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.
10 thoughts on “6 Reasons Why We Need Lament”
Yes, I definitely think the church tends to avoid lament because lament is much akin to failure and we all want to be “victors” — but only until our thinking is corrected by such as your sermon yesterday. Plus the sermon was so appropriate for our current church and all that is happening in people’s personal lives and with the BC fires!
Thank you, Sue – our preaching series on Ecclesiastes seems to speak well into our lives today. I’m looking forward to how the series develops over the summer.
Thank you April. This is an encouraging word, calling for a balance and completeness in our experience of God and response to the life we have been given.
This book is well worth reading, Garry. Soong-Chan Rah has experience in church planting, teaches in the area of church growth/evangelism, and brings all of that to his discussion of Lamentations and the church today.
I absolutely agree with you. Lament is underrated. (If even on most people’s radar screen at all.)
April, you jogged my memory. I have been hosting a Blue Christmas service (which prominently features lament) here at St. Luke’s Church in suburban Chicago for the past three years. I was asked last December for another service of lament in the summer. Now, summer is almost gone. Perhaps I can put it on the long-range plan for Summer 2018…
Creating space for lament is a special gift, Eliza. I’m glad you can do that in your Blue Christmas service, and I wonder what a mid-summer’s lament might look like. I’d be very interested in what you might come up with.
I wish to reply; however, I seem not to know how. All I want to do is accent, very strongly the perspective you shared, based on the author’s comments. The focus on “triumphalism” would in part be a helpful perspective. Given my personal experience of loss, I have become painfully aware of the tendency at Memorial Services, as just recently again, but also the manner in which people approach me. It effectively does not allow a “necessary” personal grieving process. The accent on triumphalism is an “evangelical blight”, heavily based on Paul’s writing.
I have drafted a personal perspective on grieving—not yet shared.
Thank you for your comment, Bill. I find that many memorial services now focus on the celebration of life, which is an important part of remembering and giving thanks. But lament also has its place in expressing loss and a whole complex of emotions. For some, that lament takes place in a more personal context, or perhaps at the graveside. How ever we express our lament, God receives that too just as much as our petitions, thanksgiving and praise.
Thank you for this. I have long been frustrated by the church’s insistence that we avoid feeling bad. The church’s justification here, I think, is that lament makes God look bad, as if Christ’s presence and plans were not enough for us. Yet the Bible clearly leaves room for it. I’ll be checking out Rah’s book.
Yes, the Bible clearly leaves room for lament, and Jesus himself lamented over the city of Jerusalem. Last Sunday, I spoke on lament in Ecclesiastes. My sermon title was “What do you do when the world’s a mess–your life’s a mess–and you don’t know what to do?” The writer of Ecclesiastes turned to lament, and so can we. I think you’ll appreciate Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah.