Lamentation, a prayer for help coming out of pain, is very common in the Bible.
Over one third (50 or so) of the psalms are laments. One classic example of a Lament is
Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord?
Arise! Cast us not off forever!
Why do you hide your face,
forgetting our woe and our oppression?
For our souls are bowed down to the dust,
our bodies are pressed to the earth. (Psalm 44:24-26)
How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long shall I harbor sorrow in my soul,
grief in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:2-3)
Lament frequently occurs in the Book of Job: “Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11). The prophets likewise cry out to God, such as Jeremiah does: “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?” (15:18) and Habakkuk: “…my legs tremble beneath me. I await the day of distress that will come upon the people who attack us” (3:16).
One whole book, Lamentations, expresses the confusion and suffering felt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
We find something similar in the New Testament as well. People who are afflicted cry out to Jesus for help. Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” (Mark 10:47).
Jesus himself laments to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me…” (Mark 14:36). In his agony on the cross, Jesus makes his own the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?”
Despite its wide-ranging presence in the Bible, we have by and large lost touch with this dimension of prayer. It is something we need to recover. First, we feel, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we might think, “I should not feel this way! I am losing my faith!” Lament corrects a false, naïve and overly rationalistic view of faith.
In the Scriptures, faith is not simply an intellectual assent to some statement about God. It is the trusting of our entire selves to God. At times, we do experience God’s absence; we do feel alone and confused, and we doubt. Doubt is not opposed to faith; despair is. We see this in the case of the father who brought his son to Jesus for healing. When Jesus encouraged the father to have faith, he replied, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Even Saint Paul tells us he was “perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8). In despair we give up on our relationship with God. Doubt, on the other hand, is a sign that our faith is alive and kicking; it is part of the rhythm of faith itself.
Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. We cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.
Even if we do not experience the closeness, we believe that God does care. Even if God seems not to hear, we believe that God is always within shouting distance. In the Scriptures, God does not say, “Do not fear, I will take away all the pain and struggle.” Rather, we hear, “You have no need to fear, since I am with you” (e.g., to Isaac, frightened of the Philistine king—Genesis 26:24; to the anxious Moses being sent to confront Pharaoh—Exodus 3:11-12; to the disciples when they see Jesus walking on the sea—Matthew 14:27) and together we will make it.
We will survive, yes, even death itself. In the present context of the Pandemic, our security can be shaken, and our faith as well. Perhaps it is not lamenting, but the failure to lament that expresses a lack of faith.
Secondly, in lamenting we cry to God, “Why, O Lord?” Our suffering is so big; it does not make any sense; it lacks meaning. The desire to find meaning is a strong one.
In our search for meaning, we can be tempted to look for cheap and easy answers. Lament teaches us that there are indeed things we do not understand; in fact, we cannot understand. God does not say, “Do not fear; you will understand everything and have all the answers.” Our human mind can take us only so far. At times we can do no more than speak our confusion to God, and lament tells us that we should do no less.
Thirdly, we feel against people who hurt us, personally or as a community, “Happy the man who shall seize and smash your little ones against the rock” (Psalm 137:9), and we think, “I should not feel this way; it is against charity.”
Lament counters a false, naïve and overly romantic view of charity. Charity does not mean that everything is lovely, that we never get upset, that we sit around holding hands and saying how wonderful everything is. This is unreal.
Negativity, injustice, hatred, brokenness are part of our lives and part of our world. In the face of this, we can have an instinctive feeling for retaliation in kind, for returning hatred with hatred. I do feel pain, hurt and anger, but these are not a good basis on which to act. The fact that I feel a certain way does not give me permission to go out and dump my negativity wherever and on whomever I want. Lament suggests that it is all right to express our uncensored feelings before God. We need to accept Lament as an act of Faith. There is power in Lament and Lament brings in healing to all who are affected or infected by the present COVID 19 Pandemic. When we cry out to God or lament to God, we get the assurance that God is in control and God will take care of God’s Creation in accordance with God’s will and in God’s way and time. The Scripture Engagement Programs undertaken recently by the Bible Society of India under the supervision of the Department of Church Relations and Resource Mobilization Department are precisely attempts to bring in this unshaken truth home to the suffering people due to the Corona virus spread.