The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Lament

The Christian Response to a Broken World

Over the weekend, my family and I passed the 50-day milestone of our COVID-19-inspired home isolation. I have tried to view this as an opportunity for growth, and there have certainly been some benefits to this season, but like the vast majority of folks, I acknowledge its challenges and am ready to move on to something else.

There is no denying that this is a rough time all around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and millions have contracted COVID-19. Financial uncertainty is widespread, as millions have lost their jobs.  The quarantine directives have been particularly devastating in parts of the world with food insecurities where starvation is a legitimate threat. Closer to home, financial stress and sheltering-in-place have created a volatile mix that, according to some reports, has led to a spike in abuse, mental health issues, and suicide.



In light of what is literally a worldwide crisis, you would like to think that perhaps this shared experience could bring us together somewhat—unify us in a time of need as we all pull together to jointly overcome. To be sure, that has happened to a degree, but louder, shriller voices continue to sow discord and division, placing blame along party lines and even promoting wild conspiracy theories.

From my perspective, the response to these events from a lot of Christians has been pretty disappointing as well. Too often, we are quick to speak and slow to listen instead of the other way around (see James 1.19), and when we react in that way, we can often add fuel to the fires of heartache, division, and confusion that are already waging.

The reality is that we live in a broken world marred by lots of problems. As Christians living in this context, how should we respond when tragedy occurs? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are three responses that I believe are helpful in the face of tragedy:

(1) In response to a broken world, Christians should lament. Perhaps our most basic response to suffering is that we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12.15). That seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but recently, instead of this, I have seen Christians telling those who weep that what they weep about isn’t really a big deal or worth weeping about at all! When the world gives us evidence of its brokenness, we should acknowledge that brokenness, allow ourselves feel distress, and bring that distress before God. It has become popular, in some circles, to criticize prayer as a response to horrible tragedy, but as Christians, we should take no note of such dismissals. Christians believe that God is ultimately sovereign over the universe, and thus, He is the one who can do something about the brokenness in our world. It is absolutely appropriate that we bring out laments before our Father, as we yearn for a day when He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21.4).

(2) In response to a broken world, Christians should aid the suffering. I think part of the reason that a lot of people are critical of prayer is that they feel that this is all that Christians do. And perhaps that can be a fair criticism at times, because God certainly expects us to accompany our prayers with righteous actions. Philip Yancey says that the church forms the front line of God’s response to the suffering world, and I think he is right: Christians have a responsibility to get into the mess of the world and try to do something to clean it up. That is probably accomplished less by questioning the statistics that are released, distrusting the media, or berating government officials, and more by being present with those who suffer, and looking for ways to aid those who are in need: offering a shoulder to cry on (even a socially-distant one!) for the grieving, a card or phone call for the lonely, a bag of groceries or a check in the mail for those with financial needs.[1]

(3) In response to a broken world, Christians should proclaim Jesus. Too often, this part is neglected. In John 16.33, Jesus was speaking to His disciples on the night of His arrest and He said simply, “In this world you will have tribulation.” Though not spoken directly to us, those words certainly apply to us as well; as recent and ongoing events remind us, we live in the same world, a world which was created good but has been tainted by sin and is now characterized by heartache. As Christians, we weep with those who weep, we do what we can to help those who are suffering, but we also remember the second half of John 16.33: “In this world you will have tribulation…but take courage, I have overcome the world!” As Christians, we also proclaim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that sin, illness, suffering, strife, injustice, and death do not get the last word. As Christians, we long for the day when Jesus returns, when death dies, and when every tear is wiped away from our eyes.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I am certain that more could be said. At the same time, I am equally certain that if Christians everywhere would respond to suffering and tragedy in our world in these ways, the Christian witness would be strengthened, the suffering of people would be limited, and the borders of God’s Kingdom would be expanded.

This is an updated version of an older post


[1]If you have been blessed with financial means and would like to share with those who are in need, please contact me. I am working to help some ministers in impoverished areas who are providing food for vulnerable populations who are at risk of literally starving, and I would be happy to help your gift get to a place where it could accomplish much good.

The Disappearance of Lament

In addition to the examples we looked at in the last post, there are many, many more that we could look at just in the Book of Psalms. In fact, there are more lament psalms in the Book of Psalms than any other type!

  • Psalms of Lament: 60 out of 150 (40%)
  • Psalms of Praise: 41 out of 150 (27.3%)
  • Psalms of Thanksgiving and Trust: 27 out of 150 (18%)
  • Miscellaneous Psalms (teaching, wisdom, worship, etc.): 22 out of 150 (14.7%)*

We know that the Book of Psalms functioned much like a songbook for worship in both the lives of the Israelites and also the early church; with 40% of their songs containing lament, clearly lament was an acceptable part of their worship and their lives!

What about us? Are we as comfortable with the language of lament as our spiritual ancestors?

A research assistant at Abilene Christian University did a project where he examined some modern hymnals (song books), divided the songs into different categories, and compared them to the Book of Psalms. One of the books he examined was Songs of Faith and Praise, which is the hymnal we use at the congregation where I work, and is a popular hymnal in Churches of Christ.

Of the 885 songs in Songs of Faith and Praise: 

  • Songs of Thanksgiving and Trust: 392 out of 885 (44%)
  • Songs Praise: 264 out of 885 (30%)
  • Miscellaneous Songs (songs on worship, invitation songs, patriotic, about Christ): 197 out of 885 (22%)
  • Songs of Lament: 32 out of 885 (<4%)

Compared to the Book of Psalms, 40% of which is comprised of lament psalms, Songs of Faith and Praise includes lament songs 1/10 as often! I know this is not the most scientific study, but I still think it shows a general truth, which is that we have largely lost the biblical language of lament. Something which is a huge part of the Book of Psalms, and thus a major part of the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament and the early church has largely been removed from the way we speak to each other and to God.

If you think about it, really the only time where we lament together is in the aftermath of a death, but even then in our modern funerals we’ve gotten to where we hardly leave room for lament. Instead, we try to have upbeat “memorial services” where we tell funny stories about the departed, and we expect that after a few weeks people ought to “get over” their grief and get on with their lives. We live in a culture that does everything it can to avoid death, suffering, or discomfort, and a lot of times, that’s how it is in the church as well.

There is no room for lament in our lives.

Now some people might think that this is a good thing: “Well, sure there are a lot of these laments in Psalms and Jeremiah, Habakkuk, etc., but those are in the Old Testament! We live under the new covenant; as Christians, we shouldn’t say things like this because we have victory through Jesus! We should be able to face any trial with a smile on our face!”

Historically though, we know that the early church valued the Book of Psalms as much as the Jews did. New Testament writers refer to the book of Psalms over 400 times, and as already mentioned, the Book of Psalms served as the hymnbook of the early church. The Psalms were very important to the early Christians.

Furthermore, Jesus, our example in all things, shows the characteristics of lament in his life. When His friend Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps, despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead! If it was okay for Jesus to show emotion and be upset when He was troubled, it’s certainly okay for us as well.

When Jesus approaches Jerusalem before the Triumphal Entry, He laments over it because He knows it will be destroyed. Soon after that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, contemplating His coming arrest and crucifixion, Jesus cries out to God and says, in effect, “Father, if there is any way You can save Me from the horror of what’s coming, please do so!” That is lament.

On the cross, in the midst of his torment, Jesus famously cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is a direct quote from Psalm 22, which is one of the lament Psalms.

In addition to the value of the psalms in the early church, we can see clearly that lament was a part of the life of Jesus. Lament is not just an Old Testament phenomenon, it is a biblical phenomenon. It’s a part of faith.

Bringing Lament Back Into Our Lives

And we can see that it’s a part of faith by looking at the laments themselves. In the laments we read together, there is a pattern which arises and this is generally true in the laments:

  1. They are addressed to God recognizing that He is the One who is in control.
  2. They involve a complaint; something is wrong in the life of the one who is lamenting.
  3. They contain a request: the lamenter wants God to do something about the complaint.
  4. Usually, the laments close with confidence and praise: having turned their request over to God, the lamenter is confident that God is in control, and praises Him for His watchful care.

Seeing these different parts of lament shows that laments are different from just whining and complaining: lament is not about pouting because we don’t get our way. Instead, lament is what occurs when deep faith confronts deep suffering: we suffer, and in our faith, we turn to the Only One who can do anything about our suffering, the God who is in charge and who cares for us.

This faith language which we have lost is something that we need to reclaim.

Think about it this way: you can tell how close your relationship with another person is based on how honest you can be with that person. With that in mind, how honest can you be with God? I think that we’ve gotten the impression that somehow it is wrong or irreverent when bad things happen to ask God questions or to express our frustration or even anger with Him. And because of that, when times get tough, people either walk away from their faith, or they just bury their emotions and pretend that everything is okay.

But God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows when we questions. He knows when we are frustrated. He knows when we are angry with Him. And He can handle that. And rather than us trying to swallow these feelings and pretend they don’t exist, God wants us to bring that to Him. 1 Peter 5.7 tells us to cast all of our anxieties on God, because He cares for us.

And Scripture shows us how to do that. Through the language of lament, we can see how we can cry out to God in our suffering in ways that are honest, but in ways that are still faithful.

Conclusion

Is the church meant to be a place of support and healing where we can be honest with one another about what is going on in our lives and honest with God? Or is it a place of white-washing and mask-wearing, where we put on a brave face and pretend everything is okay even when it most definitely is not?

In these last two posts, we have looked at lament:

We’ve seen how it is a biblical practice, a language of faith that we see throughout Scripture, and especially in the Psalms. We’ve noted the disturbing way in which lament has largely disappeared from the songs we sing, from our culture at large, and even from funerals sometimes. And hopefully, we’ve seen that lament is something we need to reclaim and bring back as a part of our lives of faith. Lament emphasizes that God is in control, that He is the One who can do something about our suffering, and that as a result, it only makes sense that we bring it to Him.

I want to close with three suggestions for how lament can aid us when we go through difficult times in life. When the tough times come, I urge you:

  1. Be open with your brothers and sisters in Christ about what is going on and how you feel. If we are serious about being the family of God, then that means we are here for one another, and we need to support one another.
  2. Read through the Psalms. We just looked at a few examples, but 40% of the book is lament. There is a wide array of language which is used to cover a wide array of problems; see how people of faith voiced their suffering to God.
  3. And most importantly, be honest with God about your suffering. Maybe using some of that same lament language from Psalms, take your suffering and lay it at His feet. He is the one who can handle it and do something about it.

*As I mentioned in the last post, these thoughts (and also the statistics) are greatly informed by Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting With God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.

Introduction

For the next two posts in the ongoing A Theological View of Suffering series, I wanted to talk about the idea of lament, something which is a very biblical concept, but one which we ignore too often in our churches and in our individual spiritual lives (the following material was substantially informed by an excellent book, Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting With God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.)

One of my favorite quotations comes from the Scottish theologian Ian Maclaren who said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I like that quotation, not only because it encourages us to always be mindful of the way we treat other people, but also because it emphasizes that this life is full of struggles and problems—all of us have hard battles that we have to fight. And if you aren’t fighting one right now, you probably have in the past or you will in the future. We live in a broken world, and as a result, heartache and suffering is a part of our existence.

So really, it isn’t a question of whether or not we will suffer (we will), nor when we will suffer (we don’t have much control over that), but rather: how should we respond when tough times come?

As a believer, as a person of faith, how do you respond, when you learn that a loved one has inoperable cancer?

  • when your marriage falls apart?
  • when you lose your job?
  • when your child is diagnosed with an incurable disease?
  • when your mother or father or husband or wife dies?

As a Christian, what is the appropriate response when things like this happen? How do we respond to the emotions that arise? Are we supposed to turn off those emotions like some sort of faucet? Pretend they’re not there? When we come to worship with our Christian family, are we supposed to put on a brave face and act like everything’s okay and smile and say, “Everything’s great!” when everything most certainly is not?

Or, is there a biblically-approved way to take those feelings—feelings of frustration, disappointment, confusion, anger—before God (who, by the way, knows what we’re feeling anyway)?

I want to spend a couple of posts talking about the idea of lament. In a general sense, lament is a “passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” In the context of faith, lament means being honest with God, and taking our feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger over the problems we face and laying those feelings at His feet.

This practice of lament is very biblical, but unfortunately, seems to have fallen out of favor in the modern church. I think it is important that we reclaim the language of lament so that we can be more honest in our faith with one another and with God.

Lament as a Biblical Language

I want to begin by noticing how common lament is in the Bible. In a sense, it really is a biblical language: it is a specific type of communication that people in Scripture use to bring their problems before God.

We can see lament in several places in the Old Testament, like Jeremiah or Lamentations or Habakkuk, but lament is especially common in the Book of Psalms, and I want us to look at a few of the Psalms in order to get an idea about lament.

(1) Sometimes, the authors of the Psalms lament because of sickness or grief or danger: 

For example, Psalm 6, which is a song of David:

O LORD, rebuke me not in Your anger, nor discipline me in Your wrath.

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.

My soul also is greatly troubled.

But You, O LORD—how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of Your steadfast love.

For in death there is no remembrance of You; in Sheol who will give You praise?

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;

I drench my couch with my weeping.

My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.

The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer.

All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

Here we see that David is in great distress; he asks how long God will wait before He intervenes and saves him from his poor condition. At the end, David is confident that the Lord has heard his cry and that He will come to his rescue.

(2) Other times, the Psalmists will complain that they cannot feel God’s presence in their lives.

Psalm 13 is a psalm of David:

How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me.

Here we have some strong language from David: “God, how long will you forget me?! How long will you ignore me? Will you always allow my enemy to triumph over me?” But at the end, we again see that David trusts in God’s steadfast love; he knows that God has dealt kindly with him in the past, and is confident that He will do so again.

(3) And then there are psalms where the authors accuse God of breaking his promises.

For example, Psalm 44 (this one is longer, but I think really makes the point well). The language might make us a little uncomfortable, because the author is very blunt with God:

O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us,

what deeds You performed in their days, in the days of old:

You with Your own hand drove out the nations, but them You planted;

You afflicted the peoples, but them You set free;

for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them,

but Your right hand and your arm, and the light of Your face, for You delighted in them.

You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!

Through You we push down our foes; through Your name we tread down those who rise up against us.

For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.

But You have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.

In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to Your name forever. Selah

But You have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.

You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.

You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.

You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

You have made us the taunt of our neighborsthe derision and scorn of those around us.

You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.

All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face

at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten You, and we have not been false to Your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;

yet You have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.

If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,

would not God discover this? For He knows the secrets of the heart.

Yet for Your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide Your face? Why do You forget our affliction and oppression?

For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.

Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of Your steadfast love!

Here the psalmist starts by talking about the great things God has done in Israel’s past, and how it is in God that they place their trust, but then there is a sudden and sharp turn in v. 9: “But God, you have rejected and disgraced us!” And it goes on for the rest of the psalm talking about all the ways that it seems God has turned his back on them:

  • “You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.”
  • “You have sold Your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.”
  • “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.”
  • “You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.”

And all of this has happened despite the fact that, according to the psalmist, the people have been faithful to the covenant! They have upheld their part of the bargain, but they accuse God of not doing His part! And the psalm closes as he begs and pleads with God to remember His people and come to their aid.

This blunt, abrasive language is the language of lament, and most likely, it is not the sort of language you hear very often in prayers and songs at worship. In the next post, I want to look at the disappearance of lament from our spiritual dialect, and the need to bring it back into our lives.

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