takes sin seriously, then we can accept the Bible's invitation to pray that he will act to bring the unrepentant to justice.
2. Jesus modeled lament.
The book of Hebrews tells us that even Jesus lamented. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." (Hebrews 5:7)Jesus' tearful prayers did not disqualify him. He was still "without sin." And here the author of Hebrews says that his lament was evidence of "reverent submission." Remember that on the cross Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" This, too, was a faithful way to pray in the midst of his darkest hour. If Jesus is our model, then lament is an indispensable part of faithful discipleship.
3. Without lament, our worship spaces are less safe.
When we don't acknowledge pain in church, we get less of God and less of each other. As my friend Amy Oden recently put it, "I find more of God when I am most angry with him." Expressing our true emotions in his presence opens us up to meet him in deeper ways. It also opens us to each other.
Why would we deny this opportunity to our congregations? I can think of one reason why: FEAR. We fear that if we create space for lament, people will be offended or discouraged. But in reality, the opposite happens. By restricting our prayers to praise, we deny people access to the full message of Scripture. We lose people who think that their lives and emotions are too complex for the church. If your congregation is likely to be offended by lament, then they have not embraced the whole counsel of Scripture. Teach them what the Bible says about it. Cultivate a space where people can pray how they feel and in so doing discover that they are not alone.
4. Lament is the foundation of social justice.
The consequences of neglecting lament go beyond our local congregation. Not only will individuals not feel that the church is a safe place to bring their whole selves, but the church will lose its ability to impact the wider culture by addressing societal brokenness.
Katongole explains, "In the end, the loss of lament signals of loss of passion for social justice. A church that has lost its nerve to lament before God will likely lack the nerve to confront oppression and be prone to support the status quo. But that is also the reason why an attempt to recover the language of lament is about solidarity with those who suffer" (183).
The historic failure of white evangelicals to lament racial injustice unveils the root of our problem--we see racial discrimination as something happening to somebody else and being done by somebody else. By identifying with neither the perpetrators nor the victims, we maintain distance. As long as we are distant we cannot be part of the solution. Unless we see crimes against people of color as crimes against our fellow humans, we excuse ourselves from taking action.
If we cannot corporately bring to God those problems that overwhelm us, where will we bring them? If we are not comfortable creating space for our brothers and sisters to pray and weep, how can we even begin to work with them to find solutions? If their grief does not become our own, on what basis will we build unity? Where else will we find the resources to address whatever threatens to undo us? The first step in imagining a different kind of future is to grieve together and to grieve deeply over what has been done and what is being done.
If we want to (1) know God, (2) follow Christ, (3) minister to broken people, and (4) make a difference in a broken world, then lament is essential. On its own, lament is not enough. It is not the whole answer. But without it, we lose our grip on the resilient hope of the gospel.
For more on lament, see my interview with Remnant Radio.
For more on imprecatory prayer, see my blog post for the Political Theology Network.