Suffering is the daily lot of many of the world’s Christians, particularly those in Western Africa. Unfortunately, churches give little heed to this reality in most Sunday services. Behind this lies a barely concealed apprehension Christians have with regard to the proper stance to adopt toward suffering. In the following reflection, I explore lamentation as a way of dealing with suffering, and propose its integration into contemporary piety. Rightly understood and properly practiced, biblical lamentation is a source of inner liberation and spiritual enrichment.
Biblical Cries of Hope
The Psalms present a wide spectrum of human emotions, ranging from the most exuberant joy to the most acute bitterness. In order to express their pain and suffering, the psalmists employ a form of prayer known as lamentation. A lament is a prayer of distress addressed to God with intent to draw God’s attention to the condition of the one making the prayer. More than one-third of the Psalter is comprised of Psalms of lament. R.P. Belcher notes that: “Psalms of lament give voice to suffering and are a legitimate means of expressing the believer’s frustration with God when he is perceived as an integral part of the problem.” In these prayers, the psalmists engage in an exercise of honesty in which they lay out their true feelings. They put difficult questions to God and ponder His apparent silence or slowness to act. Far from being cries of desperation, the psalmists’ complaints are in fact cries of hope. They express an authentic faith struggling to understand a God who seems distant, indifferent, or inactive. These Psalms show that the necessary prerequisite to all true lamentation is a solid relationship with God based on a faith rooted in his promises.
While sparing in its use of psalms of lament in corporate worship, the theme of lamentation does occur in the New Testament as well: Paul knew distress and affliction (1 Cor. 1:1ff ); Jesus wept over his friend Lazarus (John 11:33) and lamented over Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-35); James exhorted believers to pray in times of suffering and sickness and to sing in times of joy (James 5:13-14).
Triumphalism Needs Lament
Contemporary evangelical worship services lack lamentation. The emphasis falls more frequently on emotionalism, extravagance, star culture, and a concert style. Little space exists for the believer to express pain and hurt. There is an unwritten rule by which the believer has to arrive at a service with an aura of joy regardless of the circumstances of life. In my opinion, this tendency to uniformly positive emotion distances the church from the spirit and practice of both ancient Israel and the early Christians. Moreover, this tendency is marked by a widespread hypocrisy, which is in flagrant contradiction with the daily experience of many believers. A glance at the development of protestant liturgy shows a progressive slide from more structured liturgy towards completely unbridled worship services. Evangelical services today represent a break with historical Protestantism. This situation is particularly maintained and promoted by Pentecostal and charismatic movements, which favor amongst other things miracles, deliverance and prosperity.
Generally speaking, however, the evangelical triumphalism expressed in numerous services emanates from a theology built on a mistaken conception of the sovereign God. This theology perceives God as one who blesses zealous worshippers, provides for all their needs, and delivers them from misfortune. Such a vision of God is correct, but incomplete. God does not always heal. He does not always deliver. Neither does He act in predictable ways nor according to preconceived human patterns. The God of the Old and New Testaments is a free and sovereign God, both compassionate and fearsome.
Being able to express complaint to God
God expects us to be honest in our interactions with Him. He wants us to express our true emotions. It displays no lack of spirituality to bring complaint to God. Quite the contrary, it is an act of deep piety based on the assurance that “when a sufferer cries out, the Lord hears him and delivers him from all his troubles” (see Gen. 21:16-17; Ex. 3:7; 6:5; Pss. 17; 18; 20; 31; 41; 102). An absence of lamentation impoverishes our relationship with God and leads naturally to spiritual camouflage or the refusal to face up to troubles which can become a deadly poison for the soul.
To choose not to lament would be to confess that the status quo, characterized by misery, abuse, and social injustices is normal. In a word, to choose not to lament is to accept the dysfunction of life. From a more positive angle, to lament is to align oneself with God, to affirm His sovereignty, and proclaim his plan to reestablish order in this chaos-ridden world.
In addition to its theological value, lamentation has a therapeutic function. In this respect, lamenting is to face up to oneself before God and allow his Spirit to accomplish a work of healing in our lives.
Praise and lament are in fact two sides of the same coin. By constantly insisting on the “power of praise” we have lost sight of the value of lamentation. We need to return to biblical complaint and accord it its due place in both personal piety and public worship. Bringing a lament to God from the heart is certainly worth more than offering hypocritical praise, tripping off the tip of the tongue.
Let us have the courage to approach the throne of grace with cries of lamentation and let our heavenly Father take care of transforming our cries of distress into hymns of praise, our tears of pain into tears of joy. When given due attention, lamentation will appear no longer out of tune with our worship, but as an essential ingredient in the worship of God.