Day Four - A Time to Lament
The fourth day of class was my favorite. We walked through several of the psalms of lament, all of the book of Job, and all of Ecclesiastes. It was pure gold. As I shrink eight action-packed hours into a post that takes about 13 minutes to read I acknowledge I won’t do it justice. I do hope this morsel will be helpful. At the very least, it bridges the gap between recounting the bigger story and speaking into suffering. That bridge is lament.
Previously, on Post Modern:
- A Graduate-Level Class Called “Providence and Suffering”
- Day One: Evil and Theodicy in Modern Thought
- Day Two: Providence
- Day Three: What’s Your Story?
Knowing the bigger narrative you’re a part of doesn’t mean you won’t be angry with God for allowing evil. In the long run, it gives context in which suffering can be interpreted. In the short-term, the pain and suffering are impossible to swallow.
The God of this narrative doesn’t say “get over it.” Yahweh invites lament, expects the shouting and crying. God welcomes the questions, because God is present—both in joy and in pain. God accepts praise and lament. The scriptures testify to that over and over.
In this post I:
- share one lament psalm,
- give a lens through which to read Job,
- and summarize Ecclesiastes in tweet-length.
But First, Allow Me to Confess my Serial Optimism
Our own sacred book creates the space we need to lament, to shout at God, to question God’s goodness. The canon itself testifies that it’s not as easy as saying “God is good all the time. All the time God is good.” Life is more complicated than that. There’s a time to lament. If you don’t see it, it’s time to put down Proverbs and pick up Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms.
To my dismay, as we worked through these passages I realized that I read the Bible as a serial optimist. I love highlighting and underlining, but in these psalms of lament and stories of questioning God, the only phrases I had underlined were places where the writer is expressing praise or joy. In fact, in an entire psalm of lament, with just one verse dedicated to praise at the end, I underlined only that one verse. Take Psalm 13 for example. I underlined verses 5 and 6.
See the problem? Serial optimism is dangerous, especially as part of a community. When we compel people always to “sing and be happy” even if the “skies above you are gray and you are feeling so blue,” we can cause a lot of damage. We’re hurting people. We (in the West) are really bad at grieving. Our culture doesn’t provide a space for it. Our churches need to provide that space. Without being “depressing,” our churches need to practice lament. We need to create space for holy questioning. Our holy book shows the way forward. Jesus himself bluntly questioned God’s presence in the midst of suffering (leaning on a psalm, I might add). Can’t we question pain and suffering and purpose in life? Doing so will make hope all the more real.
Psalm 77: Yearning in the Midst of Chaos
Take a deep breath, turn the music off, clear your mind, and read Psalm 77. It’ll take you less than two minutes.
Now let’s walk through it together. It’s like the director’s cut (except that I didn’t write or direct it).
1-3: Expressing Hurt
I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me…and my soul refused to be comforted. (77:1-2)
The psalm starts off in deep distress. Refusal of comfort is apt when it comes to the experience of suffering. To be comforted too quickly may be to deny that anything happened. It may be a denial of the reality of life.
I remembered you God, and I groaned. (77:3)
Do you feel guilty when you feel this way? Some people point to the place where James says to consider it joy when you face different kinds of trials (1:2). That’s appropriate when thinking in terms of world’s end, but it doesn’t rule out lament. Part of learning to lament is learning that it’s ok to remember God and groan. The psalm is here for our learning; here for hope (Romans 15:4). Telling someone in the midst of suffering that they should “be joyful” will cause lots of guilt.
4-9: The Questioning Gets Real
Remembering his past, and remembering his favorite songs, the psalmist brings scathing questions from the bottom of his heart (77:4-6):
Will the Lord reject forever? …Has his unfailing love vanished forever? …Has God forgotten to be merciful? (77:7-9)
In other words: Why, God?
The best description of God in the Old Testament is one God provides. The psalmist’s protest is an echo of God’s self-description. He is questioning the very heart of God’s character. And though he says he’s “too troubled to speak” (77:4), a couple verses later he’s rolling.
10-15: The Turn
Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal…I will remember Yahweh’s deeds.’ (77:10-11)
In the first half of the psalm, remembering causes groaning and questioning. Now, memory seems to give way to hope or awe. What changed?
It’s helpful to think about the little paragraph break between verse 9 and verse 10 as a time gap. We are not to imagine that this happened overnight. Who knows how long this person lived in the chaos and questioning. The second half of the psalm is the end result of a months- or years-long process. It doesn’t come to us as neatly resolved, but as a decision to live and trust the story in which the psalmist finds himself.
What god is as great as our God? (77:13)
Get this. The psalmist affirms God’s greatness in the context of great hurt. #GodIsGood, right?
The problem I have with the #GodIsGood hashtag is that so often it comes right after something good happens. Something good happened to me, #GodIsGood. So, something bad happens to me…#GodIsBad? We remember that God is good because the narrative tells us God is good, not because of what happened yesterday. And in the midst of the bad, we remember God is good because of what God has done and will do.
16-20: Affirming the Story
The waters saw you, God, and writhed. The very depths were convulsed. (77:16).
The waters, so often a symbol of chaos in the ancient Hebrew worldview, writhe in God’s presence. In the context of that remembering, the psalmist affirms that the story he’s living in is one in which God rebukes the waters. God conquers chaos.
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters. (77:19)
The promise of God that the psalmist remembers is not one of redemption from suffering. It’s redemption through suffering. The path of healing is not that trouble has vanished. The psalmist doesn’t thank God for removing the pain. The waters are not gone. Chaos is still there. But there’s hope because God’s way leads through it.
The lament psalms assume a strong involvement of God in the lives of people. Even as the psalmist is questioning God having abandoned him, it presupposes that God is present and (supposedly) hearing the lament. The psalmist prays with an assumption that God has allowed chaos to be present and yet is still engaged. Sometimes it’s a plea for God to reengage, to wake up. Dr. Hicks summarizes it this way:
I pray and lament because I believe God is engaged in the cosmic order. Not intervening, but always concurrently engaged.
Job: A Dramatic Lament
The book of Job is a dramatic lament through which Job is faithful. He never curses God, though he struggles mightily (cursing just about everything else).
This literary work is big and thick and full of poetry. Through the poetry we’re able to see a writer in Israel weave lament in poetic dialogue with traditional wisdom. Many misread Job by reducing it to its narrative prologue (Chapters 1-2) and epilogue (42:7-17), skipping the poetry—which is the very heart of the book—altogether. Please don’t do that. The book is beautiful in its complexity, so my attempt to simplify it will only be so helpful.
What I want to do here is to present a lens for understanding what the book is trying to accomplish. Then it’ll be up to you to read through it and see what you think. If you decide to, Dr. Hicks has blogged through the entire book, which serves as an excellent reading guide.
The Central Question
Does anyone fear God just for God’s sake?
Job is representative of all of humanity. The book’s central question is presented in 1:9 by the accuser: “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Stated differently, does anyone fear God for God’s sake? Or, are all human beings driven by a profit motive? The test, of course, will be severe, if it’s to demonstrate that human beings can stick to God even with everything else stripped away.
The answer is yes. Job fears God for God’s sake alone, and not because of any profit or blessing. Job says: My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. So I humble myself, and am comforted over dust and ashes. God showing up was enough. (42:5-6).
Through the worst of suffering due to natural and moral evil, Job stays faithful. He struggles mightily. Job curses the day of his birth, curses life itself. He laments in bitterness and anger. He presents his case indignantly. He despairs. And he refuses to let God off the hook for this.
Refusing to let God off the hook is key:
Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing. (31:35)
Yahweh vindicates Job at the end of the story, having Job pray for the wrongness of his three friends: “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:8)
Yahweh accepts Job’s lament: I will accept tough questions. There is evil. There is chaos. You were right to question this. But see, I am here. Will you trust me?
How We Get There: Job
Two confessions of Job early on in the book are pillars of his understanding of God. At first they seem to oppose each other, but aren’t actually mutually exclusive.
- Praise: God gives and God takes away. May God be praised. (1:20-21; see also 12:7-10)
- Curse: Job curses the day of his birth. (3:1-26; see also 7:7-21, the most dramatic lament in the text)
Lament is not inconsistent with the confession in 1:20-21. It is because Job believes God is responsible that Job laments.
Job never stops believing that God is in control, and so never lets God off the hook for the evil that has caused so much suffering in his life. He confesses again at the end of the book: “I know that you can do all things” and, paraphrasing, I’m mortal and so there’s no way I can understand it all.
I have seen you, and so I humble myself and am comforted. I let go of my lament. I change my mind about humanity. Your presence is enough. (42:6)
I should note that this is a minority position on Job. Many believe that Job did sin in questioning God throughout the book, and here at the end of the book, Job repents. In his next-to-last post on Job, he explains why we’re probably right.
How We Get There: Job’s Friends
In the book’s poetic dialogue Job laments and curses as he’s trying to deal with all that has happened, and Job’s friends respond. In three cycles, each successive round shorter than the last, Job’s friends tell him to:
- Repent! (Chapters 4-14)
- Shut up! (Chapters 15-21)
- Give up! (Chapters 22-27)
The cycles are painful to listen to while at the same time beautifully composed. Ironically, the friends are at their very best back in 2:13, when “no one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
After these three cycles and Job’s final monologue (29-31), a young(er) buck, named Elihu, speaks up (chapters 32-37). What Elihu says about Yahweh is mostly right. But what he says about Job is dead wrong. He misquotes Job and misapplies Job’s lament and so condemns Job.
How We Get There: Yahweh
Then Yahweh spoke to Job out of the storm. (38:1)
Finally. After 37 chapters. Yahweh shows up.
In two speeches Yahweh recreates the diverse universe for Job with words. It’s a good creation with the possibility of evil and chaos. Yahweh reminds Job that he won’t be able to figure it all out, but invites him to embrace his human vocation once again.
Some have interpreted Yahweh’s tone with Job in these two speeches to be, “You idiot, Job, how dare you question me!” Job himself may hear God that way, when he responds in 40:4 with, “I am unworthy. I’ll just shut up.” Yahweh isn’t pleased with Job’s self-abasing answer so there’s a round two. Instead of giving God an indignant, shouting tone, think of Yahweh as a sage, graciously reminding Job of things Job already knows (A dramatic audio version would’ve been helpful).
In short, Yahweh says:
- I am in control
- I care
- I know what I’m doing
Yahweh asks: Will you trust me?
Or, to reword it in terms of the central question: Will you fear me for my own sake, even if this doesn’t make sense? Am I worth it?
The answer, of course, is yes. Not because Job is eventually prosperous again. Job will trust God because God showed up. Job saw God. He experienced Yahweh. And in the midst of despair, God’s presence was enough.
Conclusion: Job in the Biblical Canon
The place of the book of Job in the Bible is important. It counters the “traditional wisdom school” that Proverbs represents, which says, “You reap what you sow.” In other words, traditional wisdom argued that if you do right, you’ll prosper, and if you do wrong, you’ll be punished.
Job acknowledges that this isn’t the case 100% of the time. Sometimes life sucks. But in the midst of that, God is there and wants to be acknowledged, even if it’s with lament.
Ecclesiastes in a Tweet
We ended the day by walking through Ecclesiastes. There is no book more controversial in the Bible, for its acceptance of the reality of evil (some call it cynicism, others call it realism) and willingness to entertain the thought that we don’t really know anything. The book works in the 21st century. The author is so blunt, so real.
Sit down and read Ecclesiastes if you haven’t in a while. Here’s a summary in less than 140 characters:
Accept death; don’t despair. Enjoy life. Meaning is found in the pursuit of Yahweh.
We closed class with what’s known as the serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
This is what lament can do. It’s an essential part of the process to trust God (eventually) and once again to live with meaning.