Home > Anfechtung, Faith, Joy, Prayer, The Holy Cross > The Joy of Lamentation

The Joy of Lamentation

Last week I was in Fort Wayne for a continuing education class with Dr. John Kleinig, who is, I think, retired from a professorship at the seminary of the Lutheran Church of Australia.  Between the class and difficulties with my internet connection, which are still ongoing, I was unable to post anything.  One of the topics discussed in the class was on my mind this morning as I lay awake for the last hour, unable to go back to sleep.


The class was on the book of Exodus, specifically how Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt and formed into a liturgical community—that is, a worshipping community.  Israel was not freed simply to be another nation among nations but to be the people among whom God lived and was worshipped.  But the subtext of the class was worship and our contemporary predicament of being disconnected from biblical worship.


One of the things Dr. Kleinig said was that western people have forgotten how to lament, and that this has had tragic consequences for the church in the western world.  If you have read Dr. Kleinig’s book on Christian spirituality (and if you haven’t, there is pretty much no book I could recommend as highly—it was life changing for me), or if you have attended Doxology (a Lutheran training program for pastoral care), you are familiar with the topic. 


There are several different genres of psalms in the psalter.  There are penitential psalms, which express grief and remorse over sin and seek forgiveness from God.  There are seven of these in the psalter.  Then there are psalms of ascent, which were hymns sung by pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem.  They were used liturgically when worshippers travelled to Jerusalem, or perhaps in the temple itself.  I think there are 14 psalms of ascent.


Then there are psalms of lamentation, where the psalmist brings anger and grief in the midst of suffering to God in the form of complaint.  The psalms of lamentation have a particular structure, which I won’t get into.  Dr. Kleinig outlines this structure as a way to bring our anger and suffering before God.  He points out that there are vastly more psalms of lament or lamentation than there are penitential psalms, although pious Lutherans are comfortable praying the penitential psalms and confessing our sins, and often aren’t sure what to do with the psalms of lamentation, where David or another psalmist will protest their righteousness, complain at God, and call for God to punish their enemies.  Yet there are something like 50 psalms of lament out of the 150 in the bible.


Why are there so many?  Why do I know how to pray the penitential psalms but find it difficult to make sense of the psalms of lament?  What are we missing by not knowing how to pray them? 


I want to explore these questions.  I won’t be able to get it done in a single post, though.


To begin with, I, along with other Lutherans who at least sometimes want to pray, approach the bible with the correct belief that I am a sinner.  Because I am a sinner, the only righteousness I can claim before God, and my only ground to stand on, is His sheer mercy in Christ.  God does not count my sins to me, but counts me righteous for the sake of Jesus’ suffering as my substitute.  He died for me, the righteous for the unrighteous.  On account of His death which atones for my sins I am righteous before God.  Otherwise, in me, there is nothing but sin which provokes God’s righteous wrath.


That being the case, when someone wrongs me, what do I do?  Since I have sinned against God and my neighbor, but I live by Christ’s forgiveness, I assume (rightly) that I should forgive those who sin against me.  When I suffer, I should forgive as I have been forgiven. 


But I’m not very good at that.  Besides, sometimes you forgive, and the person continues to sin against you.  Then what?  It’s not so hard to forgive things that don’t hurt.  But some sins committed against you hurt deeply.  Sometimes they go on for years, and the person committing them doesn’t even acknowledge that they are doing it.  Oftentimes they are inflicted by people you love and on whom you rely.  More than that they are people God calls you to love and care for—it could be your spouse, family member, your pastor (or parishioner.)  At the end of the day God forbids us to take revenge on anyone but seek everyone’s eternal good, no matter what they do to us.


So what do you do?  Matthew 18 says “If a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”  But not every sin is such that you can or should confront it directly. And what when you have confronted it and the sin goes on—either because the person committing it doesn’t acknowledge it, or because for one reason or another they continue to repeat the sin?


Then Jesus says to bring with you someone else, and if that doesn’t work, you take it to the church, and if that doesn’t work, the church excommunicates the culprit.


But of course, there are very few churches that practice church discipline.  In my congregation, even if we had many people who were willing to, we couldn’t do it yet, because the congregation is simply too immature spiritually, and I have not been mature enough spiritually to lead them to the point where they would be able.


Besides, even in a church where discipline is practiced, how can a child practice Matthew 18 with his parents?  Does a wife with a husband suffering from addiction always want to have him disciplined or leave him?  What does a pastor do when a sizeable group of ignorant people cause him trouble?  Does he want them to be disciplined when they don’t really even know what they’re doing?


No, not always.  So it isn’t always as simple as just applying Matthew 18.  Yet, Matthew 18 does show that “turn the other cheek” doesn’t mean “do nothing, don’t say anything.”  Besides, that way of dealing with anger doesn’t work.  Very few people are capable of not getting angry and doing destructive things when they are chronically sinned against.


Then sometimes you confront it with the person, and you pray about it to God, and you push and push against the intolerable situation, and nothing changes.  This is the most painful part of  the whole affliction—that you don’t know when the suffering will end, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and God doesn’t deliver you.  And time keeps ticking.  Weeks, months, years go by and nothing has changed.  And as you get older (as I am getting older; I never used to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and not get back to sleep)—you start to realize that if things don’t change, you’re never going to get back what is being taken away from you by the person or things that are causing you pain.  Then maybe after awhile you realize—it’s too late, and exactly what I feared when this suffering began has happened.  Maybe the pastor who I resent has continued his foolish ways of pasturing, alienated my children, and now they’re teenagers who won’t go to church and it’s too late to hope that they will make it into young adulthood without falling away.


Or it’s too late—my hope of having a happy marriage in my youth has been destroyed.


Or the congregation that has been giving me hell for 10 years hasn’t changed, and now my youth ends and I have nothing but failures to look back on.


I could think of dozens more hypothetical situations like this that I or people I know have experienced in part.


Finally, you have this thought process that starts when you want to complain to God about your suffering: “Who am I to complain to God?  Isn’t that the same as the grumbling Israelites who provoked God’s wrath?  On top of that I know that I am a sinner, so who knows whether I haven’t done more to sin against this person who sins against me, and I’m not even aware of it?” 


Here is where the psalms of lamentation would help us, if we were able to pray them, or if we were able to lament according to their pattern. 


First of all lamentation allows us to acknowledge our suffering as it really is before God, with all its ramifications.  We go to God and say, “Because of what this person is doing, I am in pain, and I am losing what belongs to me, and I will never get it back.  And You are able to help me, yet You have not.”


Secondly, in lamenting we confess faith in Christ.  We say, “I am righteous.  I am righteous because you have promised me that I am counted righteous because of Jesus.  Even though I am dying because of this affliction, and even though I do not know to what degree my sins may have brought this suffering on me, I know that You are still perfectly pleased with me because Jesus has redeemed me with His holy, precious blood.”


Third, we claim and confess before God that He will deliver us and bless us, and that even  in giving us affliction He still is dealing with us as a loving father who only wants to see what is good come to us.  The psalms of lament usually end with a profession of trust in God and thanksgiving, as though God had already delivered us.  How can we pray this way in the midst of ongoing suffering?  Because God has promised.  He is well-pleased with us for Jesus’ sake.  He will not cast us away.  “All things work together for the good of those who love God, and are the called according to His purpose.”  (Rom. 8:28)  And when He has allowed our affliction to work in us what pleases Him and what will lead toward His good purposes for us, He will bring it to an end and deliver us. 


By lamenting we put the matter in God’s hands, and we know that something is being done about our trouble.  By putting it in His hands we honor Him.  We are saying, “You are God.  You will be faithful to me and will keep Your promise.  You will handle this better than I will, and You are trustworthy.”


We also confess the Gospel, and do not allow ourselves to be deceived by Satan.  We are saying, “Whatever my sins are, God still regards me as righteous, as He promised to do in Baptism, in the Gospel, in the Absolution, and in His body and blood.  I am loved by Him.  I am the apple of His eye.  So I will be safe and this will turn into blessing.”  We find comfort, and at the same time we acknowledge that God’s promise of salvation is true, and we defy and escape from Satan’s trap, which would have us think that perhaps God’s promise had failed or does not apply to us.


It seems to me that there are several obstacles that keep me (us) from praying this.  I will name them, but then I’ll have to explore them further in another post.


One is that lament is coming to terms with death.  When you suffer for a long time, maybe the most painful part of it (especially as you get older) is the death of what you had hoped for for your life (or maybe someone else’s).  I think it is in Lamentations 3 where Jeremiah mourns this way: …So I say, ‘My hope has perished, and so has my expectation from the Lord.  Remember [my affliction?], the wormwood and the gall.  My soul remembers them…But this I call to mind, therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed.  His mercies never fail.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”


Whatever it was Jeremiah hoped for—enjoyment of life as a young man on earth?  Seeing Israel become godly and not brought into the dust of death for its sins?—he acknowledges that it is over.  It’s not going to happen.  That hope is lost; it has died. 


That’s how affliction goes with me.  I had some plan or other.  It may have seemed—and may still seem—like a God pleasing plan.  I may not have been wrong to expect it.  It may be that I was sinned against when I did not receive it—my neighbor who has a calling to love me did not fulfill his calling.  An example would be a pastor who had planned to help his congregation bring the Gospel outside of its four walls and reach out to its community, and instead met with constant opposition from members of the congregation.  After a certain point of struggling and praying, he comes to the conclusion that it is now too late.  Maybe the congregation’s unwillingness has gone on so long that he is looking at its impending closure.  If that were me I would find great difficulty accepting it.  How could this be God’s will?  Why didn’t God intervene, even when I prayed and worked so hard?  How could it please Him that this congregation close its doors instead of preach the Gospel?  And I would also feel angry that I had, seemingly, wasted years preaching and serving a congregation only to see it all fall apart, knowing that on top of it the failure of the congregation would be seen as my fault.  And I would have the nagging fear that maybe, in fact, it was.


In lamentation, we come to terms with the death of our hopes for this life.  Maybe “come to terms” is the wrong phrase.  We acknowledge the death of our hopes.  This is very difficult for me, and I think for all Americans.


Connected to this is a latent theology of glory that seems to stick to me in spite of my knowing better.  I think that my victory and success is partly from the Gospel, and partly from my actions.  I think that my reward is in heaven, but also at least sometimes it should be visible and tangible.  But really the only victory Christians have is Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection.  Any victories that we have in our life of discipleship are really Christ’s victories; they are the playing out of His victory on the cross and in His resurrection in our bodies.  So His victories in us are going to frequently look and feel like defeats and failures on our part.  Christ is our only victory and our only reward.  If my church grows or shrinks, nothing is proven by that in itself.  I can neither take comfort in its growth or its decline; my comfort is Christ and His Gospel, and the visible fruit of a pastor’s work must be interpreted by the light of the Gospel.  Because Jesus has reconciled me to God, my church’s growth or decline is evidence of His love toward me. 

But until recently I did not really grasp or understand that was how it works.  That is faith.  That is the faith which Jesus works in us—faith that sees the waves of the sea about to destroy the little fishing boat, but says, “Jesus is with us, so we are safe—“even though all we see and feel is darkness, terror, despair, wrath, hell.  Even if Jesus seems to reject me, faith does not give up.  Like the Canaanite woman, to whom Jesus said, “No,” who still did not turn away but kept praying—not to wear Jesus down, but because she was sure of His grace, even though He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.


Finally, I think I (and most American Lutherans I know) have a real difficulty with the idea that we are actually and truly righteous before God by faith.  Since I sin, I think, I can only confess my sins, and never claim God’s help, deliverance, and favor to me over against those who mistreat me.  But really, if God actually counts me righteous, I can protest my innocence to God.  This is not saying, “I never sinned.”  It is saying, “You promised to cover my sins.  You do not lie.  So I speak to you as one who is innocent and righteous in your sight.”  I am not claiming that I am better than the one who sins against me.  I am telling God that He is truthful, so I know He will regard me as righteous, because that is what He promised.


I will continue this topic at some point, because it is immensely comforting in ongoing suffering.  What a beautiful thing it is to suffer and yet know for certain that God is still well-pleased with you, gives you access to Him in Your suffering, honors you by making you a participant in Jesus’ suffering, and turns even your suffering into eternal glory and blessing!  If you believe this and learn to lament, then you are joyful even in suffering, knowing yourself to be God’s beloved child and heir.  And upon the death of your own hopes you receive the hope of eternal joy, which enables you not to fear death or anything else that human beings or Satan can do to you.


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