The Art of Lament
By Pastor Dennis Yim
Old Testament Passage: Psalm 88
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out to you by day.
I come to you at night.
2 Now hear my prayer;
listen to my cry.
3 For my life is full of troubles,
and death draws near.
4 I am as good as dead,
like a strong man with no strength left.
5 They have left me among the dead,
and I lie like a corpse in a grave.
I am forgotten,
cut off from your care.
6 You have thrown me into the lowest pit,
into the darkest depths.
7 Your anger weighs me down;
with wave after wave you have engulfed me. Selah
8 You have driven my friends away
by making me repulsive to them.
I am in a trap with no way of escape.
9 My eyes are blinded by my tears.
Each day I beg for your help, O Lord;
I lift my hands to you for mercy.
10 Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead?
Do the dead rise up and praise you? Selah
11 Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love?
Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction?
12 Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds?
Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?
13 O Lord, I cry out to you.
I will keep on pleading day by day.
14 O Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you turn your face from me?
15 I have been sick and close to death since my youth.
I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors.
16 Your fierce anger has overwhelmed me.
Your terrors have paralyzed me.
17 They swirl around me like floodwaters all day long.
They have engulfed me completely.
18 You have taken away my companions and loved ones.
Darkness is my closest friend.
This must be providence that this COVID-19 pandemic arrived during the Lenten season, the traditional season of doing without, the mortification of the flesh, the practice of self-denial, etc. Some of us have given up many things, whether that’d be less time on the television, cellphone, giving up coffee or any caffeinated drinks, or spending less time out and more time in the Word of God. All of these things seem so childish now. With these new regulations that that require us to remain in our homes, most us are feeling something much more dire, we have given up something even more essential, we have given up the fleshly encounter with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even though the Lenten season is coming to an end, the time of celebration in our Easter gather is now gone. What we have now is this uneasy and unavoidable silence. NT Wright’s article in the Times captures this deafening silence: Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief.
So, what do we need if rationalism or romanticism won’t do us any good at this time? What we need is to rediscover the biblical practice of the art of lament. This is what Psalm 88 captures beautifully. The psalmist teaches us the meaning of lament. Lament is what takes place when we (the people of God) ask the question “why” and don’t receive an answer, but rather a deafening silence. Sometimes the deafening silence is the answer. It’s not always about receiving an answer to make sense of it all, rather it’s about waiting on God to once-and-for-all restore the cosmic order of the world by renewing heaven and earth – making all things right. Wright describes it as: 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. Lament is not only focused on our personal individualized suffering, but it’s a focus on the suffering of God’s cosmic earthly world. Yes, our present sufferings are important, but the art of lamenting helps us to focus outside of ourselves and guides our heart to focus on the sufferings of others. We begin to become more aware of the brokenness and chaos in our world; we come to realize – more than before – that the forces of darkness continue to run amuck in our world.
In Psalm 88, the psalter is overwhelmed – which goes against the popular notion that God doesn’t give us too much to handle on our own – yet he laments and doesn’t ask for answers or understanding to his chaotic situation, rather he’s asking God to be with him, to comfort him, to not leave him in his agonizing loneliness. What he simply wants is God Himself. Psalm 88 ends on a hopeless note that many of us are resonating with at this very moment: You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend. Maybe, just maybe, this is the echo of all our anxious and fearful hearts. So, where’s the hope in the art of lamenting?
Christ the Lamenter
The answer is Jesus Christ is the lamenting Messiah. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was so moved in anguish and despair that His own tears of lament were blood. In John 11, Jesus lamented at the death of His friend Lazarus. Jesus was no stranger to the art of lamenting; I would say He is the inventor and prime example of the gracious lamenter. In our union with Christ, we are able to lament without any reservations. Jesus allows us to be candid about our inner and outer turmoil, to honestly pour out our hearts and express it to God. Jesus teaches us that the art of lamenting is to learn how to trust and to continually place our ultimate allegiance and love in Him. In the midst of all of this chaos of fears and anxieties, Jesus provides us the opportunity to defeat the forces of evil; for in these uncertain times we are given a choice that is not really there in harmonious times. In the darkness we can choose to turn to God just because He is God. Tim Keller said in his book “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering”:
In the darkest moments we feel we are getting absolutely nothing out of God or out of our relationship to Him. But what if then – when it does not seem to be paying or benefitting you at all – you continue to obey, pray to, and seek God, as well as continue to do your duties of love to others? If we do that – we are finally learning to love God for himself, and not for His benefits.
May we join with Christ in lamenting for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, and for the rest of the world. For as we lament in Christ, He will mold and refine you so that you may find even greater contentment, joy and shalom in Him.
Reflection and Prayer
Take some time to reflect with your family and friends on how Psalm 88 is challenging your understanding of what it means to lament in Christ? Reflect on your inner turmoil and distress. Reflect on the sufferings of others in your family, community and in the world. Take some time to pray for your own inner turmoil. Pray for the sufferings and the outer turmoil’s of the world. Ask the Lord Jesus Christ to teach you how to lament well in Him.
Watch, o Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest your weary ones. Bless your dying ones. Soothe your suffering ones. Pity your afflicted ones. Shield your joyous ones. And for all your love’s sake. Amen. – Prayer for the Sick by St. Augustine