Out of the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament, 68 are psalms of lament. In fact, there are more psalms of lament than of any other genre, including thanksgiving, hymnic, liturgical, and community. And yet, in (upper)middle-class, dominant-culture churches in this country, the practice of lament-as-worship has been largely excluded from their liturgy. Exclusion of lament has probably not been a conscious decision as much as a gravitational phenomenon. Passages about being “surrounded by murderous enemies” or crying out in desperation to be protected from “the arrow that flies by night” simply don’t feel relevant to the average parishioner in the churches that serve this demographic. Even when popular songs derive their lyrics from a book of lament, they tend to exclude lament. The following are the lyrics for a song called “Lamentations 3” that we sang all the time in my college Christian fellowship:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, new every morning; Great is thy faithfulness, oh Lord; great is thy faithfulness.”
That’s the whole song, and “Lamentations 3” is really just verses 22-23. But what about verses 1-21?
“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath. (v.1)
“He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation.” (v.5)
“He has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.” (vv. 7,8)
“He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness.” (vv.14,15)
“my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.” (v.17)
In contrast, if you visit the churches of immigrants, refugees, African Americans, and others who have experienced and continue to experience a lot of tribulation and oppression, you’ll find that psalms of lament are frequently read as an integral part of the worship experience. These passages are relevant to communities recovering from war and genocide, struggling with poverty, being targeted by racism, experiencing housing instability and food insecurity, dealing with police brutality, and unable to protect their children from the violence in their neighborhoods.
What’s the significance of this?
Well, I’ve noticed that when dominant-culture Christians encounter intense expressions of lament by non-dominant-culture Christians, particularly over issues they don’t personally identify with, they tend to recoil as if they’re seeing something indecent. There are unspoken taboos and sensibility thresholds in the dominant culture when it comes to people openly and publicly expressing negative emotions like grief, despair, fear, and anger. They even enforce these limitations among themselves. For example, parents who have lost children are expected to stop openly mourning their deaths or questioning why God allowed it to happen after just a few weeks. People struggling with prolonged depression, anxiety, or despair over their circumstances start to believe that their faith is defective or that the source of their inability to regulate themselves must therefore be biochemical. Spiritual triumphalism and victory verses are often prescribed to help people “get over” whatever it is they’re bothered by. Rarely have I seen anyone advise a hurting person to go and pray Psalm 88.
I’ve written about this before, but I think the absence of lament in the dominant culture as a normative practice in both life and worship is why sports have come to occupy such an important place in the life of people in our country. The sporting arena is the one place where people can gather collectively and express a full spectrum of emotion without being shamed or hyper-regulated. Tough men can weep like babies over their team’s loss; intense anxiety over a close game can be shared communally as friends and strangers alike freak out over bad calls and bad plays. In almost all other arenas, however, expression of fear, anxiety, disappointment, and grief is tightly regulated.
When is the last time you heard people collectively wail at a dominant-culture funeral?
Of all people, those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, who have been given 68 psalms of lament and an entire prophetic book of lament to inform our communal prayer life, should know how to create space for lament.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting; I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it. Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life; I’m bleeding, black-and-blue. You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side, raining down blows till I’m nearly dead. You made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness. (Psalm 88:14-18, The Message)
The person who wrote this psalm, Heman the Ezrahite, grandson of the Samuel the prophet, did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I don’t imagine that God said to him after he wrote it, “Get over it. I’m still on the throne.” And neither should we.