In his work on the book of Psalms, Glenn Pemberton* says that lament makes up 40% of all psalms. Yet when he looked at the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, lament made up only 13% of the psalms included in their hymnal. For the Baptist hymnal he examined, it was also 13%, and for a Presbyterian hymnal 19%.
So of course, I had to look at Hymnal: A Worship Book which we regularly use in my congregation. I counted 15 psalms included in the Scripture section of the hymnal, and of those 15, I found just 3 that included words of lament—that’s 20%,which is more than 13% but still a long way from 40%.
What’s more, Psalm 139–which scholars classify as a psalm of lament—doesn’t appear that way in our hymnal, for the lament part toward the end of the psalm has actually been omitted.
Well why is it that we seem to downplay lament? Why do we conveniently leave out the difficult part of a psalm?
In Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (InterVarsity Press, 2015), author and professor Soong-Chan Rah relates our avoidance of lament to a culture of triumphalism. In our North American culture, we love success. We love celebration. We want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. We love celebrity. We want the trumpets sounding. And because we focus on the triumphs, there is little room for lament. Instead, we focus on psalms of wisdom, praise, thanksgiving, and worship. That’s all wonderful and biblical. But the not-so-wonderful lament is also part of Scripture and has a place in our lives today.
I highly recommend Soong-Chan Rah’s excellent book. It has significantly shaped my understanding of lament, the book of Lamentations which is the focus of his reflection, and how all of this applies to the church today. Based on my abundant underlining of his words, here are 6 reasons why we need lament.
1. Lament acknowledges the reality of suffering.
Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament. (21)
2. Lament acknowledges the complexities of life.
The evangelical culture moves too quickly to praise from lament. We do not hear from all of the voices in the North American evangelical context. Instead, we opt for quick and easy answers to complex issues. We want to move on to the happier message of success and triumph and cover up the message of those who suffer. (68)
3. Lament corrects the over-emphasis of triumphalism.
Christology needs to be shaped as much by lament as by praise. Otherwise, the theology of celebration overwhelms the theology of suffering and we have an imbalance and dysfunction. . . . We must seek to be the church that integrates the theology of suffering with the theology of celebration. We must seek to be the church that engages in both praise and lament. We must seek to be the church that embodies the full narrative of Christ in his suffering and in his triumph. (192, 203)
4. Lament is an act of protest.
Lament is an act of protest as the lamenter is allowed to express his indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering. The lamenter talks back to God and ultimately petitions him for help, in the midst of pain. The one who laments can call out to God for help, and in that outcry there is the hope and even the manifestation of praise. (44)
5. Lament leads to petition and praise.
Lament serves the purpose of providing a necessary step toward praise. . . . However, in a cultural context that upholds triumph and victory but fails to engage with suffering, praise replaces lament. We skip the important step of lament and offer supplication in a contextual vacuum. Praise, therefore, can seem hollow when neither lament nor petition has been sufficiently offered. Petition arises out of lament. The one who suffers brings the appropriate petition in view of the experience of lament. (66)
6. Lament and praise go hand in hand.
To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand. (23)
*Cited in Prophetic Lament (22).
Writing/Reflection Prompt: Do you agree that the church tends to avoid lament? Why do you think this might be? Do you tend to avoid lament? Why or why not?
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Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from InterVarsity Press, and as always my comments and decision to review are my own.