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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

The Church Needs a Healthy Theology of Lament: A Thought for the Holidays

lament

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

The church needs a healthy theology of lament.

Not an agreed-upon short moment of sorrow so things can get back to normal.

But a season to complain, be perplexed, shattered. To be angry.

Without excuse, without being made to feel broken or weak. Without trying to fix pain and make it behave.

Everyone has their story.

We need lament, even in Advent, even in the “holiday season.” Especially then.

We need to make room for lament because lament squeezes out simple answers, even if those answers are in the Bible.

Because the Bible says so.

Behold, the authoritative word of God: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms will not sit quietly in church and play make-believe.

They do not accept the conventional wisdom of their contemporaries or predecessors that life should work this way rather than that way.‡

They challenge and hold in check “God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked”—Job, the afflicted, is innocent.

They disrupt the religion game—Qohelet’s God is absent, confounding, exasperating, and he holds nothing back in saying so.

They expose default piety—Psalms speak raw words of pain and interrogate a distant God.

They do not bow to the social pressure of acting the part. They refuse to believe the lie “There is something wrong with you.”

The church needs a healthy theology of lament, where we just let it be for as long as necessary, with no quick prayer or Bible verse to take the pain away.

As if the problem is a lack of information.

Job, Qohelet, and psalmists had plenty of information. That was the problem.

They knew how the system was supposed to work and they knew the Bible verses to back it up.

They knew their theology. That is why they lament.

The church needs a healthy theology of lament, where we accept that life doesn’t play out according to the box we place God in.

Where we sit with those in pain quietly and respectfully, empathizing, not fixing.

As did Job’s friendsat first.* Until they started lecturing. Until they began defending their theology.

Lament teaches honesty.

Like that of the psalmist, who took his pain, doubt, and exasperation with God straight to God, to the house of worship, rather than putting on his church face.§

God can handle it even if we can’t.

Lament isn’t on a timer.

Qohelet grabs hold of his audience for 12 relentless chapters to tell the story of his hopelessness and befuddlement with God.#

Lament dares us to risk letting go of a well-behaved and predictable system and swap it out for one where faith and trust in God, not certitude and order, are the beginning, middle, and end of our journey.

The church needs a healthy theology of lament,

to embrace lament as a normal and pervasive reality among those who walk by faith, not by sight,

to accept those who lament as wise teachers living at the center of their faith community, not disruptive children who need a timeout.

In my experience, I have rarely heard taught or seen modeled what to do with our emotions when theological truths are blown up in front of us. Thankfully, the Bible isn’t quiet about it.

‡Psalm 1; Deuteronomy 28
*Job 2:11-13
§Ps 73:15:17
#Eccl 1:14-15; 7:13-14

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