Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lament, Cynicism, and Despair

I used to be an optimist.

I took the Strengthsfinders test and when personality test nerds (a group I absolutely do not claim membership to) would ask, “What are your Strengths?!” with their trademarked analytic inquisitiveness, I would always tell them, “Positivity.”  And no one was surprised.  Ever.

I also had a friend in college, who wasn't like me.  He’d often use the phrase, “I’m not a pessimist.  I’m a realist.”

About 2 years ago, I found myself using his catchphrase on a regular basis and if asked what my strengths were I just started saying, “I’m a very different person than when I took that test.”

The fact is though I had dipped below realist and into cynic.

And while I’d be quick to tell you I do believe there’s something called a “healthy cynicism” that can be used to disarm false hopes and idols (i.e. a healthy cynicism towards the political, which in a sidenote-within-the-sidenote is not the same as withdrawing from the political realm), the reality is that cynicism (and its cousin despair) are against the will of God.*

In fact, both of them are distorted forms of a helpful Biblical distinctive, lament.

The lament is one of the most common genres of Psalms and there’s even a book of the Bible called Lamentations.  My favorite definition of lament is “a prayer out of pain.”  The lament is a wonderfully freeing art form.  It is honest at its core.  In a lament, no punches are pulled, you find the author telling God exactly what they are thinking and feeling.  And because He’s God and He has no self-esteem or insecurity issues. He can take it.

Trust me.  I've tried.  He probably won’t just sit there and take it, He’ll fight back . . . and He’ll win.  But that’s another blog post, I've tried that one too.

Lament is the proper, righteous response to hardship.  There is no blind, Pollyanna optimism in the Bible.  In fact, I’d make a case for the opposite. In Genesis we are told that this entire world is broken and never works properly. Exodus is the story of a people who get rescued from slavery and end up wandering in the desert until their whole generation dies off.  And in the New Testament, every book provides at least some mention that Christians should expect to suffer.

We will face hardship.  Life will be hard in general.  So, our response is both inevitable and important.

Lament is marked by 1. Honesty 2. Redirection and 3. Realization.

First, we are honest.  We tell God what we are thinking.  We don’t hold it in.  We don’t push aside or stuff our feelings.  We acknowledge this world is broken and that the havoc of that condition is daily before us.

Second, we must redirect.  This is marked by a turning of the eyes.  We take our eyes off of ourselves and look Heavenward.  We see who God is over and above our circumstances.  This doesn't mean we ignore or deny the hardship before us, but that we must also acknowledge who God is.

Third, we realize.  As we acknowledge who God is we begin to realize that there is an indescribable hope in him.  He has promised that he will work all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28) and he has promised that he will one day set everything right and make all things new (Rev 21).

I used to be an optimist.  But, back then, I didn't know how to lament.

But, as optimism diminished, I didn't learn how to lament.  I learned how to despair and how to be cynical.  Neither of which is lament.  They are both distortions.

Despair is lament without hope.  It is like lament, but fails to believe that anything will ever improve.  It declares that “This is the end!” and fails to recognize that our Author and Perfecter is the only scribe who gets to declare “The End” and he’s already told us what that looks like . . . and it looks nothing like despair.

Cynicism is lament without faith.  It sees the bad things (and imagines some new ones).  It might even hope that things will get better someday, but it’s merely a wishful hope, it lacks any faith that these hopes will come to fruition.  So cynicism turns its nose upward at the world and looks down on everything.

I need to learn to lament.  I need to learn to hope.  I need to learn to have faith.  We all need to learn the practice of lament.  And it’s not easy.

*          *          * 

I wrote this two weeks ago and honestly, in the past two weeks I could give at least a dozen examples of despair and cynicism in my life, but not one clear example of lament.  The evidence that my faithfulness and my hope are not enough is overwhelming.

The great news here is well articulated by Rick McKinley in his most recent, most fantastic book A Kingdom Called Desire: “What makes the good news really great is that my assurance of faith doesn't rest on my faith.  My assurance of faith rests in Jesus alone.
He goes onto write, “The cross cries out that Jesus knows that you may be unfaithful, but his love for you is unconditional.”

I should respond with lament, I should reject despair and cynicism.  In fact, doing so is strong evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, but thanks be to God that my faithfulness is not the record that God will keep track of but that the ledger of my accounts is filled by the the perfect, already accomplished faithfulness of Christ alone.

*Note I am using very nuanced definitions of these words.  I am aware that the word “despair” is used repeatedly in the Bible and am not trying to go after that at all.