“What’s going on in our world? What’s happening? It seems to be coming apart at the seams.” These are some of the thoughts I hear from people these days. We see civil unrest, demonstrations, and riots. There is a lot of anger on all sides.
How should the church respond? Should we jump in with the anger, the rhetoric, the violence? Should we strategize, problem solve, and work at finding solutions? Should we educate ourselves so that we better understand what’s going on?
I think before we do anything, we need to stop and lament. A lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. There is so much to grieve over--to mourn, to lament. We need to take the time, a lot of time, to properly lament before we even think about solutions.
Why We Lament
As the Diversity Director for a national campus ministry, I often find myself crying in prayer. I am entrusted with helping our movement accurately represent our Father and his kingdom through our ministry. This is a somewhat impossible task. The church has mostly failed at this task during most of its history. Yet, we still work at it because it is our purpose as God’s people to represent him—to bear his image in this world.
I am compelled to pray and to work. The gravity of the work is not lost on me. I feel the burden of it each day. I see our failures and shortcomings. I listen to the experiences of students and staff from different ethnic groups. I know we can do better. All the time, I see the many ways we can be better image bearers, show the campus a more accurate Christ. And so, I cry. I lament. I mourn. Sometimes, I even wail.
When my kids catch me crying in prayer and ask me about it, I tell them, “I’m sad. Crying is what we do when we’re sad.” When there is loss, trauma, injury, and wrongdoing, crying is the right thing to do. We should be brokenhearted over these things. It should make us feel. The Father feels. In Noah’s time, the Father “regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” He “saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” and He mourned.
The Bible is full of examples of God’s heart breaking over the wickedness of humans, over the injustices we perpetrated on each other. No, these are not new, but they are still wrong. If it hurts our God, it should hurt us as well. How can we say we are in fellowship with him, we are his children, if we are untouched by the things that touch him?
What We Lament
There is so much that needs lamenting that I cannot possibly do it justice in this short article. Here are just two thoughts. Take the time to think and pray through them and the Holy Spirit will bring to mind more areas that need your lament.
Injustice. Justice is doing right. The wicked are condemned and the innocent are protected. Think about the history of our country in relation to African Americans, Native Americans, other ethnic groups and the poor. There is no doubt that these groups of people have not found justice in our society. From the time Europeans arrived on our shores, they have endured one injustice after another: enslavement, displacement, rape, murder, separation of families, physical abuse, torture, and dismemberment is not a complete list. Are these ethnic groups the only ones who have faced injustice? Of course not. Human beings and the systems they develop are inherently unjust. The amazing thing about our country for most of our history though, is that it has been assumed justice is primarily for Whites. For others to think they could or should have the same justice has been a foolish thought.
God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is inherently just because God is the definition of justice. As citizens of his kingdom we love justice and hate injustice. Just the existence of injustice around us should break our hearts. Letting the suffering of others touch us and caring for their situations is core to the gospel. God became flesh and dwelt among us. He did not shy away from walking in the dirt of this world. He embraced our suffering. Are we not to do the same?
Failure. As I mentioned before, the church has mostly failed at accurately representing our Father and his kingdom to the world. If you do not believe that, you need to study the Scriptures and history more. Most of the injustices listed above have been committed by those wearing the Christian banner, sometimes those wearing the missionary banner. We can say these individuals were not “real Christians” and separate ourselves from them like we try to do from the Crusaders and Conquistadores. But how is the world to know the difference if one group is publicly doing wrong in the name of Christ and the other is doing nothing.
Of course, there are Christians we can point to in history who stood up for justice, believers like William Wilberforce, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. But unfortunately, they are the minority, a part of the remnant who did not bow their knees to the idols of the time: greed, complacency, and fear. They chose courage over comfort and often paid with their lives. These are the exceptions. Where were all the other Bible-believing, Spirit-filled believers during these times? Huddled in a corner, disconnected from the world, fearing contamination?
As a Pentecostal believer I don’t have to look far to identify our failures. Our movement was birthed in a revival in Los Angeles led by an African American preacher named William Seymour where those gathered were from multiple different socio-economic levels and ethnicities. For a moment we tasted of heaven as believers gathered together and affirmed that there is “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Unfortunately, it did not take long for division to arise along racial lines. Is this not something that should be lamented? When we as the church take a good look in the mirror, do we not see many ways we have been complicit with racism, ethnocentrism and white supremacy? lf you need examples of the last, just look at the pictures of Jesus with white skin and blue eyes in many churches’ stained glass or Sunday school materials.
How to Lament
Brokenness and humility are the words God spoke to me when I asked him four years ago, “what should the church be doing right now.” Brokenness is what happens when we look at all the evil, all the wrong, all the injustice in our world and we allow it to hurt us. We are broken with those who suffer. Humility is the posture we take as we embrace the reality that there is nothing in ourselves that we can do to bring about any change. When we are honest about our frailty and our failures, we find ourselves in place of utter humility.
I believe the first way we need to lament is to repent. The main reason we have not moved on as a country or even in the church, is we have not truly repented. Every once in a while, when things happen that we cannot ignore or are hard to deny (though many still try to) we will talk about how we need move on. Many, even in the church, think the trick to moving on is to stop talking about it. If we just stopped talking about racism, it would go away. Where a Christian would get the idea that ignoring a sin causes its disappearance is beyond me. You can find no such pattern in the Scriptures. What you do find is God continually, persistently, relentlessly, sending prophet after prophet telling his people basically the same thing. “Stop worshipping idols. Stop oppressing the poor, widows, and foreigners. Do right. Keep the covenant you agreed to. Be the people you’re supposed to be, so the world knows what I am actually like.”
We cannot “move on” until we admit the wrongs we have done in the past and the present. We have to humble ourselves and admit the sins of the church and the country because, as parts of both of them, we have the Biblical obligation to do so (see Daniel 9 for an example of this). We must also repent for our own biases and prejudices. I have an awfully hard time believing I’m the only one in the world with biases and prejudices. If we can be honest and vulnerable about our struggle with lust, greed, and other sins, why can’t we be honest about our struggle with prejudice? The world has made racism today’s unforgivable sin, but God does not recognize this. He offers forgiveness and deliverance from this sin, just like he does all others.
Another way for us to repent is to listen. Truth is we are not very good at this. For most of our history, those facing injustice have gone unheard. Even in this time, so many have told me how they feel silenced. You may scoff at this statement as you see the world shouting. But there are many in the church that feel if they were to fully share their thoughts and feelings, even just their experiences with fellow believers they would be attacked. So, they remain silent. Listening, both personally and through articles and other media is the primary way the church needs to repent right now. Listening will open up our hearts towards brokenness and humility.
Jeremiah the prophet was broken for his nation. He cared. He cried out, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears. I would weep and day and night for the slain of my people.” Weeping I find is a very appropriate way to lament. I do not mean to say if you are not crying, you do not care. But I do find that deep pain often produces tears. If I think about how we as believers have disappointed God and how this world is so wicked and corrupt, and how so many suffer in it, I often feel pain. I am not advocating the false production of tears, but for the genuine embracing of God’s heart for people.
Jesus was once asked why his disciples were not participating in a time of fasting with other religious groups. His answer was simple, “I’m here, so it’s a time for rejoicing,” (my own paraphrase). But he did say the time would come when they would fast. Fasting in Scripture is associated with humility and mourning. We humble ourselves, deny ourselves, because it is a time to mourn. Now is a time to mourn and in place of feasting, we can fast. Isaiah 59 offers a beautiful picture of true fasting.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Fasting is an active work of lamentation that, as Isaiah 58 points out, will lead to other works. Yes, we need to stop and lament first. Then, we need to let our lamenting, continual and growing, be the foundation for true fasting.