by Tom Stuckey.
My latest book Covid-19: God’s Wake-Up Call was published in June 20211. In eighteen short chapters the book takes us from what has been called ‘the old normal’ through ‘abnormality’ into ‘the new normal’. At the centre of the book is a chapter on ‘lament’. It focuses on the liminal period between the old and the new.
I have written many times about an imminent ‘paradigm shift’2 and of the necessity of ‘repentance’ – metanoia. In my last article for Theology Everywhere I acknowledged that this particular word has struck the wrong chord for many Methodists.3
There have been over 150,000 deaths in Britain attributed to Covid-19. Such a statistic takes little account of the anguish of bereavement or the frustration of people. Political attempts to distract us from this harsh reality by trumpeting Britain’s success with the vaccine have now been derailed by news of ‘Party Times’ at No.10.
The lament of David over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1 gives voice to the pain of personal bereavement. In poetry intense and intimate David bares his soul. His grief is expressed publicly as the daughters of Israel are invited to ‘weep over Saul who clothed you with crimson’ (v.24). David’s lament is also ecological because he invites the mountains of Gilboa to share in his pain. ‘Let there be no dew or rain upon you’ (v.21). My new book shows that there is a dynamic relationship between our lament and the groans of the earth.
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he weeps over the city and speaks of its destruction (Lk.19.41-44). Lament is not only corporate, public and ecological, but also political. To politically ignore lament has devastating consequences for the health of a nation. In our contemporary culture where memory has little significance there must be lament ‘lest we forget’. In an act of remembrance by the new President of the US in 2021 on the eve of his inauguration, he acknowledged the thousands who had died from Covid-19. In doing this he was symbolically taking the American people back to their roots for, ‘only memory allows possibility’.4 As justice and righteousness give an ethical grounding for the stability of a nation, so lament and thanksgiving provide the emotional foundation for a healthy community.
The book of Lamentations contemplates the destruction of Jerusalem (BC 587). It gives voice to the magnitude of a nation’s pain. Part of the horror of human suffering is that it is unheard, forgotten or airbrushed out. Lamentations is a summons to ‘listen to the voices of the sufferers in the profusion and confusion of their pain, the bitterness of their protest, their shafts of self condemnation, their brief flashes of hope in the long night of despair, and their plaintive pleading with God just to look and see’.5
The author of Lamentations adds an additional ingredient to lament; namely, personal accountability. He is brutally honest in acknowledging that the people of Jerusalem have contributed to their own destruction. He even includes himself in this indictment, ‘I have rebelled against his word’. Human accountability and the necessity of repentance must not be swept under the carpet.
Anger is a further ingredient of lament. It is present beneath the surface of Lamentations (1.21, 1.7, 1.21, 2.14, 2.16) but finally erupts in chapter 3. ‘Pay them back for their deeds…Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them’ (v.64f). An increasing number of people in Britain are now finding their anger: anger over the death of loved ones; anger at being prevented from being with them at the end; anger at lockdown; anger at those in Government who set the rules but fail to keep them.
There is also anger directed at God. ‘He has driven me and brought me into darkness without light: against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones’ (Lam.3.2-4).
In the New Testament there are 29 references to anger. The anger of Jesus (Mk.3.5), Stephen (Acts 7.51) and Paul (Gal.1.6) is fuelled by their concern for truth and justice. Most Christians today think anger to be a sin. The writer of Ephesians however tells us to ‘be angry but sin not’ (Eph.4.26). In today’s Church we do not ‘do anger’ but we do not ‘do justice’ either! A.V Campell tells us that in banishing anger we have produced a ‘gospel of niceness which often leads to pettiness’.6
Lament in the Bible is not a tombstone but a launch pad. It opens a door to the future. It is God’s motivating vehicle of transformation. Unless fully expressed theologically, practically and emotionally our anticipated new normal will become even more problematic than the old.
1. Tom Stuckey, Covid-19 God’s Wake-Up Call: Angry Bible Reflections in a Pandemic, 2021, Amazon.
2. Tom Stuckey, Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: The Future of the Church in Britain, A Methodist Perspective, 2017, Church in the Market Place, (obtainable from Amazon).
3. Theology Everywhere, 15th June 2020.
4. Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, Fortress, 1986, p.114.
5. Christopher Wright, The Message of Lamentations, 1VP, 2015, p.35.
6. A.V Campell, Gospel of Anger, SPCK, 1986, p.61.
12 thoughts on “Lament”
Thank you for pointing out the idea that anger, although seen now as a sin by some, may actually be a vehicle for justice and truth. Speaking truth to power is, in my opinion, what Christans should do. If we don’t who will? We need to use our anger in a positive way , as the fuel to enable change for all.
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Anger is an important emotion and one we ignore at our peril
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Anger is an ugly emotion and should have no place in our churches. We all feel anger from time to time; it is a natural human reaction when we feel criticised or threatened, but often it is borne out of frustration at not being able to control the thoughts and actions of others. Suppressed anger can poison the soul; expressed anger can poison relationships. There is enough anger on our streets, on TV and on social media, without encouraging it in church. The only safe way to deal with anger is to take it to God in prayer, just as the psalmists did.
Anger is a powerful emotion, which can be very destructive. As Catherine says, “suppressed anger can poison the soul; expressed anger can poison relationships”. It can also even lead to violence. This is the negative and destructive type of anger. A third of our children live in broken homes, much of the damage to relationships caused by anger. 200,000 children don’t see one half of their family, because the resident parent’s resentment prevents them from making the necessary arrangements.
Yet there is also a constructive type of anger – anger at a situation that fuels a willingness to campaign for change. We have seen recent examples of this. The anger of Greta Thunberg and her young supporters at the damage older generations have done and are still doing to the planet has had an impact on governmental policy. The anger of Marcus Rashford at the government’s decision to stop meals for deprived children over the holidays led to a climbdown by the government. The anger of the bereaved families of those who were killed at Hillsborough led to an enquiry that delivered justice.
Much is written in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament, about God’s anger; and in present-day theological statements of beliefs we find references to “divine wrath and judgement”. What kind of anger is that? – Destructive or constructive? When we look at the violent annihilation of Sodom, the ordering of genocide (Deut. 20:16) and the destruction of Jerusalem at the time of the exile and again in AD 70, these look very much like examples of negative anger. That description of God’s destructive anger persists today as a section of the Methodist church talks about God bringing “eternal condemnation to the lost”. They seem to be suggesting that God’s destructive anger against non-Christians persists throughout eternity. How do we envisage that kind of anger co-existing alongside forgiveness and love?
You’ve articulated this so well. We’ve been taught not to express anger- especially not towards God. If we can’t express anger to God, what sort of relationship is it? Thanks for this blog.
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Quite so. It means simply that He is not being ignored, and when one has calmed down He will say, for example, ‘Well, now you’ve got that out of the way how about us having a little chat, and I will explain things.’
But ignoring the heavenly Father makes Him rather annoyed to put it mildly.
At the risk of continuing the anthropomorphic approach. let’s consider a father whose child has left home and never gets in contact. I would think that disappointment and sadness would be far more likely in a loving father than annoyance. But then a loving father would be more concerned about the well-being of the child than his own hurt feelings. We speak of God as a loving father but then talk about him reacting like a medieval monarch who feels that he hasn’t been shown enough deference and respect.
A fair point. However, I am talking about anger of someone towards God, the heavenly Father. But if the heavenly Father tells His children the truth and they ignore Him and are very nasty to other children He has a right to be angry.
It is not about hurt feelings, He doesn’t care about His feelings, except He does feel things very deeply. And this is why He gets angry at injustice.
All fathers need to love and be loved, it is the same with the heavenly Father. The two great commandments talk of love, ‘agape’ in the Greek. This is a jaw-dropping sacrificial love. There is no mention of worship, although part of love is gratitude.
Ungrateful children are not pleasant to live with and need discipline otherwise they turn out to be unpleasant adults.
But at least if someone bitterly complains to the heavenly Father about a perceived injustice, rightly or wrongly, at least a conversation has started, which was my main point.
It seems to me that there is something seriously wrong with associating God with condemnation and wrath. In my experience, in my prayer life and reflecting on the words and actions of Jesus, the love of God for all humanity is, and always has been, unconditional and therefore inclusive and non-judgmental. And being non-judgmental it has absolutely nothing to do with wrath.
1. Jesus did not judge, always forgave. He may have been angry on occasions, but never wrathful.
2. If Jesus had been wrathful the Pharisees might have promoted him to the Sanhedrin, but we would never have heard of him. The unconditional love in his message is inclusive and non-judgmental. It is what makes his message unique.
3. The love of parents for their children is unconditional. Reprimand, point out the error, even punish, but never condemn. How can the love of God be less than that!
4. Wrath implies the condemnation, punishment or retribution given out by a providential God who acts directly in the affairs of humanity, whereas I feel God’s relationship with the earth and people in it is kenotic. It is manifestly obvious that this is the case otherwise He would have saved the lives of the 6 million people Hitler murdered in WW2. The earth is freely given to us and we have free will, that is Grace. It is our duty to care for the earth and the people in it.
5. Alternatively we could assume God motivates the anger we feel at injustice, and expects us to withhold forgiveness, get our own back – in fact be wrathful. But this contradicts the second great commandment, in fact it is loveless.
6. God has placed the obligation “written on our hearts” that we care for each other and work for justice and fairness. Why would He need to back that up with threats of wrath, condemnation and punishment?
7. To tell people that they are unacceptable to God because they are sinners in need of repentance is judgement and condemnation. It is detrimental to human flourishing and can lead to mental illness. To demand, or encourage, people to live life with this constant guilt and fear is abuse.
For myself I follow Jesus and his gospel of unconditional love and find that this brings forgiveness for my past errors, courage to face the obligations of each day and hope for the future. This ethical spirituality has nothing to do with wrath, condemnation and judgment.
“The biggest task is to combat indifference” – Auschwitz Museum Director said on the eve of the 77th anniversary of The Holocaust last week. Surely one of the most important tasks of a Christian is to highlight injustice and wherever possible to do something about it. This must involve anger with the status quo. The thing that always encourages me in my Christian walk is to know that Christ was prepared to get angry on behalf of others but never on behalf of himself. As a 79year who has always worshipped in a Methodist Church the words of Piotr Cywinski, the Director of the Auschwitz Museum resonate with me. Piotr has spent a lot of time pondering a question that has exercised historians, philosophers and politicians ever since the end of the second world war. ‘What lessons should we draw from one of the darkest pages in human history, the organised mass killing at Auschwitz?’
Cywinski, a 49year old Polish historian, has been a director of the Auschwitz Museum since 2006. His office is housed in a former hospital and pharmacy built for the SS guards and his windows look out over a crematorium and gas chamber.
“You can massacre tens of thousands of Rohingya, you can put 1.5million Uyghurs in camps, in Yemen people are suffering because they do not have anything to eat and we don’t feel concerned in our world,” he said.
Cywinski said that while the events of The Holocaust could not be compared to the present day “the silence of bystanders” is a topic he wants visitors to the Museum to think about and apply to their own lives.
Surely as Christians we are meant to get angry and to do our best to bring about justice wherever we can rather than just pray and sing a favourite hymn of Methodists – ‘Make me a channel of your peace’ and just blandly singing the second line of the chorus ‘All I have needed Thy hand hath provided’ without us realising our responsibility to ensure more people in this God’s One World can honestly sing it.
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I agree that both lament and anger, and even a combination of the two do have a place in our life as a church, how else do we speak truth to power, how else do we stand up to injustice. Some have called this an ugly emotion, others have commented it has no place in our church, I beg to differ, Jesus was not afraid of his emotions, he expressed, lament and anger. I suspect what we need to do is examine our anger, asking if it is justified, to examine our lament, is it self centered, of course we get stuff wrong, but we must engage with the fullness of our emotions, suppressed anger and denied lament are deeply unhelpful to both ourselves and to the proclamation of the gospel.
As for anger against God, my experience is that by expressing it I found peace, one particular occasion was when my son was in ICU after cardiac surgery, everything seemed to be going wrong, one day the consultants came to me with a request to carry out a further procedure, I had to get off the ward, I went down stairs and literally threw my Bible, asking God where he was. I was met by peace, I needed to express my anger and frustration and I was met there, able to compose myself I went back to the ward. I met the God who understood!