Formed by Lament
(This is a guest post from our friend Laura Cerbus.)
“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.” Psalm 130:1-2
What can we call the year 2020 if not a year of grief? So much heaviness and turmoil, so much to bring to God in prayer. America is not unique in its suffering; the pandemic has touched all inhabited continents and almost every country. Injustice and violence, which have boiled over in America this year, are a daily part of life for many parts of the world. As I write, an American living in Australia, I feel a strange, weighty sense of solidarity with many people around the world.
Yet, as Soong-Chan Rah explores in his book Prophetic Lament, lament of suffering does not come easily to Western Evangelicals. In a culture that focuses on victory and triumph, we are not used to lamenting. We want our tears to turn to joy — as soon as possible. This discomfort with sorrow and lament, however, is foreign to the Scriptures, as Rah shows throughout Prophetic Lament.
While Rah’s book, formed from a series of expository sermons that he preached, focuses on Lamentations, I’ve been thinking of how Rah’s observations of lament in that book hold true for the laments of the psalms as well. It has helped me appreciate the way that lament as expressed by the psalms shapes us into a cruciform people, the kind of people who follow a savior who is known as “the man of sorrows.”
The arresting, graphic imagery of the psalms of lament do not allow us to sympathize with sorrow in watered-down cliches. In a culture that is convinced that the good life is only and always pleasure, people stare at grief like deer in headlights. What is there to say? Most public figures default to “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” an expression which is often empty of depth. We are willing to express the weight of sadness — but only briefly, and not at the expense of decorum. Yet when we come to the psalms of lament, we say with the Psalmist, “We sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground”(Ps. 44:25), and “But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals; you covered us over with deep darkness” (Ps. 44:19). This language forces us to reckon with the reality of suffering: it is not easy or insignificant, and it is not done away with by a trite expression of solidarity.
Lament reminds us to listen attentively to the grief of those who suffer, instead of pontificating like Job’s friends. When we are not suffering ourselves, meeting someone who is suffering can be very uncomfortable. We can feel overwhelmed and at a loss, and as a result we want desperately to escape. If we do, we refuse to lament. If instead we stay, we can act like Job’s friends, exacerbating the suffering through arrogant, incomplete theology. Familiarity with the psalms of lament, however, works the language of suffering and grief into our hearts. Singing with the psalmist, “my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death,” we train ourselves to be comfortable with a full expression of anguish. And when we finish singing Psalm 88, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness,” with no turn to praise at the end, we learn that praise cannot be forced. It can come too soon, cutting short the necessary lament.
Lament willingly confesses corporate and individual sin. Rah notes that even in the dominant narrative of triumph, twentieth-century Protestants often compare themselves to the exiles in Lamentations: there is a sense of exile, of a loss of power, of being under siege and in decline. And yet rarely in that rhetoric, in my experience, is there a sense of responsibility. We too easily blame other, more liberal or conservative denominations; we blame Hollywood; we blame corrupt politicians; we blame feminism. But what is striking about the laments of the psalms is that they do not hesitate to confess culpability. In Psalm 79:8-9, the people plead, “Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.” They speak from a position of exile, but they understand that their sins and the sins of their nation has brought them there. Other psalms, such as Psalm 7, assert the psalmist’s integrity, and no confession is given. These psalms show us that suffering is not automatically tied to sin — we need wisdom and insight to know when to hold fast to our innocence, like Job, and when to beg God to “blot out [our] transgressions” (Ps 51:1). And we may even learn to relax our grip on our individualism by identifying with those who have sinned, both past and present, as Jeremiah does (see Jeremiah 14:20).
Lament expresses a heart in need of the Gospel. Lament cannot exist with self-sufficiency. The gospel of self-sufficiency says that I am enough, that I have within me what I need to endure and to fight back. It promises victory to whomever has the willpower to push through. Lament says the opposite: it boldly proclaims my weakness, my anguish, my inability to rescue myself. The lament psalms cling to God for salvation, even when they search wildly for him. When we sing “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1), we sow in our hearts a yearning for his presence that the good news of Jesus Christ so completely satisfies. Jesus’ advent did not come to a world of peace and prosperity, and his message was not accepted by those who were self-satisfied. Only when we recognize the sickness of our world and our hearts can we know our need for Jesus.
How good God is to have given us such a rich song book as the psalter. How fitting it is for our worship. In a year of incredible loss, isolation, tragedy, violence, and injustice, we need to turn to the psalms of lament. Our worship services ought to be times of rejoicing in God’s great and gracious salvation, but also of expressing the deep sorrows of our world and our hearts. When we neglect lament as a part of our worship, we disconnect our Monday through Saturday lives with our Sunday life. We communicate that the worship of God’s people is separate from their everyday existence. Rah is right: we need to lament. We need, in particular, the laments of the psalter. In them, we find language that trains our hearts to meet suffering with attentive compassion, to confess our corporate and individual sins, and to turn to Christ for salvation.