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Issue 04

Hope in Lament

Jamie A. Grant

Jamie Grant is Vice-Principal (Academic) at the Highland Theological College which is an academic partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands. His research focuses mainly on the Psalms and Wisdom Literature. Jamie is a Senior Research Fellow of the KLC.

How does one find hope in the midst of lament? This is not an easy question to answer constructively. It is much easier to express how one does not – or at least should not – resort to finding a superficial substitute for hope in dark circumstances. The Christian believer should not move from lament to hope quickly or lightly or unthinkingly or out of the crushingly stupid social pressure to be “fine” because anything other than “fine” is somehow a failure of faith. There is hope to be found in and from lament but that movement is not easy and we should be prepared to dwell honestly before the covenant God for as long as it takes to find genuine hope. Rico Villanueva’s helpful study of the changes of tone found in lament psalms is called The Uncertainty of a Hearing for good reason.(1) Expressions of hope or confidence in God are found in the biblical laments but these do not outweigh the expressions of present pain and should never become an “easy way out” for us as readers. There is hope in lament but we find it carefully, thoughtfully and through theological honesty.

The Unbowed Man, Khatyn Memorial, Belarus.

Lament as Covenant Complaint

As I write, truly terrible things are happening in Ukraine. Things that have – perhaps shamefully(2) – inspired the Western church to seek its voice of lament once again. The trouble is that Christians of our generation lack the spiritual vocabulary to emulate (or even appropriate) the bluntness of the biblical lament literature. This inability is rooted in a failure to understand what covenant really means.(3) We tend to think of covenant as a one-way street – we are obligated to relate to God in the light of his law. However, the psalmists believed that covenant obligation runs both ways. One of the most mind-blowing concepts of the Scriptures is contained in the central theological tenet that the Creator God and Sovereign over the cosmos binds himself to relate to us in a particular way. The crux of lament is found in offering prayers to God that accuse God of covenant unfaithfulness. It would be an understatement to say that our contemporary spirituality is uncomfortable with such expression in our prayer language.

“But God is forever faithful to his covenant,” I hear you reply. Agreed, he is. However, it doesn’t always feel that way. It doesn’t always seem that way from a human perspective. Where is the promised divine justice in Mariupol or Bucha? Commonly, it is easier to prevaricate than it is to call it as we see it. The psalmists refused to do so because what is the point in offering a polite, well-intentioned, theologically-appropriate lie? It is, after all, offering a lie to the One who sees our hearts.

“Okay, but God is still always faithful to his covenant, so we must be in the wrong, not him.” Agreed again, but that doesn’t matter. Of course, when it comes to lament, the problem always lies in our skewed or incomplete perspective on the realities that we observe. However, human finitude is a given in prayer – we always pray from a fallible perspective. Take Job, for example. Through lengthy debate and defence he accuses God of two things: 1) the complete loss of control over the events of his life (or, possibly, even of wicked intent in the running of his affairs) (Job 38:2) and; 2) the removal of divine presence in a manner that equated to enmity – God had turned against him (e.g., Job 19:6-12). The Yahweh speeches (Job 38-41) make it absolutely clear that Job is wrong on both counts. Yet, he is then commended by God for speaking to him, even though his perspectives were completely wrong. Job is then – as the only human participant to address God directly throughout the book – confirmed in that role of intercessor on behalf of his friends (Job 42:7-9).(4) So, Job’s example of lament confirms for us the importance of honestly expressing reality as we see it to God. Even when we know that we must somehow be wrong in fact, the biblical examples of lament prioritise absolutely brutal honesty over propriety. The God of the Scriptures requires honest prayer from his people.

William Blake, Job confessing his presumption to God who answers from the whirlwind

Wherein “Hope” Then?

At this point you may want to refer the title of this reflection to the Advertising Standards Authority. Prayers of lament reflect the bleakness of the world back to God but we have to remember that prayers of lament reflect the bleakness of the world back to God. This is the great irony of lament prayer. The lamenter views God as the ultimate source of her anguish and, at the same time, the sole solution to her pain, or to the problems of this world.

Lament offers (at least) three sources of hope. Firstly, lament forces the church to address the realities of the world that fall short of the divine intent head on. In lament we refuse to live in a privatised world of “faith” which pretends that war and abuse and injustice do not exist. Such prayers give us the opportunity to repeat back to God the standards that he demands, reminding him (not that he needs reminding) of the brokenness of his beautiful creation and requiring him to bring that kingdom reality, inaugurated in Christ, ever more fully into being in our day.(5) All we are really doing is asking God to do the things he wants to do anyway. Such prayers change the world: does that not inspire hope?

Crucifixion Scene, I Yesus Church, Axum, Ethiopia

Secondly, lament believes unswervingly in a God who intervenes in human history and seeks that intervention in present reality. All too often the contemporary church lives out life in a dualistic bubble that shuts out the world. We focus on “heaven” and “quiet times” and “worship.” What sort of worship of the living God does not get its hands dirty? Lament reminds us of the God who visited his people in the Exodus – the release of real people from real slavery – and expects the same today. Lament clings to the historical reality of the cross and the empty tomb. The Logos dwelled among us and he still does by his Spirit and through his church. Lament refuses simply to concede that God will sort things out in the end. Of course, the psalmists knew that to be true, but they lived with a this-world-here-and-now expectation rooted in knowing the God of the Exodus. How much more so should we expect divine intervention in our historical realities because we know the God of the cross, the empty tomb and the ascension?

Thirdly, there is hope in lament because it offers believers the opportunity to continue to walk in relationship with God even when every logical thought suggests that withdrawal would be the better option. So it was with Job and with Heman, the “author” of the bleak and apparently hopeless Psalm 88. Both believed God to be the cause of their pain, yet also that any sense of future hope could only be rooted in relationship with him. When we fail to lament, we fall into a functional atheism. Not that we disbelieve the existence of God, not even that we deny God’s intervention, but we resort to a worldview that refuses to believe that God intervenes in my history and this world. Lament brings hope because Yahweh does not expect a cowed, polite propriety. He expects us, at times, to scream in his face when confronted with loss, anguish and pain. By so doing, despite all indications to the contrary, Christians resolutely cling to the psalmic belief that he is the Lord who reigns (Ps 93:1) and that his steadfast love endures forever (Ps 136:1). Surely, in these two statements there is – and always will be – hope.

Niko Pirosmani, The Ascension of Christ

1. Federico G. Villanueva, The Uncertainty of a Hearing: A Study of the Sudden Change of Mood in the Psalms of Lament, VTSup. 121 (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

2. Shamefully because truly terrible things happen throughout the world all the time but the proximity of the war in Ukraine has brought a sense of focus to the Western church that is often absent when horrors are viewed from a distance.

3. With apologies for self-reference, I discuss this link between lament and covenant relationship more fully in Jamie A. Grant, “The Hermeneutics of Humanity: Reflections on the Human Origin of the Lament,” in A God of Faithfulness: Essays in Honour of J. Gordon McConville on His 60th Birthday, eds. Jamie A. Grant, Alison Lo, and Gordon J. Wenham, LHBOTS 538 (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 182–202.

4. See Elaine A. Phillips, “Speaking Truthfully: Job’s Friends and Job,” BBR 18, no. 1 (2008): 31–43, for helpful discussion of how we should probably translate Job 42:7 and 9 as “speaking rightly to me” rather than “about me.” Job here is being commended for clinging to God in prayer rather than stepping away from relationship with him.

5. Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (London: SPCK, 2011).