Absence of lament in worship leads to spiritual stagnation

“By the Waters of Babylon,” a pre-Raphaelite oil painting (1882-83) based on Psalm 137. (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

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Public worship that fails to include lament leads to spiritual stagnation and spiritually anemic believers, an Old Testament scholar told a crowd at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

Bill Bellinger

“When we do not have lament as part of the worship of the church, we do not model for people growth in their relationship with God. The absence of struggle in that relationship guarantees only stagnation,” said William H. Bellinger, who holds the W. Marshall and Lulie Craig Chair in Bible at Baylor University.

Bellinger, professor of Hebrew Bible and chair of the religion department at Baylor, presented the W.C. Dobbs Endowed Lecture in applied Christianity, speaking on the book of Psalms as “A School of Prayer.”

“In the Psalter, we learn how to pray, even when we are so low that it seems impossible,” he said, describing laments that address God during a crisis and plead for help as “the backbone of the Psalter.”

“The most striking thing about the schooling in prayer in these texts is the model of the honest dialogue of faith,” Bellinger said. “The prayer here is realistic. They pray of life as it is, not an idealistic life as it is supposed to be.”

When faced with difficulty, ancient Israel “addressed God and struggled with God” as a worshipping community, he stressed.

“These most personal of biblical prayers clearly are public prayers,” he said. “I often think we mistakenly equate the personal with the private. These personally and communally powerful prayers are part of the community’s vibrant worship.”

Intimate language of relationship

In psalms of lament, Israel not only pleaded with God to notice their affliction and set matters right, but also appealed to God to honor his covenant with them, Bellinger said. Some laments even dared to accuse God of “defaulting on the divine covenant responsibilities,” he observed.

“The language of these psalms may at times seem extreme, but it is language without filters because it is the intimate language of prayer in the covenant relationship with God,” he said.

Psalms of lament record the brutally honest prayers of a people who felt a close relationship with God, he said.

“The psalms are interested in a process of moving to renewed and cleansed life and suggest that believers must go through these hard feelings in order to get to that point,” Bellinger said. “Honesty and prayer are essential in that process, for these prayers address the One who can actually deal with the issue.

“Such direct and honest and bluntly intimate prayer language makes it possible to work through such realities of evil and opposition so that it does not fester and cause us considerable spiritual dis-ease.”

The brutal language of some laments—particularly imprecatory psalms that urge God to avenge the wrongs committed against Israel—may appear shocking to modern readers, but Bellinger asserted they actually are healthy statements of faith in a God who is capable of dealing with life’s harsh reality.

“These saints of old are intimately in love with God and intimately dependent upon God and saying that in just about as passionate and honest a way as is humanly possible,” he said.

The psalms provide a way for the worshipping community to deal with injustice and “take it to the Lord” in prayer, he noted.

‘Raw and utterly honest’

“We live in a culture that seeks to deny pain and death. The psalms, in contrast, saw long before there were therapists that the way to hope is through fear; the way to real joy is through depression; the way to loving one’s enemies is through hostility—not around these realities but through them,” Bellinger said.

“Denial leads to holding grudges, fear and festering wounds. That is not faith. Rather, speaking boldly to the One who can act, asking God to embrace pain—that is the vision of faith in these texts.”

Ancient Israel understood God accepts “raw and utterly honest prayers,” he said.

“These psalms constitute an anguished insistence that leads to honest, passionate hope that will not relent,” Bellinger said.

While modern believers find it difficult enough to reach that level of honest communication with God in their private devotions, faith communities find it even more difficult to incorporate lament into their public worship, he noted.

However, when churches fail to include lament in worship, their “dishonest, painless prayers guarantee the status quo,” he asserted.

“We have no way of calling for God to transform the world, to bring the gospel to reality,” Bellinger said. “How spiritually anemic of us, we of little faith! One of my great fears is that we miss this intimate and troubling language in the prayers of our relationship with God, and we never really encounter God at the deepest level.”

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