Lament as Apologetic for Christianity

Douglas Groothuis
Wednesday, October 14th 2020

The problem of evil poses a formidable challenge to the rationality of the Christian worldview. I have argued elsewhere that these challenges can be overcome given (1) the overall strength of Christian theism—given a cumulative case argument—and (2) the logical inadequacies of alternative worldviews to explain good and evil. Here, I take up another side of the matter of suffering by asking the question, “What worldview gives us the best resources for suffering well?” I begin with a story, my story.

While lecturing to a class of undergraduates about the nature and history of Christianity at a secular institution in 2016, a skeptical student asked me the toughest question about Christianity. How could I believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world that God could have alleviated or prevented? I summarized my apologetic relation to the problem of evil, which is a version of the greater good defense. I then spoke of the pastoral or existential problem of suffering: How can we live through this with hope? As I began to speak, arms folded in inattention unfolded, darting eyes looked into mine. It got quiet. I said this:

I feel this myself. You see, my wife, who is only sixty-one, has dementia. She was a writer and editor. She edited every one of my eleven books. Now she cannot read or write or edit. She will die of her disease, which will only get worse. We suffer through this knowing that suffering has meaning because Jesus Christ suffered the worst death possible on the cross and cried out, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” In that suffering was the redemption of the world. Therefore, our suffering has meaning, since we are followers of Jesus. We also look forward to restoration in the afterlife. Recently, my wife and I went out to dinner. I proposed a toast: “To the afterlife.”

At this, a young woman sitting in the front emitted the sound of care and lament, which I can only inadequately put as aww. Not the aww emitted after seeing a cute puppy, but the sound of being moved in sadness and hope and empathy. Her eyes were sad, but not dark—wide open and wondering just what to make of my response.

My confession was existentially engaging, it seemed, but it was also apologetically significant. I had briefly given my philosophical response to the problem of evil. Thus, I gave an intellectual context for my personal report. But my response was my lived lament according to my worldview—however imperfectly it has been thought out or lived. My confession and testimony offered, I believe, an apologetic for Christianity—one of many reasons for thinking it is true and meaningful. In Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament, I narrate and reflect on this sad but meaningful journey, which ended for my wife in 2018.[1]

Christianity is a worldview to understand, a creed to confess, the way of true worship, and a Christ-filled journey for life and death. It is a compellingly rational system of thought and one that gives existential meaning to all of life, suffering included. I have never come across anything like the religion of Jesus, the Christ. Yes, there are other monotheistic worldviews—Judaism and Islam, but they lack the suffering divine servant of biblical religion as their object of worship. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoist, and other religions offer sages, but no suffering saviors.[2] Jesus brings us redemption, joy, eternal life—and cruciform suffering.

Suffering strikes both soul and body, leaving the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the religious and the secular, all gasping for breath, sheading hot tears, and clawing for truth that will console and strengthen. Escape from all suffering is impossible, but coping is necessary. Mere mortals—east of Eden and under the sun—suffer as they ponder and ponder as they suffer. Given the universality and tenacity of our tears, curses, and cries, any philosophy of life worth believing must explain why we are “born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7, KJV). Every religion and worldview tried to unravel the enigma, but those shaped by the Bible, Christian tradition, spiritual community and the Holy Spirit can offer an incarnate, uniquely compelling apologetic for their faith based on lament.

Apologetics is the rational defense of Christianity as objectively true, rationally convincing, and existentially pertinent to the whole of life under the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ. It is rooted in Scripture, church history, and is practiced by a growing number of advocates, both in the academy (especially philosophy)[3] and in more popular circles. Several seminaries offer degrees in apologetics, including my own. We are not lacking intellectual advocates for the Christian worldview. But one argument is often lacking—the apologetic of lived lament, the uniquely Christian response to suffering. Before fleshing out this apologetic, let us consider the nature of biblical lament.

What is Lament?

Walter Bruggeman insists that the biblical literature of lament has been neglected and should be recovered and practiced.[4] The writes of the “psalms of disorientation,” which reveal the psalmist’s viscera, which is roiling with anger, pained yearning, and bitter disappointment.[5] In Hurting with God, Glenn Pemberton argues that sixty of the Psalms are lament psalms, although these psalms may differ in their emphases.[6] Pemberton, who suffers from chronic pain, also laments that lack of lament in the worship of most evangelical churches.[7]

Both writers contend that these Psalms are food for the suffering soul and ought to be brought back into the church’s liturgy and into the moment-by-moment awareness of the followers of Jesus Christ, the man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). Nearly every book of Holy Scripture gives lament a voice. Jeremiah knew it well. Lament was on the parched lips of Jesus in his final moments of suffering on the cross when he cried, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” (Mathew 27:46). Jesus was praying from Psalm 22, a visceral Psalm of lament.

In The Spirituals and the Blues, James Cone argues that the laments found in the spirituals and in blues music not only bewailed present injustice and found consolation in the afterlife, but also brought heaven to earth for the sake of truth and justice.[8] The spiritual “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child,” which I quote in part, is credited as having been written J. R. Johnson in 1926, but may date before that. Despite it being written after slavery, it certainly expresses the sentiments of lamenting slaves through its use of simple repetition:

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long ways from home
A long ways from home
True believer
A long ways from home
A long ways from home.

For the full force of this lament, listen to the versions by African-American singer, Kathleen Battle, or that of the late Marion Anderson, the contralto, whose prodigious gifts opened doors previously closed to black performers.

Lament diverges from common complaints and especially from shrill peevishness, which results when the inconsequential becomes the unbearable on account of selfishness. A mother complains when her ten-year old comes home late for dinner, does not want to wash up, and fails to thank her for making his meal. She laments at her son’s funeral. Complaint expresses disappointment or discomfort. Lament expresses desolation or despair over our world of woe.

Humans lament. They also sing, play saxophone, design computers, and write legislation. Some perform these tasks much better than others, because these activities require skills fitting their performance. While we struggle to avoid suffering and its ensuing laments, lamenting requires skill just as much as does writing a sonnet. Poets need mentors and poems to emulate. Those who lament need the same. But not all mentors are wise and not all poems are good. Some philosophies of life teach us how to lament with virtue. Some souls suffer better than others. Christians should lament within the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. As such, their skills in lament provide apologetic power. I understand lament as:

The anguished cry of sorrow, grief, and often anger made before God and (sometimes) with hope of resolution. It is caused by the loss of a something good or by the fear of the loss of a good thing, such as health or a loving relationship. One may lament over oneself, others, or the creation itself.

How does lament work according to Christianity?

God blessed the cosmos as good, but reserved the appellation “very good,” for those made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:27), those deigned to represent their Creator as moral agents and culture makers. Only those who are exquisitely gifted can become horrifically warped, and this is the second act of the story: the fall through the entrance of sin (Genesis 3). We are all damaged goods, which is the price of rebellion against God. As flawed masterpieces—great and miserable, as Pascal said—we are both victims and victimizers. The wound goes deep. As the Apostle Paul wrote:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Romans 8:22-23

Of all worldviews (religious or not), only Christianity explains life by its original divinely created goodness, the human tragedy of sin, and God’s redemptive actions, which culminate in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. All worldviews address the nature of the universe, human nature, and consider human problems in some way, but the Bible is unique in its three-fold, narrative metaphysics. And it is this uniqueness that provides the best resources for suffering well, and therefore a further testimony to the truth of the Christian faith.

Douglas Groothuis is the Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, Evangelical Philosophical Society, and Society of Christian Philosophers, and an author of numerous books, including Christian Apologetics.

[1] For two other philosopher’s laments, see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son and William Abraham, Among the Ashes: On Death, Greif, and Hope.

[2] See Kenneth Samples, Jesus Among Sages: Why Jesus is not just another Religious Leader.

[3] Philosophers Who Believe reports the religious convictions of some leading philosophers, some of whom offer rational reasons for their convictions.

[4] Walter Bruggeman, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” JSOT (1986), 57-71.

[5] Walter Bruggeman, The Spirituality of the Psalms, 25-45.

[6] Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God: Learning to Lament With the Psalms. Pemberton carefully evaluates these psalms, pointing out various kinds of lament and how the elements of lament are woven into other literary aspects of the Psalms.

[7] Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God. His argument on this point is not merely anecdotal but supported in research concerning hymns and gospel songs.

[8] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues; See also Howard Thurman, Deep River: The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.

Blog Banner Image: Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1630). Photograph by Dennis Jarvis, taken September 21, 2013. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-SA 2.0}}, resized by MR.

Wednesday, October 14th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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