Is Lament a New Testament Practice? I Think Not
2 Corinthians 1
Reading this chapter today helped to crystalize my growing discomfort with the language of lament as I hear it being deployed in many Christian circles. Job laments. Job suffers and sees no reason or purpose in his suffering, so he laments. The Psalms often lament, crying out to God and accusing Him of abandonment. This is the sort of lament that seems to be affirmed in many conversations that I hear today: we bring our sense of God’s unfairness and inexplicable abandonment of us into our times of worship because it’s right and appropriate for us to feel those things. I just don’t think that makes sense from a New Testament vantage point. Of course, if I feel those things, I need to express them to God, and then He will correct me and tell me how I am mistaken. But what I hear is people advocating lament, making a point of having a place in the worship service for this sort of complaining against God, as if that’s a necessary and good part of worship.
Paul does not lament in this way. He knows all about suffering, and he talks about his suffering openly, but he also understands that suffering must come to him because he follows a suffering Savior. There’s nothing inexplicable, surprising, or unfair about it. “Just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (1:5). Unlike Job, Paul experiences consolation alongside suffering, as suffering’s natural companion. Paul even names God the Father as “the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (1:3-4). The suffering unites us to Christ, and therefore it brings consolation along with it, because union with Christ is consoling.
Paul recounts a time when he and those with him believed that they were going to die as a result of persecution. He says, “We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (1:8-9). They “despaired” of life, i.e., they believed they were going to die. But they not despair about God’s care for them. In fact, in the midst of this desperate situation, they saw a purpose to their suffering: that they would be forced to rely on God rather than on themselves. And even in the midst of this desperate situation, they retained a confident hope in the resurrection. There’s no indication at all that Paul ever came to God in a posture of accusation or entitlement or complaint.
The conclusion of this chapter is an affirmation that in Jesus “it is always ‘Yes.’ For in Him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’” (1:19-20). Even while recounting his sufferings, Paul is hearing God’s yes to him. This yes allows Paul to reply with a similar yes, to offer “the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God” (1:20). As I read this, Paul is not just saying yes to God being glorious, but rather Paul is saying yes to all that God does or allows, including all Paul’s own suffering, offering that suffering to God’s glory. (I think this is very similar to Jonathan Edwards’ idea of ‘consent,’ but that’s for another time.)
Later in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about “a thorn” that was “given” him “in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (12:7). The context is that he has been speaking about having been caught up into heaven. Even here, I would not characterize Paul’s attitude as lament. He sees that the source of this thorn is not God but Satan, understanding that he is caught up in a spiritual war. He has a great advantage over Job in this, since he knows what is going on in the world in a way that Job could not. Paul also understands that God is sovereign over his suffering, that Satan could not torment him if God did not allow it, so he feels free to petition God repeatedly for healing, even while acknowledging that the suffering has a purpose: to keep him from being “too elated.” And, of course, he receives a very clear response from God about why the suffering continues: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). Paul offers that comfort to us as something that applies more widely, not just to his specific situation and not just to him. We should hear this verse as applying to our sufferings as well. Paul’s response to God’s refusal of healing and to God’s affirmation of the perfecting nature of weakness is not lament. Rather, he affirms, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).