Pain and Lament

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The place of pain and lament in our worship

Neil Sims


Can we share our worst with God? Many in the mainline churches today grew up with the understanding that we wore our best clothes to worship. In fact, we talked about our "Sunday best". I believe this kind of training had good intentions, reminding us that God deserved our best. However, one consequence was that we did not understand worship as a place where we could share our worst with God. We may have had prayers of confession, but many times they were treated as a formality. Ultimately, by its practice, the Church taught some that only good people were really welcome in God's presence. Others who had struggled in life, others who could not hide the "dark side" of their lives were obviously not welcome because God only wanted the best. It was easy for the good church members to practice a self-righteousness which was a long way removed from the grace revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are wilderness experiences unacceptable for God's people? Martin Marty in his book, A Cry of Absence 1, writes about churches that encourage a triumphalism, what he calls a "summer spirituality". Many churches expect believers to be on top all the time, to "walk in victory". The result is that when a believer is not on top, he or she feels condemned and is likely to believe that God has given up on them also. Does this leave any room for wilderness or valley or crisis experiences in the lives of God's people - or do those experiences become messages to those people that God could not possibly love them any longer? Marty asks, “Who tends the spirit where winter takes over? The Christian faith and the family are prescribed to provide refuge and warmth, and for many they do. In our generations, however, to mention spirituality is to evoke images only of the long-day suns of summers. Those who begin with a sense of the void, the Absence, who live with dullness of soul, feel left out when others speak only of such bright spirituality.”2 His book, which is subtitled "Reflections for the Winter of the Heart," goes on to talk about the place of the Psalms of lament in our faith. He writes, “I noticed that more than half of the psalms had as their major burden or context life on the wintry landscape of the heart. Many more contained extensive reference to the spiritual terrain of winter, even if it did not predominate. Only about a third of the psalms were, indeed, the simple property of those for whom the summery style would exhaust Christian spirituality.”3

There are both summers and winters in our spiritual lives. There are times when we sense God's presence and other times when we feel God is absent. "No human act in and of itself can overcome the gap between the experienced absence or distance from God and the divine presence."4 The cries of our hearts in those winters are "heard under a thousand disguises" though they may not be expressed in worship and they may lead us away from worship.5

Can we face the pain in the church, in ourselves? Much of the distorted thinking and practice of the Church referred to above has meant that we have failed to face honestly the pain, tension and conflict within the church. We have often pretended that it is not there as we have sought to foster a community of praise and thanks. We may have been reduced to superficial positive thinking. Our confession has been found wanting. Someone has said "a theology of perfection leads to a life of denial." We don't want to face the truth about ourselves, but we need to. Perhaps we resist lamenting because we don't want to face God's lament with us. Lament and confession of sin are essential dimensions of worship.

Is God among us or not? "It is a question that invites an answer: 'Is God among us or not?' (Exodus 17:7)" Perhaps it is a question that we don't dare to ask because we don't want to consider the possibility that God is not among us. We prefer to cling to the promise of Christmas, the promise of Emmanuel, the promise of God with us. But will we admit that there are times when it seems that God has abandoned us? At the Victorian Synod of the Uniting Church in 1999, the Rev. Professor Howard Wallace raised this question. He then explored it using Psalm 74, which is described in the New Revised Standard Version as "A Plea for Help in Time of National Humiliation."

This is a psalm of the time of exile, about 587 BCE. Jerusalem has been attacked by the Babylonian army. The city has fallen, the walls are breached, people have been forcibly taken, and the temple has been destroyed. The psalm begins with a call to God to give heed to the people's plight. It provides a vivid description of the sacking of the temple, and laments the absence of any indication of how long this will last. It ends asking God to remember the covenant. We cannot overestimate the significance of the temple. It was the place above all others which proclaimed that God was among them. And yet it had been destroyed. How could God allow this? --- the psalm calls us into the realm of lament. --- lament is an ability to pour out - in an unashamed, unembarrassed, guiltless way before God - the hurt we feel when life is hard on us. It often involves asking direct questions about God's responsibility for the hurt, or expressing feelings of rejection by God. Such is the case in Psalm 74. --- Finally, back to our question: "Is God among us or not?" In the end it would seem that 'yes' is the only real answer we can give if our faith is to endure. The psalm teaches us, however, that 'yes' can only be uttered if we take the answer 'no' as a serious possibility. --- If we are to answer 'yes' to our question and confess, "God is among us". then we have to call him into our presence, address him in the midst of pain and uncertainty, and expect him to hear. --- Such an act can never be faithless.6

True belief: "Those who believe that they believe in God, but without any passion in their heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God-Idea, not in God Himself."7 This seems to be saying that our faith must be well and truly rooted in the realities of daily life. Our understanding of God must be true to our life experience. Therefore, our life experience will raise questions about what we believe about God, and ultimately teach us about the God who has become incarnate amongst us. When we truly lament our sin, this is another sign of true belief; and our sin is not limited to our personal vices, "but the deeper roots of sin are often linked with the terrors of society."8 This lamenting and confessing is directed towards a change in our way of living. It is not an end in itself.

Lamentation in our faith: In our Protestant worship we have often avoided using the difficult psalms, especially the psalms of vengeance. The latter certainly contrast with Jesus' teaching to love our enemies. Many of these psalms of lament call God into question or put God on trial. This may be seen as sinful, to challenge God's authority. However the motivation behind the laments of Israel was "seeking God to turn again to them in kindness and mercy after such suffering, in war, or at the hand of natural forces."9 It is interesting that communal laments are relatively few in the Psalter while individual laments are the most common psalm type. This suggests that we need to learn to weep together, to come to a place where we have the freedom to make our individual laments public where appropriate, as an expression of Christian community. How often do we join the psalmists in complaining to God that our circumstances are seemingly incompatible with God's covenant promises? In what ways may our liturgies allow us to express our questions about God's activity? When we do these things, they are already an expression of our faith in God's commitment to God's people in Christ! Good Friday reminds us that lament is already part of our worship, though it is awkward for worshippers who don't want to face suffering as part of discipleship. Lament is also present when we pray from the heart for those who are suffering around the world.

Brueggemann makes the point that the use of psalms of lament is "an act of bold faith --- on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God."10 In response to this, Marva Dawn declares, "We avoid life's darknesses because we do not let God be God. We try to control the darkness ourselves, or we must ignore it because our worship does not proclaim God's sovereign control."11 What are the consequences of an absence of lament? Brueggemann declares, "The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility."12

The example of the holocaust: David Power has argued that this horrific event has pointed us again to the necessity of full lamentation. He asks the question in relation to the Jews, "Does a people silence this remembrance in order to continue to worship, or can it take issue with God over a brutality to which there is no divine response as far as any meaning is concerned and yet render praise in hope?"13 When we close our eyes to the terrible suffering in the world around us, do we also close our eyes to the depth of God to whom all creation belongs?

Praise and lament go together: I remember a worship service that was the celebration of a weekend of teaching within a local Parish. Many more people than usual had come to the evening worship with a degree of expectancy. The congregation seemed to be enjoying the praise singing at the beginning except for three strangers who had quietly taken their seats. Soon, they were making their way out of the church. Another minister and I greeted them at the door where they apologized, "We're sorry we cannot stay in there, but we have just lost a baby." We totally understood. They had come to share their grief with God, but had not found space for that.

"Christian public prayer finds praise and thanksgiving far less demanding when lamenting is suppressed. Put differently, praise and thanksgiving grow empty when the truth about human rage over suffering and injustice is never uttered. --- the revelatory character of prayer, liturgical or devotional, is diminished when no laments are ever raised. --- Christian liturgy without the full range of the Psalms becomes anorexic - starving for honest, emotional range."14 Similarly, Dawn explains, "'Praise' that uses only 'upbeat' songs can be extremely destructive to worshipers because it denies the reality of doubt concerning God, the hiddenness of God, and the feelings of abandonment by God that cloud believers going through difficult times."15 She goes on to say that people's feelings of guilt, doubts, fears, their sense of hypocrisy and sinfulness need to be dealt with in worship. Honesty is needed in relation to human suffering, not just so that humanity expresses its anger, but also "to keep praise and thanksgiving from evading the real. It may well be that we cannot truly grasp the truth of Christ's cry of abandonment until we enter into the unimagineable pain of our fellow human beings."16 This may explain the vitality of the church in countries where there is greater suffering.

Brueggemann also critiques the modern emphasis on happiness and upbeat worship:

It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing 'happy songs' in the face of raw reality is doing something different from what the Bible itself does.17

"Some of the best worship gifts are time, silence, and words devoted to repentance within the genuine praise of God. Praise encompassing all of God's character provides a safe haven within which we can face ourselves and acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, rebellions and idolatries. --- Keeping God as the subject and object of our worship enables us to deal with the darkness by lamenting it, by complaining about it. The psalms give us wonderful tools to move from addressing God with pleas, complaints, petitions, and even imprecations to the surprising outcome of praise."18 Dawn's personal conclusion is, "I need worship that lets me lament and find in that cry God's caring presence."19

Peta Sherlock also sees how praise and lament go together. She says that lament is not just to vent our feelings but also to (and she quotes Brueggemann) “summon God away from the throne back into human life which is so hurtful and raw.”20 She continues, ”We struggle in our worship from orientation (praise to God on his throne) to disorientation (human pain) and on to reorientation (a new, more honest faith that does not cut corners). It is no wonder that this powerful paradox of pain and praise is the very psalm on the lips of Jesus on the cross.”21 Brueggemann notes that “praise has the power to transform the pain, but conversely the present pain keeps the acts of praise honest.”22


Some Conclusions

We are not to hold back from God any part of our lives, including our ‘dark’ sides, our genuine complaints, our pain.

Believers go through wilderness experiences. These are to be acknowledged and owned. Then we may be able to learn from them.

As churches and church members, we have often been slow to face the truth about ourselves.

It is good for us to struggle with the question, “Is God among us or not?” and to look for signs of God’s presence and/or absence. This means allowing our life experiences to dialogue with our current beliefs about God. In coming to terms with our life experience, our convictions about God may be affirmed, rejected, challenged and/or modified.

In lament, in complaining to God, we express our faith in God, and we look for God’s grace in the face of our suffering. We may rehearse God’s faithfulness in the past in the hope that our circumstances might change for the better.

We need to learn to lament together, finding solidarity in the Christian community.

To lament in this way is to remain within the community of the faith - being open and honest with the God who has drawn us into covenant in Christ.

When we fail to lament, it may be a sign of our desire to manage our lives and/or our lack of trust in the sovereignty of God.

Praise is richer and more honest when combined with lament. Praise without lament stunts the spiritual life by deception. True praise of God revealed in Christ enables us to embrace the darkness and give voice to the deepest cries of our hearts.

1San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

2Ibid., 2.

3Ibid., 39.

4Saliers, Don E. Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine Nashville, Abignon, 1994, 118.

5Ibid., 119.

6“Psalm for Now: Loss and Lament: Exploring a Question Biblically” in Crosslight, November, 1999.

7Miguel De Unamuno The Tragic Sense of Life New York: Dover, 1954,193.

8Saliers, 124.

9Ibid., 120.

10Brueggemann, Walter The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, 51-53.

11Dawn, Marva Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down:A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995,92.

13“The Costly Loss of Lament”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36, 1986, 57-71, 61.

13Power, David N. Worship: Culture and Theology Washington: The Pastoral Press, 1990, 160

14Saliers, 121.

15Dawn, 88.

16Ibid., 123.

17Brueggemann, 51-52.

18Dawn, 91.

19Ibid., 93.

20Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living Philadelphia, 1991, 19.

21“Scripture, Hermeneutics, Preaching and Me” in Ministry, Society and Theology Vol. 13 No. 1, July, 1999,106.

22Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, 139.


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