The Christian Duty to Lament

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I was going to write something snarky today but then this happened.

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50 people are dead. 50 people God loved fiercely are dead including one Omar Mateen. So no snark today.

There is little doubt that people will express their anger, disbelief, and sorrow on facebook. There is even less doubt that pundits and politicians will claim they know how to fix things in the coming days. But what are ordinary Christians to do in the face of such death and destruction?

One word: Lament

It is an unfamiliar term for us. Americans Christians don’t know how to lament.  After 9/11, the great Christian musician Michael Card received a note from a theologian imploring him to write some songs of lament because the American church had no such liturgy. Card responded with a book meditating on lament called A Sacred Sorrow complete with liturgy for congressional mourning.

We’ve all likely read “Lamentations.” That is we’ve at least read it in the table of contents of our Bible trying to find Isaiah or Ezekiel. Some people are even familiar with some of the verses of Lamentations, like this one from the exact middle of the book (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Maybe you know the verse because you know the song written by a poor life insurance agent in suffering from life-long illness. Thomas Chisholm wrote “Great is thy Faithfulness.”

Great Is Thy faithfulness,
Great Is Thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy Faithfulness, Lord unto me

But how many of us have read the book of Lamentations, let alone studied it intensely? How many of us have read the two chapters before this soaring verse. There we find anguish, sorrow, and lament.

The scene is the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem. Amid the ruins of that once great city, the enemies rejoice

All your enemies open their mouths
    wide against you;
they scoff and gnash their teeth
    and say, “We have swallowed her up.
This is the day we have waited for;
    we have lived to see it.” (Lamentations 2:16)

And what does Jeremiah say is the first response to the destruction of that great city and its people

Lament

The hearts of the people
    cry out to the Lord.
You walls of Daughter Zion,
    let your tears flow like a river
    day and night;
give yourself no relief,
    your eyes no rest.

 Arise, cry out in the night,
    as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
    in the presence of the Lord.
Lift up your hands to him
    for the lives of your children,
who faint from hunger
    at every street corner. (Lamentations 2:19)

Let it be said to those who eagerly talk of God’s sovereignty, his judgment, or the power we imagine we have to quell the cruel hearts of men, that our first response should be mourning, weeping, and lament. Here’s Michael Card again:

“The degree to which I am willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the level of my commitment and love for them. If I am not interested in your hurts, I am not really interested in you. Neither am I willing to suffer to know or be known by you.”

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Card uses a curious phrase to describe the labor of lamenting. We “exhaust ourselves” upon God. “The self, exhausted of its emotional energy, seems to collapse into the Presence of the One who was there, seen or unseen, all along.”

We see this as David laments the unanswered evil of his enemies when they attack him in Psalm 109. For 10 verses David calls down curses on his enemies: “May his days be few/may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.” Those are the mildest of the curses. He pours out his anger and his grief:

For he never thought of doing a kindness,
    but hounded to death the poor
    and the needy and the brokenhearted. (Psalm 109:16-7)

 David doesn’t just grieve for the injustice done to himself. He enters into the sorrow of those who have been wronged. We should do likewise. Exhausted with cursing, David seems to finally arrive at the Presence of God himself. I love what Card says here, “Perhaps these psalms were the only thing that stood between David and the revenge he would have taken.”  Whatever the case, what David  pleads for–what his whole being pleads for–is God’s loving kindness, his covenant faithfulness.

But you, Sovereign Lord,
    help me for your name’s sake;
    out of the goodness of your love, deliver me.
 For I am poor and needy,
    and my heart is wounded within me.
 I fade away like an evening shadow;
    I am shaken off like a locust.
 My knees give way from fasting;
    my body is thin and gaunt.
 I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
    when they see me, they shake their heads. (Psalm 109: 26-9)

The English has only the tired and overused word “love” as the English Standard Version renders it “help me . . according to your steadfast love” but the Hebrew hesed is rich with meaning and pregnant with context.  It is the term used for God’s unrelenting often extravagant love and kindness for Israel according to his covenant with them.

Could you imagine if Christians were know for this kind of mourning for the poor, needy, and brokenhearted rather than one more shrill voice offering easy answers? If there is ever a reason that the secular society will have to wrench us out of their preconceived mold, it will be when we love those with which we passionately disagree with an equally passionate, fierce, unrelenting love.

A love that begins in lament.

I leave you with the prayer of French Reformer Eugene Bersier:

Thou Who Art Love, and Who seest all the suffering, injustice and misery which reign in this world, have pity, we implore Thee, on the work of Thy hands. Look mercifully upon the poor, the oppressed, and all who are heavy leaden with error, labour, and sorrow. Fill their hearts with deep compassion for those who suffer, and hasten the coming of Thy kingdom of justice and truth–Amen.Ω

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Comments

The Christian Duty to Lament — 3 Comments

  1. Christians ought to lament, considering their actions, words, preaching, and self-righteous judgment has a lot to do with why this happened in the first place! (yes, I did read the article) The real question is whether or not the church will REPENT.

    I bet there are a boatload of churchgoers out there who secretly say in their hearts, “those people deserved what they got – it was God’s judgment on them.” So I’m hoping for repenting over lamenting, sorrow over the church’s contribution to the violence along with sorrow over the act itself. Until the church wakes up to its own erroneous message of a violent, angry God and leaves that in the dust of the pagan past where it belongs, nothing is ever going to change … and in that case, a whole lot more lamenting is in store.

    • Matilda, sadly what you write here is likely often true, but I hope you understand Westboro Baptist (fringe lunatic) “Church” actually speaks for extremely few Christians in the modern era, and even fewer, given the totality of Christian history. The media thrives on controversy, though, so it’s the hateful extremists who too often get the spotlight there. The man who committed this crime was apparently bona fide mentally ill (bipolar), and not a Christian. I have both mentally ill and also gay loved ones so my heart goes out to all the families affected.

      The “violent, angry God” of a lot of contemporary Christianity is conspicuous by His absence from my very ancient Eastern Orthodox Christian Church tradition, where we celebrate the “good God who loves mankind” and who humbles Himself to become a man for our sakes. In total solidarity with us in our suffering and vulnerability to sin, corruption and death, He suffers death for us in order to overcome it on our behalf, raising us all with Him in resurrection, “trampling down death by (His own) death.” We have no theories about God needing to punish His Son before He can forgive us our sins (and we notice the Gospels don’t record that God crucified Jesus, but rather sinful and violent human beings crucified God come in the flesh!). Our theory is that God needed to become like us, in order for us to unite with Him and become like Him (see St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation). We haven’t forgotten how to lament either–just pray with us through a season of Lent and Holy Week and you’ll find that out. May God show His chesed (“mercy” in our liturgy and prayers) on all affected by this horrific tragedy!

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