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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Three Cheers For Lament

Jan 28, 2018

One might argue that only a morose and maudlin melancholic or a moody misanthrope would dare to write such a piece (let alone offer such poor alliteration). OK, I confess, I am not exactly Mr Joe Bubbly. But one need not be despondent or depressed to appreciate a major biblical genre.

If the reader is still in the dark as to what I am talking about here, I refer to a major type of biblical literature, namely, the lament. The largest portion of the Psalter comes in the form of lament psalms (complaints, distress and protests). They speak of God’s people asking hard questions, venting their emotions, and even challenging God about evil, suffering and injustice in the world.

We have entire books written on this. Remember the book that follows Jeremiah? The book of Lamentations is part of the biblical canon, and all these laments should be read, studied and appreciated by believers today. But sadly they often are not.

Too often they are simply missing from the contemporary church. To make up for this unfortunate lack, I have written often on these issues in the past. For example, see these three pieces:

billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-lament-psalms/

billmuehlenberg.com/2015/10/22/the-book-of-lamentations/

billmuehlenberg.com/2016/08/29/god-suffering-lament-mourning/

As I discuss in these pieces, the laments are important for various reasons. They are of course fully biblical, so anyone claiming to be a biblical Christian would and should be deeply interested in them. But as mentioned, sadly perhaps most Western Christians today are not.

Indeed, they are embarrassed by the lament, they ignore the lament, and they even question the place of the lament in the Christian’s life – or even in Scripture! All the more reason to spend time with them and seek to restore them to their rightful place in the life of the church, the life of worship, and the life of the believer.

Part of the problem for the loss of the lament is the happy-clappy nature of many churches today. The impression is that only happy thoughts are allowed, and no one should come to church with problems, doubts, cares, fears, worries or complaints.

Indeed, we hear about saying no to “negative confessions” and only thinking happy and uplifting thoughts. It is seen as a lack of faith – and worse – if you say you have concerns, worries, doubts and complaints. This too I have often written about:

billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/29/problems-with-the-positive-confession-movement/

billmuehlenberg.com/2017/05/07/why-are-you-so-negative/

If we do lament, we are forced to do so at home, alone. There seems to be no place for corporate lament anymore in so many of our churches. The sufferer must just grin and bear it – he certainly dares not raise it in public worship. We must be upbeat and positive there!

Two books I recently picked up deal with all this and are well worth quoting from. I have long been arguing that we need to develop a theology of suffering, so I was most pleased to grab a volume yesterday with that as a subtitle by Gerald Peterman and Andrew Schmutzer.

In Between Pain and Grace: A Biblical Theology of Suffering (Moody, 2016), Schmutzer has a chapter entitled “Longing to Lament: Returning to the Language of Suffering”. He reminds us of the truth that the 67 lament psalms make up one-third of the Psalter.

There are 42 individual laments, 16 corporate laments, and 9 other laments. That is a lot of lament. And recall that the psalms were sung as worship to God by ancient Israel. It was not just the praise psalms that were part of their corporate worship, but the lament psalms as well.

Schmutzer quotes W. Sibley Towner who said, “Put in commercial terms, in the competitive denominational marketplace of the twenty-first century, somber doesn’t sell.” He continues:

Towner has not only identified the danger of the marketed church, but our profound dis–ease with engaging suffering in corporate worship, ours or others. In fact, every church attender today – and those who did attend – are keenly aware that expressions of deep personal pain, anger, and suffering are simply not welcome. Is a congregation that is filled with hurting people ever invited “to lament to the God who listens,” as Towner puts it? Who among us has recently been invited into honest lament? Most probably don’t even know what lament is.

The idea that our churches are filled with hurting people yet we hardly allow any of them to express their hurt in public church life really struck me. No wonder so many folks do NOT go to church, or have stopped going to church. He continues:

It appears that we are afraid of others’ pain and so have lost our ear for grief. This lack of honest address for suffering means we also lack the vocabulary to engage misery. Are tearful whispers between friends in secluded church bathrooms really adequate to address our seasons of suffering? Are small groups the only place left to acknowledge pain and fear? Certainly not! Not when everyone knows that week after week, they are standing next to someone at church:
-who is angry with an “absent” God,
-who had another miscarriage,
-who just found out about their spouse’s affair,
-who just lost a parent to cancer,
-who was raped in college,
-who was diagnosed with clinical depression,
-whose teen just attempted suicide,
-whose little sister struggles with anorexia,
-whose business just went under,
-whose sibling returned to alcohol rehab.

It seems that such people are invisible saints in so many of our churches today. It is as if they are not supposed to exist. If they do try to speak out, they are rebuked for ‘not having enough faith,’ or for ‘having sin in their life,’ or for the need to just make a ‘positive confession’ and the like.

As I said, in the face of such inauthenticity and superficiality, no wonder so many people are staying away from such churches. No wonder so many would rather drown out their sorrows with strangers who offer a listening ear at a local pub, than go to a place which seems to be fake and sanctimonious.

Another theologian and Old Testament scholar who has written numerous books and articles on the Psalms and on lament is Walter Brueggemann. In a collection of his journal articles edited by Patrick Miller called The Psalms and the Life of Faith (Augsburg Fortress, 1995), we have more worthwhile thoughts on these issues. In particular, there are three articles which are worth noting:

-“From Hurt to Joy, From Death to Life”
-“The Formfulness of Grief”
-“The Costly Loss of Lament”

Let me quote a bit from the first of these:

It is the lament that preserves for us Israel’s most powerful and eloquent statements of the effort both to survive and to be transformed as a people of faith. The study of the lament can provide important resources for our contemporary work of theology and ministry.
1. The lament manifests Israel at its best, giving authentic expression to the real experiences of life. Israel never wavered concerning the data or substance of its religion, knowing that it had to be about the real experiences of life. A study of the lament may be a corrective for some religion in the church that wishes to withdraw from life as it really is, to pretense and romance in the unreal world of heavenly or holy things. The lament makes clear that faith and worship deal with and are shaped by life as it comes to us.
2. Israel unflinchingly saw and affirmed that life as it comes, along with joy, is beset by hurt, betrayal, loneliness, disease, threat, anxiety, bewilderment, anger, hatred and anguish. The study of the lament may suggest a corrective to the euphoric, celebrative notions of faith that romantically pretend that life is sweetness and joy, even delight….
3. Most importantly, the laments show clearly that biblical faith, as it faces life fully, is uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic. Israel and Israelites in their hurt have to do with God, and God has to do with them. The laments are addressed to someone! And the hurtful issues must be dealt with precisely in the presence of God. Nowhere but with God does Israel vent its greatest doubt, its bitterest resentments, its deepest anger. Israel knows that one need not fake it or be polite and pretend in the divine presence, nor need one face the hurts alone. In the dialogue, Israel expects to understand what is happening, and even to have it changed.

Sure, the believer must come to God with humility and without presumption. God is God and we are not. But the Bible throughout – especially in the laments – makes it clear that we can come to God with our passions, our concerns, our questions, and even our anger.

There is actually a place for raw honesty if not raw emotion as we interact with our Lord. And guess what? God will not be surprised by our display of emotions, or our list of questions, or our host of fears. If we come to him humbly and respectfully, God will lovingly interact with us.

Like Job, we may not always get the answers we are looking for, but we will end up with a genuine encounter with the living God. Away with our fake worship and our superficial sessions with God. God is looking for his people to be real with him, to be honest with him, and that includes coming to him with our complaints, questions, doubts and grief.

Three cheers for the lament.

[1583 words]

18 Responses to Three Cheers For Lament

  • Many years ago, as the pastor and some of the men were in the back room prior to the service, another man entered the room.
    Pastor: “Hi (man), how are you today?”
    Man: “Lousy!”
    Pastor: “Hooray! – an honest man!”

  • As one of those you refer to as an ‘invisible saint’ (a beautifuly poetic and most apt description), thank you for sharing these honest and heartfelt words.

  • In the sermon “The Houseless Wanderer” by Philpot he states that a path of tribulation, trouble, perplexity and mourning is a sign of being in the right way.

  • Thank you, Our life has had one trial and tribulation after another for our whole life. Born into a family who are the complete antithesis of God, and therefore raised in the most extreme abuse, that left our life with a myriad of problems in dealing with it all. Its still going on, We live in poverty, have been dealing with ongoing long term chronic health issues, we lost all our christian friends,because they did not believe our life story,nor did they want to hear it.
    We have heard it all from christians, which sadly we have little to do with them, because we are a leper to the church, and have been treated as such. We have been told to just get over it, our past is our past, that we are not as sick as we say, that we should never question God, that we are poor cause of our sin and rebellion. The list goes on to what we have heard, and endured from the church. Who all claim to be speaking from God.
    Makes it hard to trust God and have faith, in him when christians themselves, have painted him in such a nasty mean way to us since we became christian.
    We can say it hasn’t been christians who have helped us stay christian. Because they have done more to turn us off of God completely. But its God himself.
    The very God, we were never supposed to know and serve,and the very God christians made us feel by what they have said and done to us over the yrs, did not love us. We got him to express our deepest pain, anger, frustrations,concerns, lament etc.At least he listens, and at least he cares and at least above all he understands.
    Because he knows what we have gone through, and what its taken for us to even be on his side.
    So what you have written really spoke to us.

  • Anon by request,
    I’m not sure if it’ll be any consolation but on reading your post I was immediately reminded of Job. It’s not a perfect parallel of course, but being close to God and faithfully serving Him in no way guarantees a life free of trial and tribulation. As Job shows, sometimes it can be quite the reverse. As humans we instinctively think badness should be punished, goodness rewarded, and yet Scripture tells us repeatedly that it isn’t always the case, at least not in this life. And in Job’s case his friends and family were not the support they ought to have been. Likewise, Christ’s disciples abandoned Him for a time. Hope this helps. I typically tend to be spectacularly unsympathetic. :-\

  • Then I heard him call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” 2And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar.

    3Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who GREIVE AND LAMENT over all the detestable things that are done in it.”

    5As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. 6Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the old men who were in front of the temple.

    7Then he said to them, “Defile the temple and fill the courts with the slain. Go!” So they went out and began killing throughout the city. 8While they were killing and I was left alone, I fell facedown, crying out, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?”

    9He answered me, “The sin of the people of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great; the land is full of bloodshed and the city is full of injustice. They say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land; the Lord does not see.’ 10So I will not look on them with pity or spare them, but I will bring down on their own heads what they have done.”

    11Then the man in linen with the writing kit at his side brought back word, saying, “I have done as you commanded.” http://biblehub.com/niv/ezekiel/9.htm

  • Yes we know what Job went through, read his story often enough, and totally identify with it. Plus we are constantly reminded by christians who have not wanted us to lament, or tell about our life story, what Job went through. We also know how Yeshua’s/Jesus disciples abandoned him. Read that often enough in the bible too. We so identify with that also. Our life has not been one trial and tribulation since we became christian, but since we were conceived, because of what we were born into.We most certainly weren’t born into a christian family. We can honestly say this, we have had more compassion,help,support and acceptance etc from Atheists in our life,even since becoming a christian, than from the church. The atheists also know this. Its been such a bad witness of christianity and love to them, which has made it so hard for them to see God is what the bible says he is, when they have seen christians treat us the way they have. Been such a bad witness to us too, because it’s happened from the moment we walked into a church. Praise God ,God is not like the church at all, and he has gotten us through the nightmare that’s been our life, and Praise him we are still even alive. For that is indeed a miracle of him.

  • I am in the same boat and have suffered severe abuse from age 4 to the point people who know my story wonder how I am still a normal functioning being. Most of my horrific abuse and mistreatment has come from “Christians” even to this day but that is not representative of the Christianity God commands us to practise. Even then God has allowed this to happen for good even though I find it hard to accept at times. I am reminded of Job 13:15
    “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

    Please keep this anonymous, Bill

  • Dear Anon, welcome to this site and to the family of God. I am so sorry for what you have endured. It is not at all surprising that you have ongoing chronic health issues and money difficulties. I am also sorry that on top of this very difficult beginning in life you have had to endure a lack of empathy and help from the positive thinking crowd.
    I have had the same experience of help from those who say they are not Christian. A few things to consider are:
    • God is able to use all people and circumstances to support us. We can still utilise non-Christian services and sift out what is not useful. This is still by the mercy of God.
    • You may find that the most useful people are those who are truly Christian and have skills and knowledge in the effects of abuse and in mental health. Unfortunately these are few in number and hard to find.
    • Ask the Lord to bring caring Christians into your life.
    • Be aware that we all love in different ways. There are those who have the listening skills of a brick wall but who will fix your car.
    • Here is a tool that was given to me in a time of difficulty. Hold up the fingers of one hand. There are five fingers. Aim to have at least 5 people that will listen to and support you. If you lean on one or two people they will wear out and be useless to you and themselves. None of them will provide everything that you need but together they will be a great help.
    • There are many who call themselves atheists who are from a Christian family or heritage. They still believe in the ‘golden rule’ (a summary of the 10 commandments) and common sense and have not been corrupted as many Christians by apostate teachings.
    • You may need to take an unconventional approach to ‘church’. Visit a few, take some breaks, find a Christian book library and keep reading some good Christian websites.

    I have been a Christian for nearly 50 years. There have been many times when I have been in distress, in trouble, perplexed and lonely. I have discovered that my heavenly father always gives me enough – enough to eat and pay my bills, enough support and always enough light for the next step.
    There are many loving Christians out there Anon and the Lord will lead you to some if you ask Him.

  • Hi Bill. Terrific article. Seems like some churches should be renamed The Church of Saint Polly of Anna. Telling people that health, wealth and happiness is correlated simply to strength of faith is just downright insulting. Step away from these preachers.

    My heart goes out to the two Anonymous posters. Your faith, even if as small as the proverbial mustard seed, will not be in vain. I pray that you will soon have contact with Christians who will be of support and comfort to you all, and that your faith held through trying circumstances will be an inspiration to the atheists in your life.

    What a sordid state of affairs when atheists show more compassion and offer more assistance to those in need than fellow Christians. “What you have done to the least of my followers you have likewise done to me.”

  • Thanks for this great post Bill! I totally relate, as i spent my younger years in a ‘happy clappy’ church. Through various trials and suffering in the last 2 decades i’ve changed so much and will not play the ‘happy clappy’ game anymore. (A side point is that it’s not really that safe to be an introvert in a pentecostal church.) I”ve read some great books on this that have helped me –
    eg Philip Yanecy’s ‘Where is God When it Hurts, Disappointment With God’,
    When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, and A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser,
    Making Sense Out of Suffering- Peter Kreeft. and others that also relate to Grief and Anger.

    What grieves me greatly, however is the almost total lack of conversation about this in most western churches today. Sure, very occasionally there’ll be one off nights of someone talking about suffering etc or when someone like Philip Yancey visits Australia, but the weekly meetings are dominated by hype, pressure to feel up, and forced smiles.
    As was mentioned above – “The idea that our churches are filled with hurting people yet we hardly allow any of them to express their hurt in public church life really struck me. No wonder so many folks do NOT go to church, or have stopped going to church” – this is so true! Ironically I would be more happy if i was allowed to show hurt or be honest about suffering more in church.
    Sometimes i’ll go to bed reading a Psalm that shows David really being open about his suffering and lamenting to God. A song that has often helped me in this regard is by the christian artist Russ Taff – Down in the Lowlands – which is straight out of the Psalms. eg Psalm 69.

  • And Yes, i do like to laugh and smile and am not always melancholy, just most of the time…lol
    But I just cannot stand the one sided state of things in churches where only happy emotions are welcome and emotions like sadness are shamed. People are going to feel fear, sadness etc and sometimes it’s a process to bring them to God and be transformed.

  • The ultimate lament is the cry of abandonment uttered by the Lord Jesus from the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” – A lament itself drawn from Psalm 22’s prophetic lament…

    The further our community resolutely marches away from the face of the living God, the more causes there will be for those who love Him and love their neighbours deeply to lament.

  • Too many presbyters, pastors, ministers, call them what you will, forget who it was that Christ surrounded himself with in the Gospels. You don’t need to be Jung to work out that the assorted criminals, prostitutes, tax collectors and assorted unfortunates most likely didn’t greet Christ with stories of how great their lives were and how lucky they had been to have lived them. Likewise I couldn’t imagine Christ greeting them with ‘Ah, quit your whinging!’ Thank you Bill, a timely reminder that faith, and life, isn’t all beer and skittles. God bless.

  • Hi Gail Foster firstly thank you for your compassion. As far as praying to the Lord and asking him to bring christians into our life, we have been doing that our whole christian life. God does indeed answer that prayer, and then when those said christians find out what we have grown up in, and other things about our life, they all run away scared as, or simply do not believe our testimony, and tell us so. That is why we have not shared the truth here. So either we have to lie about our upbringing and how its affected us, lie about our lament, in order to keep christian friends, or be truthful, and watch them scatter. What we are dealing with, there is truly very little in the way of counsellors/therapists who know about this, and know how to deal with it. It is something that simply is not discussed in christian churches, and the media will often refute this type of abuse even goes on. So survivors of this like us, usually have to go it alone with God. As far as church goes, God himself is ok about us not being in one. He knows what we have endured over the yrs from them, and how triggering they are for our PTSD. We get christian stuff off the computer to read and watch. Though we are very picky as to what we do read and watch, because there is so much apostasy out there. Please understand this, and we don’t mean this in a nasty way, and we know you were only trying to be helpful, but one thing we did not come on here for was advice, on what we should or shouldn’t be doing as far as our christian walk, and church is concerned. Been christian long enough also, and gone through the gamut of suffering, to gain so much wisdom & truth ourselves from it all. We came on here to say we totally relate to the article, and to thank Bill for posting it. Sometimes people just want to be heard by christians. It does not mean they are asking christians for advice. Christians as a whole need to learn that, because its the constant dishing out of advice, when the person has not asked for it, that can turn lots of people off, especially if the person has already tried all the advice the person is giving. That is what lamenting is all about. Its saying please hear me, that is all.

  • All well said. And very instructive. How we have failed!
    Rom 12.15 Says to “weep with those who weep”.
    I am struck by the similarity between the two Greek words for “weep” and “call”.
    One could easily imagine that the onomatopoeic “klaio” which is “weep”, is indeed, among other things, a call for help.

    In Job 2.11-13 we find that his friends intentions and actions were excellent.
    Excellent for seven whole days!
    They sat on the ground with him, and never said a word, “because they saw how great his suffering was”.
    Then Job opened his mouth and complained bitterly, cursing the day of his birth, and confessing that what he feared had come upon him. ” I have no peace…. only turmoil”.

    Then it all goes pear shaped with Eliphaz’s twisted theology, 4.6-7; and demon inspired torment 4.12-17. If only he had kept his mouth shut, and wept some more. (But then we wouldn’t have the book).

    Eliphaz was just trying to be helpful.
    Seven days of silence is a hundred times more than many of us can bear.
    A hug, a cry, and a listen, is often plenty enough; unless more is asked for.

    Thankyou Bill, and Anon by Request

    Lamentations though is a little different in that the suffering was a result of continued disobedience in the face of threatened, detailed, & consequential disaster. There were many innocents involved with the wash up of the sinful life style of their ancestors and peers and that period of judgement. They could neither escape from the sin, from its consequences, from its perpetrators, nor its judgement. Jeremiah could relate to that, but there is also another dimension. It is the lament of the not so innocent. We should be able to lament with them as well, as they hopefully come to realize that after all God is sovereign and it may well be too late for remedy in this life. Lam 5.19-22

    We also look at suffering for Christ’s sake on levels that are personal right through to international. Innocent or not. Again the remedy may not be in this life.

    For all this there is the double response that is reflected in the Negro Spiritual genre. In them there is the lament but also the rejoicing in hope of that which is beyond. Matt 5.10-12.

    Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
    Nobody knows my sorrow
    Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
    Glory, Hallelujah

    Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
    Nobody knows but Jesus
    Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
    Glory, Hallelujah

    Sometimes I’m up
    Sometimes I’m down
    Oh, yes, Lord
    Sometimes I’m almost to the ground
    Oh, yes, Lord

    Oh, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
    Nobody knows my sorrow
    Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
    Glory, Hallelujah

    Careful how you sing it!

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