Liturgy and Lament

JUNE/JULY 2012: INSIDE OUT

by Nicholas Wolterstorff

“In all their affliction, he was afflicted.”
Isaiah 63:9

As we human beings travel through life we experience pain and suffering–in part our own, in part that of others. Some of this pain and suffering is noninnocent suffering; it is punishment for, or the consequence of, moral evil. But not all of it is that. The suffering of the Israelites in the brickyards of Egypt was not the consequence of their sin, nor was the suffering of the Jews in the camps of Auschwitz. Some of the suffering of our world even resists our seeing it as the counterpart of anyone’s sin–the accidental death of a child, for example.

My question now is this: How does the believer experience such suffering? We saw that the believer apprehends the goods of the world as a gift, the wondrousness of the world as a glorious work, the moral evil of the world as disobedience. Is there any counterpart in the believer’s experience of the suffering of the world? Is the suffering of the world also some sort of epiphany of God? Or is our experience of suffering just separate from our experience of God?

Some believers experience some of humanity’s suffering, perhaps some experience all of it, as the anger of God. The Old Testament Book of Laments closes with this cry of total desolation before the Almighty:

Restore us to thyself, O LORD, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old!
Or hast thou utterly rejected us?
Art thou exceedingly angry with us?

Other believers–I think mainly those who have not themselves suffered much–say that suffering is to be apprehended as one of the gifts of God. And yet others testify that what they experience in suffering is the absence of God, the abandonment of God. What the secularist sees just as unmerited suffering, they experience as God’s mysterious and painful abandonment.

There is yet another possibility, a possibility rarely grasped in the Christian tradition and seldom grasped in the tradition of rabbinic Judaism, but present in the Bible. Nowhere has it been better expressed than in Isaiah 63, verse 9. Speaking of Israel and of God the writer says: “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” In our afflictions, God is afflicted. Over our suffering, God suffers. Over our mourning, God mourns. Over our weeping, God weeps. I suggest that what the believer sees in beholding the suffering of the world–the thought makes us tremble, I admit–is no less than the suffering of God. What the believer sees when beholding the rabbi from Nazareth on the cross is not only human blood from sword and thorn and nail, but the tears of God over the wounds of the world.

So the suffering of the world is also an epiphany of God–sometimes of the anger of God and sometimes of the gift of God, but always, I suggest, of the suffering of God. The God who has covenanted himself to humanity suffers over our suffering. The suffering of the world is not to be experienced as just other than God but as the suffering of God. To this epiphany, how else can we respond than with lament and intercession, crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long? Deliver yourself, and us your children.”

As you and I leave our places of dispersion and travel to our assemblies, we carry with us our experiences of the suffering of ourselves and of the world. But most of us do not experience God in this suffering. Most of us do not see it as an epiphany of God. And so, though we bring our experience of suffering to our assemblies, we do not know what to do with it there. Though praise and confession play large roles in our liturgies, lament plays only a minor role. We skip over those desperate psalms and songs of lament from ancient Israel. And our intercessions, which ought to be grounded in sorrow over the sorrow of the world, give voice at best to muffled cries of pain. The lament, “How long, O Lord?” is scarcely heard. Though we bring our tears of pain with us to worship, we don’t know how to cry them there. Tears in the assembly are regarded as liturgical failure. I suggest instead that a liturgy without tears is a failure. We must find a place for lament.

Of course, if the liturgy is to be authentic we must also genuinely experience the world as gift and glorious work of God and feel the joy of gratitude; otherwise the songs of praise are mere sounds. We must genuinely experience the world as disobedient to God and feel the regret of repentance; otherwise the gestures of repentance are mere gestures. And we must genuinely experience the world as the suffering of God and feel the agony of lament; otherwise the words of intercession are mere words. Authentic experience and life in the world is a condition of authentic liturgy. If the condition is not satisfied, God finds our words and songs and gestures deficient, sometimes even nauseous.

The liturgy of the Christian church, then, is for blowing the trumpets of joy over our experience of the world as gift and glorious work of God. It is for rubbing on the ashes of repentance over our experience of the world as disobedient to God. And, yes, the liturgy is for crying the tears of lament and intercession over our experience of the world as the suffering of God over the suffering of the world. We do each of these in its own place in the liturgy. In Holy Communion, mysteriously, we do them all together.

Praise, confession, lament; adoration, repentance, intercession. In entering the assembly we do not obliterate the world from our mind but carry along with us our experience of the world as a three-fold epiphany of God and our response to that experience. In the liturgy, while “holding in remembrance” what we have experienced of God, we give voice to our response. For that we need trumpets and ashes and tears.

Nicholas Wolterstorff taught philosophy for over four decades at, among other places, Calvin College and Yale University. He and his wife, Claire, now reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This article is excerpted from “Trumpets, Ashes, and Tears,”; The Reformed Journal, February 1986, and is used with permission of Eerdmans Publishing.