In Praise of Lament

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In 1917 the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille handed over a copy of his film about Joan of Arc to the board of censors who would determine whether any objectionable material needed to be removed before public release. Only one issue was raised: a single line where Joan asks, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In defense of the line DeMille asked whether the censor knew the source he was quoting. She answered that it didn’t matter where the line came from; it was irreverent, possibly blasphemous, and definitely inappropriate for audiences.

Let us note the irony of the censor’s protest: if voicing that line is blasphemous, then the author of Psalm 22 and Jesus himself were guilty long before DeMille. If it was inappropriate for movie-going audiences in 1917 to hear those words, then it had been inappropriate for Bible-reading audiences for the previous 2,900 years. Apparently, God didn’t sufficiently censor himself.

I’m afraid that too often we side with the censor. For many the Bible is nothing more than a reservoir of inspiration—the stuff of cross stitches and reposted Facebook graphics. The Psalter might as well be a placeholder for number 23. Yet if you were to actually read the Psalms from beginning to end, you’d find that the lament of Psalm 22 isn’t exceptional—the serenity of Psalm 23 is!

To be impressed with the prevalence of lament one need only survey the Psalms before number 23. You’d hear God’s people cry out that they’re surrounded by enemies (O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me, 3:1), that their emotional suffering is taking a toll on their bodies (My eye wastes away because of grief, 6:7), that it seems like they’re the only faithful ones left (The faithful have vanished from among the children of men, 12:1), that God seems nowhere to be found in the predicament (How Long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?, 13:1). The valley of the shadow of death is not a vague metaphor; it’s the world described in the rest of the Psalms! When Psalm 23 is arrived at through the door of numbers 1 thru 22 it’s not sappy sentiment but a sigh of relief.

Lament is a constant presence in the Psalms and largely foreign to us. Is it the case that we have no need of lament and therefore our neglect is justified? Is the world no longer cruel and broken? Or is it the case that we have neglected this practice because we have grown numb to our lamentable world? Consider three arguments for the use of lament in the Christian’s life.

To lament is to be in touch with reality. Lament calls attention to the chasm between the kind of God we serve and the kind of world we inhabit. In his overflowing love, God created a good world full of beauty and sustenance,  and created man & woman in his image to inhabit that world. In his immeasurable grace, after humanity rebelled, God launched an operation to redeem the world. Yet that redemption is not yet complete. Psalm 10 sums up all the evil of the world into one man: arrogant, greedy, predatory, lying, violent. And as this wicked man crushes God’s people, God seems distant: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (v1). Lament points out the discrepancy between the clearly revealed character of the omnipresent God, the hope he has promised, and the terrible state of the world as it now stands. Lament apprehends the true state of things: that we are living between the ages. Jesus is king, yet Satan still prowls.

To lament is to be faithful. If we were in attendance at a public worship where a prayer along the lines of Psalm 88 was worded, we might be disturbed at the state of offerer’s faith. But perhaps we should we be just as disturbed to never hear or offer such a lament. Behind every lament in scripture are firm convictions that God is listening, that prayer is worthwhile, that I can be honest with God, and that God is sovereign & merciful. In his book Rejoicing in Lament, Todd Billings points out, “It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petitions to the Lord. . . . If the psalmists had already decided the verdict—that God is indeed unfaithful—they would not continue to offer their complaint.” What does it mean to never lament? It may mean that we are indifferent to the pain of the world, that we have accepted the devil’s order of the things—the prevalence of evil & suffering, or that we don’t think God can or will do anything about it. Going to God in pain is an expression of faith.

To lament is to process. Many Psalms contain entire emotional journeys, where the psalmist’s state of mind at the end is completely different than the beginning. Psalm 13, a whole 6 verses, contains such a journey. In vv1-2 he expresses his pain. At one end are unrighteous enemies being exalted over him. At the other is a silent God whose promises of justice still go unfulfilled. The plea comes in vv3-4, a modest request for just a little more strength to endure. The Psalm ends in vv5-6 with a resolution to move forward with a firmer gaze fixed on God’s promises and character, which remain sure even in our suffering. Ripped from their context, vv5-6 read like glib platitudes about trusting God and going to church. But the preceding lament shows us the processing of pain, the attempt to reach up from the pit of despair, and the hope that can be found even before the wounds are bound up.

We may be rightly concerned that lament may edge toward irreverence or give way to doubt. But the greater danger may be to neglect lament altogether, to bottle up and keep the grief we should be pouring out to God. To do so is to lose touch with reality, to neglect an expression of faith utilized by the people of God in scripture, and to fail to process our grief in a way that draws us toward God.


by Drew Nelson