Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Misconceptions about Lament

Things are bad in this world of ours. An awful lot of hard stuff is going on. If there was ever a time to cry, this is it. But many Christians shy away from lament because they believe lament is somehow sub-Christian or perhaps they think it won't do any good. 

I've identified three reasons Christians avoid lament. All three are misconceptions. We'll tackle them one at a time:

(1) Lament shows a lack of faith.

If we really believe that God is good and powerful and that he will win in the end, then we would not need to lament, right? Singer-songwriter Michael Card disagrees. In his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, Card says this: 
"Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists." (55)
In other words, if you did not believe in the existence of God, there would be no reason to lament. It would do no good. It's because we do believe in God, and trust him as the only one who is able to make things right that we present our most desperate requests to him.

In fact, the Bible offers many examples of faithful men and women who bring prayers of lament to God. Those prayers made it into our Bibles without condemnation. Some of them were included in the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Their presence in Scripture implies that we are invited to pray laments, too.

Michael Card explains it this way: 
"People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that prayers of complaint can still be prayers of faith. They represent the last refusal to let go of the God who may seem to be absent or worse -- uncaring. If this is true, then lament expresses one of the more intimate moments of faith -- not a denial of it. It is supreme honesty before a God whom my faith tells me I can trust. He encourages me to bring everything as an act of worship, my disappointment, frustration, and even my hate. Only lament uncovers this kind of new faith, a biblical faith that better understands God's heart as it is revealed through Jesus Christ." (31)
Lament is not faith-less, it's faith-full.
 
(2) Lament is the opposite of gratitude. 

How can we lament when the Bible urges us to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? Doesn't thankfulness preclude lament? One might think so, but again Scripture shows us that lament and gratitude go hand in hand.

In Psalm 44, the sons of Korah remember with gratitude the way that God has acted on Israel's behalf in the past (vv. 1-8). It's against the backdrop of their gratitude that they can plead with God to rescue them again (vv. 9-25). The character of God expressed in history leads them to trust God's future deliverance:
"Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love." (Psalm 44:26)
We need not fear that lament will shut out our gratitude. For reasons I'll explain further below, lament and gratitude actually depend on one another.

(3) Lament will lead to despair. 

Some of us don't want to lament for fear of becoming bitter old souls. We don't want to get stuck. But on the contrary, it is our refusal to lament that leads to bitterness and despair. When we try to carry the grief on our own or manage our own solutions to life's deepest problems, the pressure is too much to bear.

Emmanuel Katongole explains, 
"Pain . . . has the ability to destroy language, to reduce the victim to silence. This silence is a form of powerlessness, a paralyzing form of despair. Therefore, the ability to voice grief, to find words to speak the unspeakable and to name pain, is a form of resistance to the paralyzing silence." (Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, 56)
The pathway to joy requires us to pass through the gateway of lament -- acknowledging that all is not well in the world and that we believe our God is able to do something about it. Until we look our pain and loss directly in the face, we will be unable to let it go. 

Have you seen the Pixar movie "Inside Out"? When it seems like everything has fallen apart, Joy learns an important lesson: the value of Sadness. You can watch a clip here. Joy tries valiantly to cheer up Bing Bong by distracting him, but Sadness holds the key: by acknowledging the pain of Bing Bong's loss and making space to grieve, he is able to move forward and soon they are (literally) back on track.

So let's imagine that I've convinced you that lament is not sub-Christian. You might be wondering what to do next. What if you are just not the "emotional" type? How can you tell if you need to lament? How do you start?

One way to tell that we have unexpressed grief is when we lose our capacity to feel deep joy. I like to think of the spectrum of emotions that we experience as a window. On the left side of the window are emotions that we tend to characterize as negative -- anger, grief, fear --  while on the right-hand side are the emotions we see as positive -- joy, gratitude, delight. 


Photo Credit: Rob Wingate on Unsplash 

Hanging inside our emotional window is a set of old-fashioned drapes. Perhaps you remember the kind. To close the drapes, you pull a looped cord on one side of the window and both drapes gradually close until they meet in the middle. Our emotional life is like this. We cannot block just one side of the window. Closing the left side means closing the right side as well. If we suppress our feelings of grief or anger, we make it impossible to feel gratitude and joy.

I am not a trained counselor, but it's been my experience that if I find it hard to laugh along with others or enjoy a happy gathering, there is likely some unexpressed grief lodged in my soul. We can never recover our joy by imagining away our sorrow. We have to face it. Name it. Pray it. And thereby release it to God. Then we can pull our drapes open and let light back in the room.

That's why I'm so thankful for the book of Psalms. It tutors us in prayer, giving us words when we have none, and modeling the full range of ways to connect with God. If we categorize the psalms into  lament, praise, and other psalms, we find that there are more laments than any other type of psalm. That should tell us something about the life of prayer, and it should give us courage to bring our sorrows to God. 

If you have been feeling numb, you can start by making a list of things that are bothering you. It may be news headlines or it may be personal. Then bring your list to God. Find a psalm that expresses your heart -- maybe Psalm 4 or Psalm 88. Pray those words and add your own. God wants to hear your heart.

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