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Department: Christian Ethics

Reclaiming Lament

A Balm for Days of Suffering & Pandemic

Fowler, Marsha D.

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doi: 10.1097/CNJ.0000000000000762
  • Free
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English actor and playwright Christopher Bullock wrote these words in his 1716 work, The Cobler of Preston: “...for I say, woman, ‘tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes’...” He was wrong on two counts: Some manage to evade taxes, and there is another certainty in human life—suffering. Suffering is part and parcel of the human condition; it is inescapable. Some will suffer more, and some will suffer less, but all persons will experience suffering.

Job is, of course, the biblical case study in suffering. He loses all his sheep and camels; his children are killed when a wind from the desert causes their house to collapse on them; his servants are killed by raiding enemies. Job's wealth was gone—but he had his health. Well, not for long. He was then afflicted with “loathsome sores” from head to foot and was berated by a toxic wife. His three friends, who characteristically compounded his misery, rarely getting anything right—did one thing out of character: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13, NRSV).

Comments about the “patience of Job” are not well informed. Job “did not restrain [his] mouth,” spoke “in the anguish of [his] spirit,” and “complained in the bitterness of [his] soul” (Job 7:11). Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar decided to console and comfort him, quite possibly with their customary bad theology. But by the time they saw Job, his suffering had taken an enormous toll and they did not recognize him. They were grief-stricken. Whatever it was that they had intended to do, instead they sat silently with him. They did not hunt for words to console and comfort—there were no words. They did not confer about what to do—there was nothing to be done. Instead of words, words, and words, doing, and doing, and doing, they “simply” sat with him in silence, in a shared grief, in a ministry of being with, of presence, in his suffering (Fowler, 1989,2008).

In suffering, the one who must speak is the one who suffers. Although those who suffer can speak without restraining their mouths or cry out in the anguish of their spirit, or complain in the bitterness of their souls, Scripture teaches there is another and effective way to express one's suffering and anguish. The Book of Psalms contains two types of psalms to assist in our suffering. The psalms of individual lament and the psalms of national (or collective) lament provide separate structures for the expression of individual and national suffering, as in these COVID-19 pandemic days. Our concern here is for the elements of the structure of an individual psalm of lament. The psalms of individual lament contain these elements, though any given psalm may omit a lesser element. The elements are:

  • An address, an introductory cry for help or rescue
  • The lament proper, which has three components: Thou (O, Lord), I (me), and my foe
  • Confession of trust
  • Petition, both for God to be favorable and to act, and a motif designed to urge God to intervene
  • Vow of praise
  • Assurance of being heard, looking back afterward at God's answer (Brueggemann, 1984; Westermann, 1981).
Table
Table:
The Structure of an Individual Psalm of Lament

This is a structure that guides rather than constrains one's expression of suffering. It is also a structure that can be healing, strengthening, clarifying, and freeing. Ours is a culture in which lament is unwelcome. Lament is seen as whining or complaining and makes people uncomfortable; the cultural message is to bear your suffering in silence and alone. However, if we reclaim lament as an essential part of suffering, we also find help both for expressing our own suffering and for helping others express theirs.

A lament guides us to express our suffering, distress, grief, and pain. It takes us into the pit of our suffering, but its affirmation and praise lift us out of the pit and leave us rising. Amid suffering, writing one's lament as a daily healing and strengthening exercise can provide a record of our journey in God's care and love.

FOR REFLECTION...

  • Describe your response or lack thereof to lament.
  • How might lament be incorporated into your life?

References

Brueggemann W. (1984). The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg.
Bullock C. (1716). The Cobler of Preston. A farce. Based on the “induction” to “The taming of the shrew” (p. 14). The Royal Theater. Printed (no publisher).
    Fowler M. D. (1989). Weal and woe: On the loss of lament. Heart & Lung, 18(6), 640–641. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2584051/
    Fowler M. (2008). Come; give me a taste of shalom. In W. Pinch & A. Haddad (Eds.), Nursing and health care ethics: A legacy and a vision (pp. 269–281). American Nurses Association.
    McKoy K. (2020, April 17). Nurses are the coronavirus heroes. These photos show their life now. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-04-17/nurses-are-the-coronavirus-heroes
      Westermann C. (1981). Praise and lament in the Psalms (2nd ed.). John Knox Press.
      InterVarsity Christian Fellowship