By Vinoth Ramachandra
From Sarah’s Laughter: Doubt, Tears, and Christian Hope (Chapter 1: Why, O Lord, Do You Hide Your Face?)
The Western church has used the Psalter as its hymnbook from earliest times. Augustine, Luther and Calvin wrote extensive commentaries on the Psalms, including the lament psalms. Augustine’s largest single work was his Enarrationes in Psalmos, a collection of sermons on the Psalms, and in it he urged Christian congregations to use the psalmists’ laments as their own words: “If the psalm prays, you pray; if it groans, you groan.” Luther’s Penitential Psalms (1517) was his first original, published work; and the first book published in the American colonies was the Bay Psalm Book in 1640. The German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer cherished the Psalms as his principal form of prayer, both in solitude and in community. In a letter to his parents from his prison cell, he wrote: “I read the psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.”
The virtual disappearance of lament from the pulpit, prayers and liturgies of churches in Asian churches that slavishly imitate the worship styles of affluent Western churches is a matter of grave concern, not least because it encourages dishonesty in our relationships with God and one another. Telling mothers who have lost their children not to grieve because “God is in control” or that “God is teaching them through suffering” is not only pastorally damaging but theologically shallow. Not only do we live in societies that are torn apart by ethnic and religious rivalries, and experience severe climatic events, growing economic disparities and corrupt politics, but we have many in our congregations who are crushed by these social realities as well as by domestic abuse, have nagging doubts about the trustworthiness of God’s promises in Scripture or the relevance of the gospel for the cultural worlds they inhabit, and who struggle with unanswered prayer and the silence of God in the face of their deepest traumas. Such folk have no vocabulary with which to articulate their pain because the biblical tradition of lament has been ignored in their churches. As the Singaporean pastor-theologian Gordon Wong has observed, “Our churches emphasise prayer and praise to God. But we almost always think that the only prayers acceptable to God are words of praise and thanksgiving.” It is not surprising, then, that many sensitive and thoughtful young people choose to “drop out” of church as their honest doubts and struggles are not being addressed.
Nancy Lee tells a story of a young Christian man traumatized by war that is all too common, wherever we may happen to live:
In 1996, I was living in Croatia and traveling throughout much of Bosnia on a Fulbright fellowship during the year just after the wars ended. People were struggling with the traumas of the devastation of war. I commonly encountered examples of extraordinary faith and courage in the face of unspeakable hardship and horrors. A young man, who was a music minister at a Protestant church, confided to me one day that, at the time of the military draft, he had served in the army to defend his country during the war. His experience of the violence was devastating, and he was very troubled. The problem of war veterans falling into alcoholism due to their unprocessed trauma and grief was common. In that traditional eastern European culture, therapy was still seen as something taboo. The young man thought he might turn to the church and his pastor as a place where, through his music ministry, or song at least, he might find some solace for his own healing and also find a way to help others. When he suggested some sorrowful songs to the pastor, he was quickly dismissed and told that the church must emphasize positive music and the praise of God. At this rebuke, the young man fell into an unresolved despair laid on top of his inner, unprocessed trauma, and he painfully realized that his church’s music was largely irrelevant for helping others who were as psychologically wounded as he was.
To those who refuse to face the suffering of those amongst whom they live, or feel shame at their own vulnerabilities, the cries of lament seem so “unspiritual,” embarrassing and even loathsome. And churches which suppress the biblical lament tradition in their preaching and liturgies are churches which are very much part of the status quo, having invested massively in the preservation of exploitative and oppressive social relations.
This tragic neglect of lament in our preaching and worship is more than a matter of ignorance; it is a lack of faith in the God of Scripture. A child who knows it is unconditionally loved by its parents enjoys the freedom to speak openly with them, expressing disappointment and anger as well as gratitude and love. We have noted that Old Testament Israel believed that the God of all creation had initiated a covenant with them, a covenant akin to a marriage relationship, and it was precisely this belief that allowed the prophets and hymn-writers of Israel to bring all their corporate and individual experiences of life into that relationship. Nothing was excluded. If, in times of pain and turmoil, we too know ourselves to be unconditionally loved by God, then we are free to question, challenge and even vent our anger at God. It is the security of love that engenders and emboldens lament.
The Australian pastor Malcolm Gill gives this advice to his fellow pastors: “To have a lament psalm read in church, even without comment, provides voice to those silently sinking under the weight of grief. To collectively recite a prayer of sorrow encourages the downcast that they are not the only ones bearing the burden of grief. Though quite rare, a musical lament via a traditional hymn or contemporary song can also verbalize the depths of pain when normal words can’t be found.”
Finally, for evangelical church leaders tempted by the lure of an entertainment culture, or simply afraid of the risks of exposure to the deep pain of the world, I commend the admonishment of Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”):
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security . . . If something should rightly disturb and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
Vinoth Ramachandra, Sarah’s Laughter (Chapter 1: Why, O Lord, Do You Hide Your Face?) (Langham Global Library), 2020. Used with permission.
Vinoth Ramachandra lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has served internationally for many years with International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Micah Global, and A Rocha International. He has a PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of London, UK, and is the author of several books and essays on topics relating Christian theology to issues in the global public square.