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The church needs a healthy theology of lament.

Not an agreed-upon short moment of sorrow so things can get back to normal.

But a season to complain, be perplexed, shattered. To be angry.

Without excuse, without being made to feel broken or weak. Without trying to fix pain and make it behave.

Everyone has their story.

We need lament, even in Advent, even in the “holiday season.” Especially then.

We need to make room for lament because lament squeezes out simple answers, even if those answers are in the Bible.

Because the Bible says so.

Behold, the authoritative word of God: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms will not sit quietly in church and play make-believe.

They do not accept the conventional wisdom of their contemporaries or predecessors that life should work this way rather than that way.‡

They challenge and hold in check “God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked”—Job, the afflicted, is innocent.

They disrupt the religion game—Qohelet’s God is absent, confounding, exasperating, and he holds nothing back in saying so.

They expose default piety—Psalms speak raw words of pain and interrogate a distant God.

They do not bow to the social pressure of acting the part. They refuse to believe the lie “There is something wrong with you.”

The church needs a healthy theology of lament, where we just let it be for as long as necessary, with no quick prayer or Bible verse to take the pain away.

As if the problem is a lack of information.

Job, Qohelet, and psalmists had plenty of information. That was the problem.

They knew how the system was supposed to work and they knew the Bible verses to back it up.

They knew their theology. That is why they lament.

The church needs a healthy theology of lament, where we accept that life doesn’t play out according to the box we place God in.

Where we sit with those in pain quietly and respectfully, empathizing, not fixing.

As did Job’s friendsat first.* Until they started lecturing. Until they began defending their theology.

Lament teaches honesty.

Like that of the psalmist, who took his pain, doubt, and exasperation with God straight to God, to the house of worship, rather than putting on his church face.§

God can handle it even if we can’t.

Lament isn’t on a timer.

Qohelet grabs hold of his audience for 12 relentless chapters to tell the story of his hopelessness and befuddlement with God.#

Lament dares us to risk letting go of a well-behaved and predictable system and swap it out for one where faith and trust in God, not certitude and order, are the beginning, middle, and end of our journey.

The church needs a healthy theology of lament,

to embrace lament as a normal and pervasive reality among those who walk by faith, not by sight,

to accept those who lament as wise teachers living at the center of their faith community, not disruptive children who need a timeout.

In my experience, I have rarely heard taught or seen modeled what to do with our emotions when theological truths are blown up in front of us. Thankfully, the Bible isn’t quiet about it.

‡Psalm 1; Deuteronomy 28
*Job 2:11-13
§Ps 73:15:17
#Eccl 1:14-15; 7:13-14

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

54 Comments

  • Wayfaring Michael says:

    I only learned about the difference between lament and complaint a couple of years ago, and I know I have a ways to go to really understand lament, much less be comfortable with it. I still catch myself sometimes going into lament, and then pulling back, lest I violate the “Thou Shalt Not Whine” commandment. But then I remember that God loves me for the flawed, tragic, and comedic figure that I am, even when I’m being honest in feeling more broken than anything else. Or something like that. Like I said, its still a new thing, and I’m a slow learner.

    Thanks for reinforcing the importance of Job and Ecclesiastes, Pete, because they don’t get the attention they deserve from most Christians, even those that pray the Psalms regularly. They’re not easy, to be sure, but more than worth the time spent in and with them.

    As an axe man of a certain age, Pete, I’m guessing that you know the music of Kenny Wayne Shepherd. I love “Blue on Black,” and as I understand the concept of lament, I see that song as almost pure lament. I’d love to get your opinion on that.

    • Pete E. says:

      Thanks! And I haven’t thought of KWS for years–ever since I lost the CD. Now I have a new Xmas present to ask for.

  • Wayfaring Michael says:

    I only learned about the difference between lament and complaint a couple of years ago, and I know I have a ways to go to really understand lament, much less be comfortable with it. I still catch myself sometimes going into lament, and then pulling back, lest I violate the “Thou Shalt Not Whine” commandment. But then I remember that God loves me for the flawed, tragic, and comedic figure that I am, even when I’m being honest in feeling more broken than anything else. Or something like that. Like I said, its still a new thing, and I’m a slow learner.

    Thanks for reinforcing the importance of Job and Ecclesiastes, Pete, because they don’t get the attention they deserve from most Christians, even those that pray the Psalms regularly. They’re not easy, to be sure, but more than worth the time spent in and with them.

    As an axe man of a certain age, Pete, I’m guessing that you know the music of Kenny Wayne Shepherd. I love “Blue on Black,” and as I understand the concept of lament, I see that song as almost pure lament. I’d love to get your opinion on that.

    • Pete E. says:

      Thanks! And I haven’t thought of KWS for years–ever since I lost the CD. Now I have a new Xmas present to ask for.

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Aren’t the majority of the Psalms laments? Well, there’s a lot of ’em.

  • Darrin Hunter says:

    I didn’t realize how lament, sorrow and all that goes with it, was preserved liturgically, until I went to Orthodoxy. The weekly and seasonal fasting, even for weeks at a time, as preparation for the celebration of a feast, pushes you to that deep place where all you have left is “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

    • Gary says:

      I think when I attend an Evangelical service I silently think “Lord have mercy” more than when I attend the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    I didn’t realize how lament, sorrow and all that goes with it, was preserved liturgically, until I went to Orthodoxy. The weekly and seasonal fasting, even for weeks at a time, as preparation for the celebration of a feast, pushes you to that deep place where all you have left is “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

    • Gary says:

      I think when I attend an Evangelical service I silently think “Lord have mercy” more than when I attend the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

  • Northwest Photography says:

    They need to let humans be human.

  • Northwest Photography says:

    They need to let humans be human.

  • This is right on. We need it for multiple reasons. Not least, because there are people in our midst who have and are experiencing things many of us haven’t. People who have lost love ones to gunfire, people who are being abused, people who have serious physical conditions, and on and on it goes. We need t lament so we can learn to grieve with those who grieve and so we can have space to grieve ourselves and to honestly voice together our pain when we feel God is not acting according to the promises we understand to be true. Thank you for this!

    http://godsfoolishness.blogspot.com/

  • This is right on. We need it for multiple reasons. Not least, because there are people in our midst who have and are experiencing things many of us haven’t. People who have lost love ones to gunfire, people who are being abused, people who have serious physical conditions, and on and on it goes. We need t lament so we can learn to grieve with those who grieve and so we can have space to grieve ourselves and to honestly voice together our pain when we feel God is not acting according to the promises we understand to be true. Thank you for this!

    http://godsfoolishness.blogspot.com/

  • Gary says:

    Often, I lament in my comments on this blog, how what’s written of here is rather alien to most of my personal experiences in Christianity.

    Here, I think it’s a bit of an exception, at least in the last few years. I’ve seen at least a couple pastors and a few lay leaders address lament much more responsibly.

    Like Darrin Hunter points out, I think it was due in part to their exposures to better liturgy. I also think, a bit like Phil mentions, it was due to their readings of the Psalms in a much more ordered way, such as through exposure to and use of a good lectionary, in the context of the daily office. In addition to liturgy and lectionary, I’d concur that those who have embraced the church calendar, as weekly Darrin identifies and as yearly Dr Enns identifies, have also found more meaningful embrace of lament as elemental to their adjusted faiths.

    In my personal experience, those who are alienated from the Christian tradition of calendar, liturgy, and lectionary and instead put Christian living in an Enlightenment’s and Industrial Age’s meting of time are left with a unguided struggle–if not outright denial–of often life as it is.

    Despite some positive changes in a few that I personally know, I think that many (most?) Christians that I know have a faith where more so Jesus saves *from* lament. I’d even suggest that many have a faith where they think Christ saves them *from* the Cross rather than *through* the Cross.

    When they sing:

    At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
    And the burden of my heart rolled away,
    It was there by faith I received my sight,
    And now I am happy all the day!

    I wonder what they’re approaching, embracing, proclaiming.

  • Gary says:

    Often, I lament in my comments on this blog, how what’s written of here is rather alien to most of my personal experiences in Christianity.

    Here, I think it’s a bit of an exception, at least in the last few years. I’ve seen at least a couple pastors and a few lay leaders address lament much more responsibly.

    Like Darrin Hunter points out, I think it was due in part to their exposures to better liturgy. I also think, a bit like Phil mentions, it was due to their readings of the Psalms in a much more ordered way, such as through exposure to and use of a good lectionary, in the context of the daily office. In addition to liturgy and lectionary, I’d concur that those who have embraced the church calendar, as weekly Darrin identifies and as yearly Dr Enns identifies, have also found more meaningful embrace of lament as elemental to their adjusted faiths.

    In my personal experience, those who are alienated from the Christian tradition of calendar, liturgy, and lectionary and instead put Christian living in an Enlightenment’s and Industrial Age’s meting of time are left with a unguided struggle–if not outright denial–of often life as it is.

    Despite some positive changes in a few that I personally know, I think that many (most?) Christians that I know have a faith where more so Jesus saves *from* lament. I’d even suggest that many have a faith where they think Christ saves them *from* the Cross rather than *through* the Cross.

    When they sing:

    At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
    And the burden of my heart rolled away,
    It was there by faith I received my sight,
    And now I am happy all the day!

    I wonder what they’re approaching, embracing, proclaiming.

  • E-Stu says:

    Great post, Pete! May we pray for the church as a safe harbor for all of us to be human!

  • E-Stu says:

    Great post, Pete! May we pray for the church as a safe harbor for all of us to be human!

  • oldpastor says:

    The original intent of the Advent season was repentance and lament. But now Christmas starts at Thanksgiving.

  • oldpastor says:

    The original intent of the Advent season was repentance and lament. But now Christmas starts at Thanksgiving.

  • gingoro says:

    Absolutely!

  • charlesburchfield says:

    I think the process of grief and loss are kind of a contract written in one’s cells & in one’s psyches and spirit. first stage denial, second stage anger, third stage bargaining, fourth stage depression, fifth stage acceptance. does one wish for that transcendent experience of the Holy Spirit?
    behold I have prepared a body for thee.
    ~ Hebrews 10.5
    in the program I follow there is a saying:
    ‘what has to change? everything!
    it takes awhile for the toxicity to wear off. =*(

  • I think the process of grief and loss are kind of a contract written in one’s cells & in one’s psyches and spirit. first stage denial, second stage anger, third stage bargaining, fourth stage depression, fifth stage acceptance. does one wish for that transcendent experience of the Holy Spirit?
    behold I have prepared a body for thee.
    ~ Hebrews 10.5
    in the program I follow there is a saying:
    ‘what has to change? everything!
    it takes awhile for the toxicity to wear off. =*(

  • Mike H says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    The scriptures give space for genuine lament in a way that I’ve (personally) never experienced in a communal setting, at least not in a way that doesn’t seem short-lived, manufactured, or “emotions driven”. I’m not sure what it would even look like, and I would love to see a “theology of lament” along with some idea of how such a theology could be tangibly expressed. Such lament now exists in the shadows, or in the context of a few “safe” relationships (underscoring how it usually isn’t “safe”)

    Much like “doubt” then, lament is stigmatized and becomes something that one does privately, lest one be viewed with suspicion as being “faithless” or be discovered to not have the joy joy joy joy down in your heart. What is normal and IMO a real and healthy expression of faith and hunger for God can then evolve into anger, resentment, cynicism. Or you just stuff it down deep and turn into Ned Flanders.

  • Mike H says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    The scriptures give space for genuine lament in a way that I’ve (personally) never experienced in a communal setting, at least not in a way that doesn’t seem short-lived, manufactured, or “emotions driven”. I’m not sure what it would even look like, and I would love to see a “theology of lament” along with some idea of how such a theology could be tangibly expressed. Such lament now exists in the shadows, or in the context of a few “safe” relationships (underscoring how it usually isn’t “safe”)

    Much like “doubt” then, lament is stigmatized and becomes something that one does privately, lest one be viewed with suspicion as being “faithless” or be discovered to not have the joy joy joy joy down in your heart. What is normal and IMO a real and healthy expression of faith and hunger for God can then evolve into anger, resentment, cynicism. Or you just stuff it down deep and turn into Ned Flanders.

  • ClaraB43 says:

    Agreed; and, serendipitously, I came across this just moments after reading your post:

    http://divinewedgie.blogspot.com/2015/12/lament-as-neo-genesis.html

    . . . which in a nice brief exposition of Brueggemann shows how personal lament fits into the foundational creation and liberation of God’s people (Genesis and Exodus) and the re-creation we await during Advent.

  • ClaraB43 says:

    Agreed; and, serendipitously, I came across this just moments after reading your post:

    http://divinewedgie.blogspot.com/2015/12/lament-as-neo-genesis.html

    . . . which in a nice brief exposition of Brueggemann shows how personal lament fits into the foundational creation and liberation of God’s people (Genesis and Exodus) and the re-creation we await during Advent.

  • Derek says:

    Yes, this is good and right. We need to weep with those who weep…and we also need to rejoice with those who rejoice. We need a healthy balance that allows us to be human, while challenging ourselves to be what God has called us to be.

    • Chris Bourne says:

      Derek, we don’t know each other, we might not understand each other very well. I have to suggest, in spite of this, that your comment might be exactly what Pete does not mean. In part the desire for the ‘healthy balance’ is that palette of normative emotional equilibrium that is directly denied in Pete’s passionate call.

      Being those who ‘weep with those who weep’ casts us as the empathizers, the ones who give comfort. It can be the very triumphalism, albeit a fairly quiet triumphalism, that needs to be avoided.

      Pete, I think, describes our need simply to weep, to truly know the agnostic reality that so frequently and indifferently says no to our favourite platitudes. The lament that will not behave itself in church, to preserve decorum or cosset the doubtful, seems so often to be something other than walking by faith rather than by sight. But we swallow too much if we merely substitute walking by belief instead of by faith. I am suggesting in this response that the loss of power, the loss of our myths of control might well be the cross that our certainties need at the end of Christendom, and that lament is an essential and messy part of that. We become the weepers who need others to come to us and sit with us.

      • Derek says:

        Thank-you for that, but yes, it appears we don’t understand each other very well. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom. 12:15) – And yes, sometimes it is us who weeps for what ever reason. Simple stuff really. I think we ought to avoid making things unnecessarily complex and narcissistic. I’m not a black and white thinker, but sometimes I see the need for it – like now.

  • Jim Moore says:

    I recently spent two weeks with elderly parents who are in that third generation of what was once called the Victorious Living Movement. I have to confess that it is hard to enter into suffering with people who refuse to admit that they are suffering. These people were taught to not worry. So they have “concerns.” They don’t know pain, only joy. Excruciating joy. They celebrate any trial. Fear nothing. Welcome every circumstance.

    Part of me admires the steadfastness but because of my own story I know the psychological energy spent in wrapping reality in a context I can feel is glorifying to God.

    One night as I drove my mother around she confessed that because her mind flits about now she no longer can pray for very long. She was afraid that God was mad at her for her distractedness. I told her that when the Bible says the Spirit prays when we can’t it at least means it literally. I explained that God was not mad at her. That He loved her tiniest prayer.

    The Victorious Living Movement may have been a great thing in it’s time. But when it or any other Christian practice leads us to places where it is wrong to honestly have your feelings it has ceased to be of Christ. The truth is even though I agree with you, Pete, I have no idea how to have a season of lament. I don’t even know what it means. Would I have to get all lamenty? Where does one find sackcloth in Home Depot?

  • Jim Moore says:

    I recently spent two weeks with elderly parents who are in that third generation of what was once called the Victorious Living Movement. I have to confess that it is hard to enter into suffering with people who refuse to admit that they are suffering. These people were taught to not worry. So they have “concerns.” They don’t know pain, only joy. Excruciating joy. They celebrate any trial. Fear nothing. Welcome every circumstance.

    Part of me admires the steadfastness but because of my own story I know the psychological energy spent in wrapping reality in a context I can feel is glorifying to God.

    One night as I drove my mother around she confessed that because her mind flits about now she no longer can pray for very long. She was afraid that God was mad at her for her distractedness. I told her that when the Bible says the Spirit prays when we can’t it at least means it literally. I explained that God was not mad at her. That He loved her tiniest prayer.

    The Victorious Living Movement may have been a great thing in it’s time. But when it or any other Christian practice leads us to places where it is wrong to honestly have your feelings it has ceased to be of Christ. The truth is even though I agree with you, Pete, I have no idea how to have a season of lament. I don’t even know what it means. Would I have to get all lamenty? Where does one find sackcloth in Home Depot?

  • Christy says:

    At the 2015 Bible Translation Conference, Dr. Harriet Hill (formerly with SIL, now with American Bible Society) did one of the keynote addresses on trauma healing, which is a huge topic in Missiology/Scripture Engagement these days. They say one in seven people worldwide is spiritually traumatized by war, disaster, or abuse. She said that trauma healing workshops are now the number one service that international aid NGOs are being asked to provide and demand far exceeds the number of trained providers. “Healing the Wounds of Trauma” is a book that has been translated into 150 languages and uses biblical lament as a framework to help people compose and share their own original laments in words and art. http://thi.americanbible.org/uploads/page/THI-General_2014-02_EN.pdf

    Just saying. The kind of thing you are talking about is going on in majority world countries all over the world. I think the global Church gets it.

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