The Preparatory Function of Public Lament in the Psalter

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Ellen T. Charry commenting on lament, its place in worship, and its incorporation into the Psalter:

Pedagogically speaking, the laments are warranted for public worship because everyone eventually experiences personal defeat of some kind and comes face-to-face with the searing question of theodicy. The theological pedagogy of these poems both prepares and shapes the community to confront the questions of theodicy and empire openly in order to sustain Israel’s fundamental conviction that the God of Israel is the one and only God of the universe. That is, public worship is not an end in itself. Its design on the hearts and minds of the worshipers is to carry them faithfully through thick and thin…The poets know how difficult faithfulness can be, and their poems meet people where they are.

Psalms 1-50, p. xxv-xxvi

The Psalter contains lament, and more besides. Most look to Psalms to aid them in praise. But lament, too, has formative value. Even if one has not suffered, suffering will come. It is part of the human experience. If Christian fellowships incorporated lament as part of their discourse, perhaps more believers would be better prepared when the challenges and hardships of life arrive. They would know they are not the first to suffer, they will not be the last, and that like those who walked before them, they can offer their complaints in prayer to God and look, in hope, for divine help.

Lament is an Answer

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?

Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?

[ . . . ]

It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.

– N. T. Wright, in Time Magazine, “Christianity Offers No Answer About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To

The headline is misleading, as headlines often are, and I doubt (and hope!) that N. T. Wright did not pen it himself. Wright argues that Christians do not have an explanation for the coronavirus, but they do have an answer. That answer is lament.

To offer lament is to cry out in anguish and pain. It is a means of expressing grief, of naming injustice, and declaring one’s suffering. The Bible has countless examples of lament, particularly in the Psalms.

N. T. Wright argues that Enlightenment rationalism is the reason that we long for explanations. I suspect the human proclivity for designating attribution to God or another source is much older than that. For Christian people, our response is to refrain from explanations, and to leverage ancient wisdom. That wisdom is lament, to humble oneself and to confess that there are some things that are beyond comprehension but in need of divine intervention. To lament is to cry out for mercy, and to hope for deliverance.