Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
to the Lord!'
Lament in the Bible
Once again the Church begins its annual retreat with the Lord.
The 40 days of Lent are clearly modeled on Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness,
which are in turn modeled on Israel's 40 years in the wilderness, as they journeyed
from the oppression of Egypt to the Promised Land.
While in Egypt, "the Israelites groaned...and
cried out...their cry for help rose up to God" (Ex 2:23), and God heard their
cry. In the wilderness, facing death from hunger and thirst, again Israel complains
to God in their need (e.g., Ex 15:22-25a; 17:1-7; Nm 20:1-13). This is the language
As we enter into Lent, this Scripture
from Scratch reflects on the biblical meaning of lamentation.
What Is Lamentation?
Lamentation, a prayer for help coming out of pain and need,
is very common in the Bible. Over one-third (50 or so) of the psalms are laments.
Job laments (e.g., Job 3:11) as do the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah 15:18 and Habakkuk
One whole book, Lamentations, expresses the confusion and suffering
felt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 b.c.
And something similar occurs in the New Testament as well. People
who are afflicted (e.g., Bar Timaeus, Mark 10:47) cry out to Jesus for help,
while Jesus himself laments to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark
14:36). In his agony on the cross, Jesus makes his own the words of Psalm 22,
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me...?"
When we feel blessed in life, when we experience goodness and wholeness,
we turn to God in praise and thanksgiving. But what happens when we are overcome
by the presence of chaos, brokenness, suffering and death?
When we hurt physically, we cry out in pain; when we hurt spiritually,
we cry out in lament. Lamentation can be described as a loud, religious "Ouch!"
we cry to God.
To begin with, laments are addressed directly to God: "Out of the
depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!" (Psalm 130:1) and "My soul,
too, is utterly terrified; but you, O Lord, how long...?" (Psalm 6:4).
In more modern terms, we might say, "I call to you, O Lord, and
all I get is your answering machine!" We take our cries directly to the top.
God, however, seems far away, "O my God, I cry out by day, and you answer not;
by night, and there is no relief for me" (Psalm 22:3).
We ask heartfelt questions. "How long, O Lord? Will you utterly
forget me?" (Psalm 13:2), which implies: I am at the end of my rope, and I cannot
hold on much longer. "Why, O Lord, do you stand aloof? Why hide in times of
distress?" (Palm 10:1), which implies: I do not understand what is going on;
this makes no sense.
How long? Why? These are not requests for information, but
cries of pain.
The afflictions of the speaker(s) are described in broad, stereotyped
ways, with which all sufferers can identify: sickness (Psalm 6:3); loneliness
and alienation (Psalm 38:12); dangers and mistreatment by others (Psalm 7:2)
even aging (Psalm 71:9).
And, finally, the ultimate affliction is physical death (Psalm 88:4).
All of these are manifestations of the realm of chaos and brokenness invading
and pulling our lives apart.
Lamentation often speaks of enemies. At times these are enemies
from outside the community, also known as "foreigners," or "the nations" (Psalm
79:1). At other times, it is an enemy from within who schemes and plots against
the psalmist (Psalm 31:14).
On more than one occasion, the psalmist suggests to God things to
do to these enemies, (the so-called "cursing psalms": Jer
18:21-22; Ps 6:11; Ps 137:8-9).
The Costly Loss of Lament
As Christians, we are probably not all that comfortable in
speaking our pains, our doubts and our anger before God. Lament leaves us more
than a little uneasy.
Unlike the Jewish community (think of
Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, speaking his pain and confusion
to God), we have lost a certain sense of lamentation, and this has been, in
the words of one scholar, "a costly loss." What might we gain from a recovery
First, we feel, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," and
we might think, "I should not feel this way! I am losing my faith!"
Lament corrects a false, naive and overly rationalistic view of
faith. In the Scriptures, faith is not simply an intellectual assent to some
statement about God. It is the trusting of our entire selves to God. At times,
we do experience God's absence; we do feel alone and confused, and we doubt.
Doubt is not opposed to faith; despair is. We see this in the case
of the father who brought his son to Jesus for healing. When Jesus encouraged
him to have faith, the father replied, "I do believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark
Even St. Paul tells us that he was "perplexed, but not driven to
despair" (2 Cor 4:8). In despair, we give up on our relationship with God. Doubt,
on the other hand, is a sign that our faith is alive and kicking; it is part
of the rhythm of faith itself.
Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. We cry out
directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts;
it counts to us and it counts to God.
Even if we do not experience the closeness, we believe that God
does care. Even if God seems not to hear, we believe that God is always within
In the Scriptures, God does not say, "Do not fear, I will take away
all the pain and struggle." Rather, we hear, "Do not be afraid, for I am with
you" (e.g., to Isaac, frightened of the Philistine king [Gen 26:24]; to the
anxious Moses being sent to confront Pharaoh [Exod 3:11-12]; to the disciples
when they see Jesus walking on the sea [Matt 14:27]) and together we will make
it, we will survive—yes, even death itself. Perhaps it is not lamenting, but
the failure to lament that expresses a lack of faith.
Second, in lamenting, we cry to God, "Why, O Lord?" Our suffering
is so big; it does not make any sense; it lacks meaning. Our search for meaning
is a strong one.
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 provide an instructive
example. A photo making the rounds on the Internet showed what
seemed to be a face (a skull?) visible in the smoke pouring out
of the towers. Could this be a sign that this was the work of
the devil? Others referred to the predictions of Nostradamus.
Some popular media preachers offered superficial religious explanations
to make sense of what happened.
In our search for meaning, we can be tempted to look for cheap and
easy answers. Lament teaches us that there are indeed things we do not understand;
in fact, we cannot understand.
God does not say, "Do not fear; you will understand everything and
have all the answers." Our human minds can take us only so far. At times we
can do no more than speak our confusion to God, and lament tells us that we
should do no less.
Third, toward people who hurt us, personally or as
a nation, we might feel with the psalmist, "Happy the man who
shall seize and smash your little ones against the rock" (Psalm
137:9). Then we think, "I should not feel this way; it is against
Lament counters a false, naive, and overly romantic view of charity.
Charity does not mean that everything is lovely, that we never get upset, that
we sit around holding hands and saying how wonderful everything is. This is
Negativity, injustice, hatred, brokenness are part of our lives
and part of our world. In the face of this, we can have an instinctive feeling
for retaliation in kind, for returning hatred with hatred. I do feel pain, hurt
and anger, but these are not a good basis on which to act.
The fact that I feel a certain way does not give me permission
to go out and dump my negativity wherever and on whomever I want. Lament suggests
that it is all right to express our uncensored feelings before God.
In this light, the "cursing psalms" make sense. They have often
been a particular stumbling block. We need to recognize that they are clearly
spoken out of great pain and distress. The feelings are really in the psalms,
and at times they are really in us.
But the psalmist does not say, "I am going to go out and smash
his little ones against the rock!" We do not, as it were, take things into our
own hands. We say rather, "God, this is the way I feel; I leave it to you."
And God has never been known to rush right out and do everything we ask when
we are angry. We let God deal with it, and in the process, we get the feelings
out of us; we can begin to respond more reflectively, more constructively.
It is true that Jesus' example teaches us to pray, "Father, forgive
them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34)—an attitude found also in some
parts of the Old Testament, (Ex 23:4-5; Job 31:29-30). This is indeed the direction
in which we hope to move, the direction we want our actions to reflect. But
our feelings may not always be there—at least at first. Again, the feelings
are real and will not go away, and if we do not recognize them and deal with
them constructively, they will go underground and surprise us later in destructive
ways. Lament is a constructive way to express them.
It is often noted that almost all of the lament psalms (Psalm 88
is an exception) end on a sudden note of praise (e.g., 6:9-11; 22:23-32). Scholars
have offered various explanations for this, but from the viewpoint of prayer,
the meaning seems clear. It is only after we lament, after we face and express
the pain and the negativity and get it all out, that healing can begin.
In more theological terms, we can say that it is only
by facing and going through the death that we can come to new
life, to resurrection. The structure of lament tells us that it
is possible to praise too soon. The psalmist takes the time to
let all the pain and anger out before the praise can set in.
Recovery of Lament
If we have lost a healthy sense of lament in our personal prayer
life, this is true also in our communal, liturgical life. Almost the only remaining
context in which lament is formally acknowledged is the funeral liturgy.
Perhaps other situations exist in which some form of communal liturgical
or paraliturgical lament would be appropriate: after a painful
experience of divorce; in a religious community when dear members
choose to leave; when missionaries return home after years of
service in a foreign country; for victims of clergy sexual abuse
on the path of healing; in a neighborhood taken over by drug dealers;
in a community hard hit by HIV and AIDS; in a community devastated
by natural disaster (fire, flood, earthquake, tornado, hurricane);
for people after the experience of rape; or when terrorists attack
and many lives are lost.
How helpful it would be if we had some
structures and models to allow us to express and acknowledge our pain and our
anger; to offer each other strength and support in difficult times; to help
us, individually and communally, move forward with the task and challenge of
life and help us discern what is a good and proper response to our situation.
We have such structures and models available
to us in the prayer of our Scriptures. During this Lent, we might reflect on
the spiritual value of lament.
Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., is professor of
Old Testament and Semitic Languages at the Franciscan School of
Theology (Graduate Theological Union), Berkeley, CA. He is a contributor
to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and the Collegeville
Bible Commentary. His special interest is biblical spirituality.