First published November 2013 at www.biblical.edu, this continues to be my primary experience today and so I offer you it again, slightly revised.
Thanksgiving is that time of year when we get together with family to enjoy good food, maybe a football game, and to be thankful for God’s provision during the past year. Sometimes, though, we don’t feel all that thankful. Yes, we recognize that God indeed has given us many good things, things like food, water, salary, housing, and the like. We acknowledge that we have no rights to demand these things. We acknowledge that there are many who are far worse off. Given recent events, we can imagine how much more blessed we are than those who refugees from civil wars in the Middle East.
And yet, despite our knowledge of grace and mercy, there are times when all we notice are the broken things in our lives—our bodies, our families, our communities.
I confess this is my state this Thanksgiving. I won’t bore you with the details but I struggle to stay focused on the many good things God has given me.
But it might surprise you that though I am noticing a lot of brokenness, I am not embittered or angry with God. I am full of lament. I lament the length of time it is taking God to act in some matters. I lament how much active and passive hatred for the other is present, even in there is in our Christian communities! Have we not lost love for those we consider outsiders? I lament that Jesus has not returned and ended death and suffering.
I am thankful for lament
Here’s what I am thankful for. We serve a God who has encouraged us to lament to him. Laments are cries of our heart where we question God (sometimes even accuse as in Psalm 89), cry out for relief, ask for understanding, and grieve over sins done by self and others. Think about this for a moment: what King in all the earth not only invites such communication but even writes words for his subjects? He is not afraid of our questions or our complaints. Giving him such can be an act of worship.
Enter Isaiah 64. Isaiah is a book of confrontation of sin, call for holiness, prediction of judgment, and vision of restoration. In addition, we find windows of Isaiah’s lament for what is going to unfold for Israel. Listen to portions of his lament and some of my commentary:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.
Ok Lord, act already. Do it! What are you waiting for?
But when we continued to sin against them [the vulnerable, the righteous], you were angry…all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…no one calls on your name…you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
We so deserve your wrath Lord, but we are wasting away here Lord, if you don’t help us!
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure O Lord…Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are your people.
Lord, we know you are our creator. We deserve no special recognition. Yet, remember we are your image bearers. Oh Lord, shape us, don’t destroy us.
Thankful I can vacillate?
Notice how Isaiah 64 and other laments (e.g., Psalm 42-43; Habakkuk, the book of Lamentations) bounce between recalling God’s goodness, questioning his plans, grieving own sin, yet imploring God to vindicate. Are these writers wishy-washy?
I don’t think so. Too often we think the best theology is all neat and tidy:
Problem + Victorious God = No Problem
While this will be true one day, it isn’t yet. And so we lament in vacillating and non-linear ways. Even as we proclaim God’s sovereign power, we also acknowledge that we are in great turmoil. These laments give us examples of how to hold on to our faith even as we have no answer for the moment. We are not required to end on a happy note. Look back at Psalms 42-3. See how the Psalmist cries out in despair, recalls better times, enjoins himself to hope in God, but then again remembers that he is great pain. Notice that neither Lamentations nor Habakkuk end in victory for the “good guys.” Lamentations, like Isaiah 64, ends with a question mark—“if you haven’t forgotten us already?” Habakkuk acknowledges the victory of being able to praise God in a terrible famine, but that doesn’t remove suffering or the reason for the lament in the first place (ongoing sin by Israel and her destruction by a pagan nation).
So, I’m thankful this season that we worship a great God capable of holding our laments and recording our tears. I am thankful that I do not have to pretend all is well for fear God will strike me down. He knows my pain. He has suffered in every way and so is a High Priest who can relate to my feelings of abandonment. And he is working for our future Good. But for now, I can lament that it (victory) hasn’t arrived in its fullest form and take comfort in a more realistic equation:
Problem + Presence of God = I Lament and am Not Alone