Read these: Lamentations 1:11-12; 2:1-4, 17; 5:19-22 and Habakkuk 1:2, 5-11; 3:2, 17-19. Does that fit your view of God? Does it make you uncomfortable that the writers are so angry and voicing their complaints?
The passages in Lamentations and Habakkuk are striking, and unfortunately often left out of the canon taught in many American churches. Why canonize such desperation, such wrenching accusations and cries for help? Why preserve in sacred writings this anguish? It doesn’t fit with our modern view of a God who wants us to be “happy,” or our ever-popular prosperity theology. The purpose of lament does not seem to be explicitly theological – by this I mean that general questions such as “Why do babies die?” and “Why do tsunamis happen?” are not at the forefront. The foundation is personal experience. The main problem is not that enemies ravaged cities, that famine and drought came, or that people are dying…it is that all these things happened and God stood by and allowed them. And even worse than God allowing these horrors, God failed to respond when his people cried out for salvation.
I have a huge issue with churches who promote a health and wealth theology without making room for this integral part of faith. We find laments in many parts of the Bible: in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Psalms, and others. I once heard a pastor say “We should never doubt our faith; if we doubt God then our relationship with him is in danger.” I couldn’t disagree more. If our relationship with God does not have room for doubt, we need to go back and question what we have been taught. Throughout the Old Testament there really isn’t punishment for doubt. It is there for disobedience, self-absorption, unfaithfulness to the covenant, abuse of the poor, and failure to follow the law, but not for a broken soul questioning Yahweh. There will always be times that require lament; there will always be questions rooted in personal loss and devastation that cannot be silenced.
I remember many times when I was younger being so afraid to voice any complaints to God because I was taught that it was disrespectful. Finally a teacher told me “It’s okay to yell at God. He can take it.” While I don’t advocate “yelling” at God over petty life issues, her statement has merit. I cry out to Yahweh because I do not understand, because it seems as though Yahweh has abandoned me, or worse – ignored my prayers completely. I cry out because I want the relationship to continue, not because I want it to end and so am just spewing hate. Lament challenges God, puts him on the spot. Lament runs the risk that God will still choose not respond and that the silence felt now could last forever. Lament takes sacred ideas about God and demands an answer for specific situations. Overarching theological truths have no meaning if God does not respond here, and now.
Yet lament is hopeful. It hopes that God will respond, that God will redeem, that by crying out God will be reminded his love and return to his children. That God will once again become the “God who saves.” It seems to me that lament, no matter how visceral or angry, ends with a question mark. The lamenter wants a response from Yahweh and restored communication. The lamenter wants a God-sized answer to a human question.
The most vivid example of lament in the New Testament is Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knew the cup he was to drink; he understood his role and the awful things he would have to go through. The problem was not that he was dying as a criminal – it was that the God with whom he had intimate communion and relationship had abandoned him.
There has to be lament for faith to withstand hardship. This world is a desperately broken place. Lament is, and should be, a step towards healing.
-as an aside, I would recommend Scott Ellington’s book “Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament” for anyone looking for more theological study on the issue.