Do your beliefs help when you survive catastrophic events? Particularly, do a person’s beliefs help with their recovery, or are they a hindrance? Over the past fourteen years, I have been conducting research amongst Christians who have survived disasters to answer this question. One observation is that, in most cases, it does both. Another observation is that some Christians have an insatiable appetite for an answer as to why a terrible thing has happened. A third observation is how frequently ‘spectator’ Christians have claimed to provide those answers and give a reason.
It has become clear to me that the contemporary evangelical church in the West often does not know how to lament well! I believe we find it hard to cope realistically and appropriately with deeply emotional and confusing traumatic situations. I wonder if we are seeing this in the current coronavirus climate, with its uncertainties and lack of definite answers. Tom Wright, in his recent book, God and the Pandemic, is surely right to suggest that the most appropriate response of the church to the pandemic must be that of lament.
Long before the pandemic struck, systematic theologian Carl Trueman, went around churches asking church elders what they had for miserable Christians to sing in their services of worship. He got responses of disbelief that anyone should even ask such a question. That response alone should have been a stark warning sign for the evangelical church’s unpreparedness for any seriously traumatising event to hit their congregations.
The honest cries of our heart to God
Lament is the divinely sanctioned response of God’s people to events in life that shatter the illusions of this world being a safe place to live in. Psalms of lament make up one-third of the Book of Psalms – God’s inspired hymnbook. That is a sure signal to his people that life was not going to be easy or safe! This is why so many of us just love the psalms!
In the psalms, we don’t find neat theology in an emotional vacuum; instead, we find utter confusion, consternation, heartbreak, tears, even rage and protest – all spoken in the open to God. We hear godly people who have been shattered by the cruelty, unreasonableness and unfairness of life, saying things to God like, ‘Why?!’ ‘Wake up! Don’t go to sleep on me, please!’ ‘Where have you gone when I need you most?!’ ‘Answer me!’ ‘How many times do I have to cry out to you?’ ‘How long, how long, how long?’ ‘I don’t understand you!’ ‘Why would you do this?!’ You will find all of these expressions, in so many words, in Psalms 10, 13, 22, 35, 69 and 88 to mention just a few.
What I am getting at is that in the psalms of lament we encounter people talking to, and even worshipping, God with words and emotions that I fear we would not dare to utter in the context of congregational worship today. Our evangelical theology becomes unreal if we are not careful; we do not relate honestly to our Father and can create a view of God which is certainly a distortion of the divine character. Even the Son of God took the words of lament in Psalm 22 when confronting his own traumatic work to redeem us: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:33).
Now I suspect some of us might speak in this way to God in our private, secret, desperate times. That is good, up to a point. However, the bigger point is that lament is not just a personal or private form of relating to God. Lament needs to be our communal attitude as well, otherwise it risks becoming a mere psychological form of angst – a ‘healthy’ release of stress.
Biblical lament is so much more than a personal healthcare utility. Rather, it is the way the church as a body responds to tragedy, confusion, apparent unfairness and unreasonableness from a sovereign God. When lives have been shattered by cruel turns for which there are no answers or explanations, lament is the God-given means of the Christian community supporting and drawing alongside the hurting; whether individuals, families or groups within the church or even the church as a whole.
For all the systematic attempts to justify the existence of evil and goodness of God, we have ignored the most divinely sanctioned form of response to evil and tragedy, which is lament. I fear many casualties of mental breakdown and deserters of the church and faith have been the result of such neglect of lament.
Reflecting a deep faith
Contrary to what it might initially sound like, lament comes from a faith that is deep. It is never a rant against God; Christians lament to God when God seems to act out of character. It is not a blasphemous cry of ‘Oh god!’ but a passionate cry of ‘My God, my God.’ As I have written in Hello? Is anyone there?:
Lament is a frank expression of confusion and hurt to God even when the prime cause of that confusion and hurt seems to be God himself. We are allowed to say it like it feels! Lament refuses to present carefully crafted, duly censored prayers because they are made to God. All restraints are lifted in lament – it comes out like it feels inside. There is no, ‘I need to be careful what I say because God might be angry or offended, or he may not be able to cope with it.’ It is OK to shout, ‘Answer me!’ when he goes silent.
Amid the frustrations and uncertainties of living under a lockdown – where families, loved ones and whole communities have been stressed and even grieved beyond measure – perhaps there is such a challenge to the church to get real with her faith. In lament, both personal and corporate, there is a powerfully constructive way for us to do this getting real.
As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann put it:
A church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.
As lovers of the Bible, but more so as lovers of the God of the Bible, let’s learn to lament.