Repentance and Lament
Frequently as God reveals himself, our response will be like that of Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am ruined” 6:5, (Martin Luther translated it, “I am annihilated”). The more we encounter the holy God in our worship, the more we will recognise our utter sinfulness and be driven to repentance. This, too, is an essential part of our praise.
I have heard pastors disparage such hymn lines as “for such a worm as I”, and I disagree heartily (and “mindedly”!). I need to know that I am a worm — otherwise I will never experience the incredible freedom and immense joy of forgiveness. Our culture’s emphasis on self-esteem confuses us. We forget that a true sense of ourselves begins with the dialectical interplay of God’s infinite grace addressed to our desperate need for it. Then grace sets us free for the most genuine and highest self-esteem.
Some of the best worship gifts are time, silence, and words devoted to repentance within the genuine praise of God. Praise encompassing all of God’s character provides a safe haven within which we can face ourselves and acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, rebellions, and idolatries. This is not possible if God is not the subject and object of our praise. If we focus on ourselves, we don’t have enough of the truth of God to reveal our inadequacy and alienation.
After worshiping with Christians in Ukraine, Henri Nouwen noted the predominantly penitential nature of Eastern spirituality and its deep recognition of human sinfulness. He exclaims,
There is great beauty to this spiritual vision because it shows God’s splendour and grace in the face of human depravity.
The Church in the West has much to learn from our Eastern sisters and brothers, for “the awareness of human sinfulness hardly exists in the West”. My thesis is that we lack such an awareness because we dumb down the truth of God in false efforts to feel better about ourselves. We do not have enough of God — especially the truth of his wrath in the midst of his love — to experience the exhilarating freedom of confessing our sin and the joyous beauty of forgiveness.
Similarly, we need to have enough of God to let us lament. In our present world, in spite of the cultural optimism of the West, we find ourselves facing the realities of loneliness, unemployment, violence, worldwide political and economic chaos, family disruptions, brokenness and suffering, and the fragmentation of postmodern society.
Keeping God as the subject and object of our worship enables us to deal with the darkness by lamenting it, by complaining about it. The psalms give us wonderful tools to move from addressing God with pleas, complaints, petitions, and even imprecations to the surprising outcome in our world.
When in worship we encounter God in all his fullness, our urgent desperation can be turned to gratitude and a sense of wellbeing. We need to learn through Israel’s worship the necessity for laments as well as understand the reasons why contemporary congregations ignore them.
As Walter Bruggemann says:
It is no wonder that that the church has intuitively avoided these psalms. They lead us into a dangerous acknowledgment of how life really is. They lead us into the presence of God where everything is not polite and civil.
I write this as the chief of sinners. The last several years have brought me one health crisis after another — crippling of a leg and hands, hearing and vision losses, frequent wounds that won’t heal intestinal dysfunctions, immunity deficiency, nerve deterioration and cancer. Too easily in the darkness I try to be in control, to manage by exercising enough or taking good care.
But when darkness strikes again, my efforts to control it pervert personal worship and make God too small. I need public worship to bring me a holy and merciful God who shows me my sinfulness and yet offers the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. I need worship that lets me lament and find in that cry God’s caring presence. I need an assembly of people who ask God to be God in their lives and thereby proclaim God’s power, faithfulness, and gracious healing.
To praise God in the midst of suffering or confusion is to declare the ultimate “Nevertheless!” It is to cling to faith in a God of grace despite apparent evidence to the contrary.