The Hermeneutics of Lament (Part 3)

J. Todd Billings
In this post in this short series, I offer a typology of interpretive approaches to biblical lament. The typology is rough, not comprehensive; my examples come from the "left," "right," and "middle," from theological conservatives and liberals. But they have one thing in common: they fail to interpret laments in a way that expresses the three dynamics of the rule of faith that I note in my second post. None of these approaches fully embraces the practice of praying the laments of scripture as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Lament as Ancient History

When I explored scholarly commentaries on the Psalms after my cancer diagnosis, I noticed that many were content to simply describe lament as an ancient practice in Israel. For example, commentaries on the cursing of Ps. 137 examine the language and grammar of the text, and then address questions such as: what was the circumstance for this original lament against the Edomites? This approach does the genuine service of taking the language and literary context of the Psalm very seriously. Indeed, in writing Rejoicing in Lament, I returned to these commentaries again and again: they gave a close reading of the biblical texts. But I would not recommend most of them to my fellow cancer-patient friends wrestling with the Psalms. Far from a feast, they offer meager fare for those hungering to know how to pray such Psalms today. They seemed to assume that the ideal audience for reading the Psalms is a modern historian, not children of the covenant who enter into the ongoing song and prayer of the Psalms. These commentaries are valuable, but incomplete in helping readers receive the Psalms as Holy Scripture to be prayed today.

Lament as Outrage

In some contexts today, "outrage" is valorized, and some consider this to be a retrieval of biblical lament. Social media in our polarized culture tends to create echo-chambers that demonize any missteps of the "enemy" ideology. As a result, the place of anger and outrage has been deepened and widened in our public conversations. There are goods in this development as Christians: it can awaken us from our slumber, reminding us that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Whether it is outrage over the Planned Parenthood videos or the racism protested by Black Lives Matter, we live in a world with open wounds of sin and injustice.

Yet, is this "lament" in a biblical sense? There are commonalities, but also differences. Twitter outrage is generally not brought before God, but before others in an effort to generate political and social action. The path advocated is not necessarily a movement toward Christlikeness, but the acquisition of political power by the generators of the "Twitter mob." Please don't mishear me: the evils of racial injustice and the killing of the unborn should be incorporated into fully Christian lament. But for the most part, the medium of social media has not, so far, been a place where a fully-orbed expressions of Christian lament has flourished.

Lament as Catharsis

Some of the writings I read after my cancer diagnosis championed the Psalms of lament because they mirror and express our emotions. They rightly note that pastorally speaking, it is unwise to recommend that Christians bottle up their anger, fear, and grief. Thus, the Psalms of lament offer an alternative - pray whatever you feel, express it, get it out there, and you'll feel better afterwards.

While this approach wisely embraces biblical lament for prayer, there are three particular problems in terms of the rule of faith:

1) The telos of biblical lament is not to "feel better," but to bring our whole selves before the Almighty, covenant Lord, and open ourselves to transformation in the process.

2) This transformation is not simply toward an "integrated" self with reduced repression, but toward the image of Christ.

3) Any approach which prays the Psalms as expression of our own emotions is destined to fail as a regular, communal practice of the Christian community. We do not always experience grief, anger, and confusion. If we only lament in those moments, they will not be part of the regular diet of Christian prayer. In contrast, if received in light of the rule of faith, the Psalm's laments provide a path for reshaping us into the image of Christ whether we feel downcast or uplifted.

Complaint to God as Sin

For many Christians in the West, lament is foreign because they see their faith has become a part of a larger project to live into their healthier, happier selves. Lament seems like a downer.

But I've also discovered that there are pastors and theologians who explicitly ground their avoidance of the Psalms of lament in a theological rationale: that complaining to God is sinful. I've discovered that many pastors, perhaps reflecting the conviction of John Piper, think that Christians should never be angry with God, thus expressing an angry complaint to God is sinful.

However, if the Psalms of lament express anger and complain toward God, then this obviously presents a problem in praying the Psalms. But this is precisely what the Psalmists frequently do. They do not only express anger toward others (e.g. enemies), but at the Covenant Lord who has allowed the calamity.

"You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, 
 the scorn and derision of those around us. 
You have made us a byword among the nations; 
 the peoples shake their heads at us. 
I live in disgrace all day long, 
and my face is covered with shame 
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me, 
 because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge. 
 All this came upon us, 
 though we had not forgotten you; 
 we had not been false to your covenant." 
(Psalm 44:13-17)

In this Psalm and many others, the Psalmist complains and even protests in anger - on the basis of the Lord's covenant promises. The Lord has promised to remember his people, but it appears that the Lord has forgotten. He has chosen his people to be a light to the nations, but his people are mocked and reviled.

This model of interpretation is right on one issue: in a biblical vocabulary, complaining in anger to God can be sinful -- such as when the Israelites were grumbling in the wilderness and turning to their self-made gods. That can be a temptation today as well. Yet, this is precisely not what the Psalmist does. The Psalms express fear and anger and even protest before the Almighty on the basis of God's own covenant promises. Even before the declaration of trust at the end of most Psalms, they trust God enough to complain; to ask raw questions. With no faith they would not trust God enough to bring such complaints and petitions to God in prayer.

As I have spoken to college students, cancer patients, and many others in the last year about lament, many of the Christians assume that they should just jump to the end of Psalms of laments if they are to pray them at all: "I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation," in the words of Psalm 13. Why? Because the other parts of the Psalm are too close to "anger" or "complaining." But with this approach, we cannot actually receive and pray the psalms of laments as scripture, apart from the "happy ending" in their final resolutions. This approach fails to receive the Psalms as a prayer book for the church today.

How are we to move beyond the weaknesses of these approaches in approaching the Psalms? In my final post, I'll explore how interpreting the Psalms in light of our union with Christ can open up rich opportunities for coming to pray, sing, and feed upon the Psalms of lament as Holy Scripture today. 

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His most recent book is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. This series is adapted from a plenary lecture delivered to the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Grand Rapids, MI): March 11, 2016.