The Friday Voice of Faith: A serious theology of the cross requires a serious practice of the lament psalms

In spite of their poignancy and availability, the lament psalms are not much used. If you look in the back of the hymnals of most major Protestant denominations, you will find perhaps Psalm 1, then skip to 8 and 19 and perhaps 22. Even when lament psalms are included, they are not sung much. In Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant usage, most of the lament psalms simply do not exist. (Anglicans use the lament psalms, but set them to such wonderful music that you don't notice what is being said!)

By not using these psalms, we have given people two messages: either you mustn't feel "that" way (angry with God, for example) or, if you feel "that" way, you must do something about it somewhere else—but not here.

When Lament Psalms Are Ignored

Three practical realities follow from not using lament psalms. First, an Enlightenment consciousness exists that does not want to acknowledge the deep irrationality of the human process, that does not want to think that human need and anger are as persistent and profound as they actually are. Modern churches, liberal or conservative, eliminate such speech by turning expressions of rage and pain into guilt. By transposing anger into guilt, we know what to do with it. I want to insist, however, that on the whole, lament psalms do not host guilt.

Second—and this is the "rub point"—I believe that such a romantic view of human reality fits nicely with a kind of theological scholasticism that does not want to speak or think of God as a party at risk. If God is completely above the fray, then the poems of anger and rage must be transposed into prayers of respectful petition. This is finally a question of how "Jewish" our Christian faith is. I'll say more about this later.

Third, scholar Claus Westermann (see box) has suggested that Jewish spirituality is essentially a practice of vigorous protest, whereas Christian spirituality is more marked by submissive humility and docility. Such docility assumes that God is always in the right, an assumption the lament psalms do not easily accept.

I think there are acute theological problems in this contrast of protest and submissiveness. Aside from the theological issues, however, our culture now recognizes that excessive submissiveness is unhealthy. It is my impression that in many congregations a kind of dominant piety continues in the sanctuary while, in the basement, somebody's doing pastoral care—but these two functions don't connect. That's a problem that we must address.

Accordingly, if we are to recover the practical use of the lament psalms, we will have to think more carefully about honoring the deep irrationality and vitality that refuse excessive guilt. We will also have to entertain the daring procedure of putting God at risk-—that is, entertain the notion that God is culpable for the circumstances we face in this world.

Finally to recover these psalms, we will have to entertain a spirituality of vigorous protest that is prepared to break through passive conventional piety and, so to speak, go on the attack. Coming out of my own pietistic tradition, I have found these enormously difficult things to try to get my head around, let alone my body.

Interacting with God

In his book Real Presences, George Steiner, an extraordinary Jewish literary critic, says it is Hebraic intuition that God is capable of all speech acts except monologue. After the book of Job, Steiner asserts, "if man was to bear his being," there had to be the means of dialogue with God that are spelled out in our poetry, music, and art. Steiner makes a case for the arts as acts of response to God. Before this, however, Steiner states that Hebraic intuition is incapable of monologue—that it must use conversation, dialogue, and relational communication in which God is fully invested.

This claim that dialogue is essential in Old Testament faith cannot be overstated. The core claim of the lament psalms, I suggest, is that in these poems, Israel holds up its side of the conversation, which is necessary if God is to be known by the Israelites.

In one of his books, Hans TJrs von Balthasar, the great Roman Catholic theologian, has observed that in 1918 there occurred "one of the strangest phenomena of acausal contemporaneity in the history of intellect." Four scholars, he says, without consultation with each other, all wrote on the dialogical principle of reality (what I am calling interactionism). They were Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Rosenzweig, and Ferdinand Ebn-er. As Europe collapsed, all these men started writing about I-Thou. All four argued that the human person is not an isolated I but is always a person in relation.

It is easy enough, after reading Buber, to affirm that we depend on the Thou-ness of God for our I-ness. That is beyond dispute. It seems to me, however, that this principle of interactionism (that's the term I use for I-Thou) involves some very profound evangelical questions. How must the "I" be positioned in front of the "Thou" in order to be a full self? (So much for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.) Is it thinkable, in Israelite scripting of reality that Israel becomes a Thou upon whom the I-ness of God depends and from whom God's I-ness is derived?

I don't really want to say things like that, but the lament psalms seem to do so. One might argue that when the lament psalms talk mat way they're using regressive speech, not responsible theological speech. The point of Giinkeis analysis (see box on p. 3), however, is that this community has a stylized way in which to say such regressive things.

The issue, of course, is whether to push the notion of commensurateness in the dialogical principle so far that it violates our conventional categories. One of the enduring questions of the lament psalms is this: How seriously should we take their daring affirmation that God somehow depends upon Israel for God's God-ness? My impression is that Israel pushes this symmetry very far. It is that pushing that makes the lament psalms so poignant and so problematic, and that evokes in Israel a very different sense of faith and a very different notion of what it means to be a healthy self.

A Psychological Analogue

Recognizing the limitation of such arguments, I'm still going to pursue an analogue as a way of talking about Object Relations theory. Arising out of the thought of Sigmund Freud, who is profoundly Jewish, this personality theory says that what goes on in people's heads or guts, in fact, goes on also "out there" with a real objective other.

D.W. Winnicott, an important British pediatrician, watched a lot of babies with their mothers. His programmatic thesis is that a baby needs a good-enough mother, not a perfect mother. A good-enough mother is the one who can get her mind off herself so as to give herself over to the baby. Most mothers do that intuitively. They adore every smile and every... everything. Every mother (and father) acts as if no one has ever had a baby before.

This transaction with mother during the first two weeks of a baby's life, says Winnicott, is, for the baby, an experience of omnipotence. The baby's I is in charge, and the mother lets the baby experience being in charge. Winnicott hypothesizes that if a baby does not have such a primal experience of omnipotence, it will figure out very soon—within a month— that it's got to fake it with mother to get what it wants. It's got to pretend it's happy when it's not and smile to please mother when it doesn't feel like smiling. Within about three months, the baby becomes "a false self." The baby's real inclinations are kept hidden from the mother, and very soon, hidden from the baby itself.

I take that analogue to say that a maturing self must be free to assert itself and to expect a friendly response from the real objective other. I propose that the lament psalm is the assertion of a self that expects a friendly response from God, so that the speaker in the lament psalm has a momentary experience of omnipotence. You can readily see why that doesn't work in a spirituality that is concerned with docility humility and deference.

I hypothesize that with the loss of the lament psalm, the church has not permitted people to have this experience of omnipotence. It follows that without this theological, liturgical experience, the church is peopled, by and large, with false selves. This, in turn, produces the terrifying moralism that is now driving North American society.

That's a lot to add on. I do this, however, to make the case that the health of our society, in great measure, depends upon what the church does in its worship—whether in worship we are evangelically required to have some voice over against God. The message of the lament psalms is that God is inclined to participate in such a transaction.

I propose, therefore, that recovering the lament psalms is important pastoral-ly so that false selves, who were early blocked by not-good-enough mothers or fathers, can be reparented into authentic selves. That's a kind of a psychological analogue. But psychology, in this case, is simply our way of trying to talk about what is, in fact, a liturgical enterprise. Good pastoral care, one-on-one therapy, is essentially a liturgical transaction.

I want to mention one other book that I have found extraordinarily helpful. Rudolph Schaffer, a personality theorist, wrote a book called Retelling a Life (1992). For Schaffer, a whole person is one who acts—in other words, an agent. A whole person acts knowingly, without profound reservation about the fact of acting, and so acts with presence and personal authority and without anxiously introducing serious disclaimers.

In a relationship, there cannot be only one whole person. To guarantee the personal wholeness of the other, each individual must allow the other individual to act. A whole person allows for reversibility in a relatively conflict-free fashion. Accordingly, in a healthy sexual relationship, an individual has to be an agent and be free to take initiatives, but the same individual must also be the receiver and let the other person be free to take initiatives. Schaffer is talking about commensurate relationships.

I propose that in the believer's relationship to Yahweh, as expressed in the hymns of ancient Israel, Yahweh is the agent. With great celebrative exuberance, Israel is glad to have Yahweh be the agent. The amazing thing in the lament psalms, however, is that the relationship is reversed—the human speaker becomes the agent and is willing to take initiative and authority without anxiously introducing serious disclaimers.

I am suggesting that in the worship of ancient Israel, liturgic speech does allow for the reversibility of roles. My sense about the church is that we're a whole lot better about hymns than we are about complaints. But if one always does hymns and never laments, in my view, one does not have any serious interaction.

A Few Theological Reflections

Pain or Guilt?

The classic practice of the church is to turn pain into guilt. In deference to the God who is perfect, we have assumed that if something is wrong, it must be our fault. Of course, sometimes it is our fault; that cannot be denied and must be confessed.

The seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6,32,38,51,102,130,143) that link pain to guilt are mostly well-known and enormously important. Psalm 51 is best known, but Psalm 32 seems to me to be the most extraordinarily insightful. The psalmist's statement, "While I kept silent about my transgression, my body wasted away" shows an understanding of the psychosomatic effect of guilt. "But then I acknowledged my sin and I did not hide and you forgave me." That's terribly powerful.

I want to insist, however, that the penitential psalms are only a small subset of the lament psalms, the majority of which refuse the reduction of pain to guilt. I believe that the church has to think a lot about that.

The Forsaken One

It is obvious that the psalms have been interpreted Christologically In his Theology of the Psalms, Hans-Joachim Kraus has identified five psalms that are much used in New Testament proclamation. Two of these, Psalm 22 and Psalm 69, are lament psalms. Kraus takes these New Testament quotes of the psalms not as theological ploys or as imposed, artificial proofs, but rather as "unforgettable remembrances of genuine utterances. The terrifying lament of one who has been forsaken by God." In other words, the use of the lament psalms is serious business in the New Testament. That means, in turn, that, unlike most contemporary Christians, the gospel writers could entertain the necessity of an assault upon God for absence and infidelity.

In The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann says that Psalm 22 is the voice of the God-forsakenness of the Son, and that the Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father. So Christologically, Kraus and Moltmann— and many others—are making the case that you cannot have a serious theology of the cross without a serious practice of the lament psalms. The church that finds the lament psalms awkward will be engaged willy-nilly in a theology of glory.

Human Rights

The lament psalms also show, as a normative faith practice, the readiness of the believing community and believing selves to assert their rightful claim-even in the face of God—to insist upon the legitimacy of just relations, and to entertain the thought that the failure of justice may be God's failure. This is a voice of legitimate self-concern that dares to challenge the adequacy of God's God-ness and speaks without deference or self-diminishment.

I want to leave that there, adding simply that there is something very Jewish in the lament psalms that the church has to recover. Paul Ricoeur says that the Jewish way of speaking faith understands that reality is dialogical. In that dialogi-cal situation, Israel cries out, threatens, orders, groans, and exults not only as an act of sin—sometimes it is—but also as an act of fidelity.

Why Today's Church Needs the Lament Psalms

I believe that we are now thinking about the lament psalms because two things are happening among us. First, many people feel that their world is collapsing because white male hegemony is finished. Both conservatives and liberals are scared. And it is precisely in such a situation, in which the traditional, conventional world is falling apart, that the lament psalms are the right speech. (Maybe there was a long Constantinian time when the church didn't need these poems, but it is no longer so.)

The other reason the lament psalms are so important now is that a lot of heretofore silenced people are finding their voice. When that happens, these silenced people tend to speak in troublesome ways. I'm haunted by the remembrance of God saying to Job, "Tell your three friends to clam up because they are so boring I am not going to listen to them anymore. But you, Job, if you speak for them, I will listen, because you're my kind of guy" (Job 42:7-8).

I believe the lament psalms are the "Friday" voice of our faith. Everybody knows that the important stuff happened on Friday and we are at a moment when the Friday voice of faith is again having its say.


Walter Bmeggemann has contributed much to research on the psalms, including Israel's Praise (1988) and Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity and the Making of History (1991). Follozving are some of his reflections on five other scholars, all German, which is in itself interesting. His reflections provide an important backdrop for the accompanying article on lament psalms.

The fact that scholarship on the lament psalms has exploded since 1965 or thereabouts is one indication that Western society is increasingly in profound trouble. To respond to that trouble, we need different modes of faith. Research questions really do arise out of the world in which scholars have to do their work, and are a kind of comment about the place in which God has put them and in which they must be faithful. I will mention five German scholars who have contributed to our understanding of the lament psalms.

Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932)

Gunkel shaped all psalm study with his work on genre and form criticism. He distinguished four basic types of psalms: hymn, song of thanksgiving, individual lament, and communal lament. Gunkel understood that communities of speech develop scripts and habits for shaping the world. Form criticism, therefore, is essentially the claim of the community that "this" genre (the lament psalms, in this instance) is how we talk in "this" (lamentable) circumstance. People inside the community need instruction in how to talk in a given circumstance. That's what a genre does.

Hans Schmidt (1877-1953)

In 1929, Hans Schmidt wrote a little book on complaint psalms in which he proposed that these psalms use essentially juridical language—language used in a trial or using the trial as a metaphor. Most importantly, Schmidt saw that the psalms of lament are the voice of the innocent—not the voice of the guilty. This is very important for those of us who want to talk about Christian theology in terms of justification, because justification is our way of talking about acquittal.

Clous Westermann

More recently, Claus Westermann, the most important figure in contemporary research on the lament psalms, addressed the place and purpose of these psalms in his programmatic book The Praise of God in Psalms (the new edition is entitled Pmise mid Lament in the Psalms). Westermann developed his ideas on the lament psalms while he was a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, where he had no books except the Bible. I take it as important that he was able to see, precisely while he was in prison, that the psalms of lament move from what he calls plea (lament or petition) to praise. The lament psalms characteristically culminate in joy, praise, well-being, and an offering. For Westermann this was not a literary matter, but a profoundly theological matter in which the world of the speaker is indeed decisively changed.

Westermann was preoccupied with the question, "How is it and what happens that causes the psalm to move from trouble to resolution?" Whatever literary explanation one may give, the theological point is clearly evangelical. Furthermore, it seems clear to me that the structure of "plea/praise," when taken theologically and Christological-ly, correlates with the Friday and Sunday of Christian faith. Therefore I should imagine that it is precisely this psalm lament genre that has given Christian faith its liturgical pattern of crucifixion and resurrection. One obvious implication is that the loss of the lament psalm in the worship life of the church is essentially the loss of a theology of the cross.

Erhard Gerstenberger

Gerstenberger, a student of Westermann, carried the discussion further. He entitled his 1970 post-doctoral dissertation Der Bittende Mensch (The Petitioning Man), and followed this in 1971 with a brief article entitled "Der Klagende Mensch" (The Complaining Man).

Gerstenberger argues that the practice of petition and complaint belongs not only to Israel's faith; it is a part of what it means to be human. Furthermore, he maintains that the individual laments do not take place in the temple but rather in small communities of lay elders who gather in something like "house churches" to conduct rituals of rehabilitation. In other words, the village was equipped to help people through their trouble and their rage. I see this as an anticipation of our pastoral care movement. Finally, Gerstenberger says, the complaints are not acts of unfaith but acts of profound hope. The psalmists insist that in the world where God governs, something specific is not right, cannot persist, and must be changed. It will be changed if God can be mobilized.

Rainier Albertz

In 1978, Albertz, a close colleague of Gerstenberger and also a student of Westermann, wrote an important book on personal piety and official religion. He argues that all over the ancient Near East there were really two kinds of religion: a formal, establishment temple religion and a family-based religion that counted heavily on the intimacy of God.

Albertz goes on to argue that it was particularly in ancient Israel mat these two religions were brought together into one synthetic whole. The lament psalms and the songs of thanksgiving, however, represent a dimension of trust and intimacy. The lament psalms, then, are indeed a conversation between friends.


Reformed Worship 30 © December 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.