Lament and thanksgiving are two entirely valid modes of prayer.
Both are biblical and practical. Like God’s people in every time and place, it is a healthy practice to offer to God both our ‘why’ and our ‘thanks’. In my survey of local Baptist worship in Aotearoa New Zealand, I considered the extent to which forms of prayer such as praise and thanksgiving were dominant, and found reason to believe that forms such as confession and lament were more rare. In this post, I’m interested in reasons why lament in particular seems uncommon, and whether or not there might be a symbiotic relationship between lament and thanksgiving.
I think the main reasons for less (or no) lament in public worship are emotional and theological in nature. Emotionally, it really is a bit of a drag and doesn’t really (at least on the surface) prepare people to go out in confident mission to the world. Theologically, some may feel that such prayers reflect a lack of gratitude or trust.
I get it. It’s not enjoyable, and it can seem to clash with gratitude. I certainly think it would be inappropriate for a service to have too much lament. But what if lament and thanksgiving go together more than we realize?
I propose the following: When Christians gather for worship, a mixture of lament and thanksgiving is a healthy middle between two extremes. At one extreme, when there is too much lament and not enough thanksgiving, the service feels less like worship and more like a grumbling session. This kind of worship succeeds in justifying our resentment and anger when things don’t go our way, and fails to transform our boredom into joy. At the other extreme, when there is only thanksgiving, free of lament, the service can feel a bit shallow and inauthentic. This kind of worship fails to appreciate that every day is full of events which even God laments, and for which lament is the proper response, and succeeds in presenting Christianity as a faith which is out of touch with reality.
So then. Lament? Yes. And then give thanks.
It is becoming apparent that there are two distinct paths, two very different ways of being in the world.
Sometimes, I can focus on what I do not have or something I feel should change. I strive for and grasp at what I want or what I want to change. I perhaps (or often) feel that I deserve the thing or conditions that I want. I am entitled to them.
If I allow myself to, I can let my emotions devolve. It can start with boredom, which is based on an assumption that I ought to be experiencing excitement. It can then morph quickly into frustration, stress, resentment and anger. The end of this progression is murderous rage, where I am cut off from myself, others and God. The whole spectrum is that of being continually and increasingly pissed off.
Thank God, other times I focus on what I do have, and surrender the impulse to change that thing, circumstance or person. This is the path of gratitude. I see the things that I have as gifts, rather than possessions I’m entitled to. I don’t expect to have much, and am grateful for having enough. This is also the path of acceptance. I don’t have to agree with everything or everyone, but I do need to accept things outside myself.
The emotions associated with this path are very different. Peace, calmness, serenity, attentiveness, joy, contentment, freedom. The end of this road is a growing relationship with God, others and self. I am free to greet life as it is, accept difference, and free to help where I can.
I recently came across this gem of a quote on Facebook; beautiful in its profundity, and breathtaking in its brevity.
“Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.” – G. C. Berkouwer
It captures the heart of what any Christian thinker has ever tried to say about the fitting human response to divine grace. The only way to respond to being given a gift is to say thank you.
My curious (and a bit obsessive) mind, always on the look-out for frameworks, pondered what the opposite might be. That earning merit (and love) is the opposite of being given Grace (and love), and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad theology. And that entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad ethics.
In the back of my mind, however, was the framework of love and fear (wonderfully expressed by Michael Leunig here, scroll down and you’ll see it). It left me thinking there must be a correlation between gratitude and love, and between entitlement and fear. So I wanted to tease that out below (all the while hoping for a bit of it to drip down from my brain into my heart!)…
Love is grateful. Fear is entitled.
Love is surprised at what it has. Fear always needs more.
Love can freely give as it has received. Fear always takes.
Love can accept what it disagrees with. Fear tries to force it to change.
Love can cope without recognition. Fear clamours for attention.
Love is empathetic. Fear is narcissistic.
Love sheds tears on behalf of others. Fear only sees its own pain.
Love can fail and try again. Fear gives up.
Love is life. Fear is death.