We’ve been studying the Psalms and one of the things that you can’t avoid is lament in both directions. There is the lament of the faithful calling on God to be faithful like Psalm 27:7-10. There is lament of God for his people like Psalm 81:11-16. It is from reflection on passages like these and the way that primarily OT characters sometimes go after God that my spiritual advice has often been “God’s a big guy, he can take it”. That was usually quickly followed by something like “just be ready to be silenced from the whirlwind” (Job 40:6). Following Bonhoeffer’s little book on the Psalms we’ve been presenting the Psalms as two things: 1) the prayers of Christ himself and 2) the Lord’s Prayer in different form. It is that second category that is meaningful here. For what is the Lord’s prayer if not a study in Lament. Your kingdom come (because we certainly don’t see it much now). Your will be done (because the bad guys seem to have free reign). Lead us not into temptation (because it certainly feels like you are a capricious God). Deliver us from evil (because our enemies surround us to devour our flesh). Like the psalms, lament leads the way to two things: 1) reaffirming the Lordship of God and 2) our faith in his promises. Psalm 27 referenced earlier ends with such a raw declaration of resurrection and faith, Psalm 27:13-14. When God laments he closes with reiteration of his promises, Psalm 81:16.
An important theme in Rittgers’ account is the intensely biblical nature of Lutheran suffering. Protestants, far from assuming that suffering was always a direct divine punishment for sin, offered a range of explanations for suffering. (The recognition that suffering ultimately emerges from sin, Rittgers notes, is not the same as the claim that every instance of suffering is a punishment for a person’s individual sinful act.) Protestants could articulate many different explanations for suffering because the Bible “contains … explanations for suffering that have nothing to do with punishment.” Job imagines suffering as a test of one’s devotion to God; the Psalms, Proverbs, and other texts explore suffering’s capacity to refine one’s faith; the New Testament suggests that suffering can be a means of identifying with Christ. Laypeople heard these themes expounded in the pulpit and encountered them in books about proper Christian suffering; they also copied down or memorized consoling words of Scripture, so that in a time of trial they would have biblical words to help them persevere.
Yet one important biblical response to suffering did not find a place among Luther’s heirs: lament. The psalms, in particular, contain illustration after illustration of God’s faithful people calling God to account because their suffering defied not just explanation but indeed God’s covenantal promises. This tradition did not find a place in a “premodern consolation literature” that consistently advised men and women to “accept their suffering patiently and make no protest against the workings of divine providence.” Rittgers intriguingly suggests that this loss of lament may have had profound consequences, among them contributing to the “gradual disenchantment of the world …. Perhaps in the (very) long run, the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.”
In one sense I understand the point being made. Protestants, learning the theology of the cross, were often preached to skip right to the consolation. The Gospel is consolation. But taken so easily as the review suggests was done, is missing the core of Luther’s insight. Law and Gospel is a tension. We can take consolation in the promises of God now. We can even take consolation in the visible sacraments and those brief moments – like the transfiguration – when the glory breaks through the veil. But, all things are not yet brought to completion. The devil, is still the power and principality of this realm. We are still burdened by our frail flesh which works against us. The theology of the cross is a learning to bear it and learning where that strength comes from. The reformation might have made an intellectual jump, but the emotional learning lags behind. Or maybe better is that we each come to our own understanding of the one truth. Lament, in its biblical forms points the way. The feelings are true. The Psalmist does not deny them. Jesus tells us to pray them. Instead of the the effect that the review highlights, “the gradual disenchantment of the world”, the way of the cross is toward trust in the promises. Lament’s resolution is not in immediate divine action, nor is it in abandonment of the expectation of divine action in favor of our own action. The purpose of lament is to stir belief. My God, why have you forsaken me to be met with the response into your hands I commit my spirit. Belief that God has acted ultimately. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13). And belief that allows us to walk the way here. To love our enemies.