Surprise, Lament, and the Maladjusted

This morning I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He describes our need to foster surprise. I would say that surprise is a necessary part of our relationship with God. Our surprise at God’s greatness and goodness leads to praise. Our surprise at evil and suffering allows us to lament. And our surprise at salvation gives rise to thanksgiving. I’ve used this quotation before, but it is so good that it demands repeating from time to time. Heschel said:

I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.

The psalms of lament similarly show a lack of accommodation to evil and violence. In fact the writers of the laments are utterly surprised by evil because they believe that God is good and that peace and justice are supposed to define this life. Out of their surprise the psalmists complain and protest. The psalms of lament keep us maladjusted and give us words to combat injustice.

For those who want to explore the prayer of lament more, I have written a brief devotional on one of the psalms of lament, entitled, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. It is available both as an eBook in the Kindle format and in paperback.

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Opium vs. Smelling Salts: “My Companions are in Darkness” Excerpt

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88, available both in the Kindle format and hard copy at Amazon.com.
My Companions are in Darkness Cover

Opium vs. Smelling Salts

Karl Marx famously declared, “Religion…is the opium of the people,” in which fantasies of a soothing God and a disembodied ecstasy in Heaven are given to drug people so that they might remain numb to the reality of their current suffering. [1] We can look at the history of the Christian Church, including at some contemporary sermons, worship songs, and books and see that Marx had a point—the Christian message has, at times, been watered down to a set of feel-good affirmations that deny the reality of suffering and death. Such a diluted faith can offer only the thinnest of blessings that do not address the fullness of the human experience. We face the temptation to anesthetize ourselves with beliefs that God only wants us to experience happiness or that this life doesn’t ultimately matter, rather than truly wrestle with God in the midst of the confusion and pain that each of us experiences and sees in others.

Thankfully the Psalms offer no opium to our suffering. In these prayer-poems we encounter the full arc of human life—joy and sadness, victory and loss, peace and fear, confidence and doubt, health and sickness, birth and death. They don’t drug our pain and turmoil with flaccid promises of escape. The writers of the Psalms display keen awareness of their distress and voice their shock, fear, and anger. As readers, we do not find opiates numbing us to troubles. The Psalms instead act like smelling salts, waking us up to the reality of life’s complexity and to the God who is with us through it all.

Some psalms praise God when all is right with the world (e.g., Psalm 8). Other psalms offer thanks to God for bringing salvation and setting the world back in order when things have gone wrong (e.g., Psalm 34). We are likely most familiar and most comfortable with these first two types of psalms. But there is a third type of psalm that cries out to God when trouble arises, when enemies attack, when God seems distant, when the world is not as it should be. These lament psalms complain, protest, and wail before Yahweh, the God of Israel. We are likely not as familiar with these psalms despite the fact that there are more lament psalms than there are psalms of praise or psalms of thanksgiving. The reason for our unfamiliarity lies in the fact that the psalms of lament challenge us. They challenge our conceptions of the kinds of prayers God accepts. They challenge our images of God protecting us from every hurt and loss. They challenge our understanding of what it means to be in covenant with the God of the universe. The psalms of lament do not deny the existence of suffering—instead, they place that suffering before God’s face and demand, “What are you going to do about this?”

Psalm 88 is one of the darkest and most intense prayers of lament in the whole Bible. The psalmist accurately describes suffering and the confusion it brings while teaching us a way to speak to God when we experience turmoil. This little guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 88 in eighteen days. The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer if we simply slowed down and allowed their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.

As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. If you face trouble and question where God is, let the words of Psalm 88 shape your prayers. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Psalm 88 is a defiant, buoyant prayer that relentlessly holds God accountable for experiences of trouble and at the same time holds God in hope of what God will yet do.” [2] If you do not find yourself in the same place as the psalmist, remember when you were troubled and when God seemed distant and callous to your suffering, or think of those who are in turmoil and pray this psalm along with them. Come and allow Psalm 88 to act as smelling salts to wake you up to the real trouble and confusion in the world. Come pray with God’s people, calling out to the God who is our only hope for salvation.


[1] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right,” translated by Annette Jolin and Joseph O’Malley, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 131.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 62.

Announcing the Release of My New Devotional, “My Companions are in Darkness”

I have returned to the world of self-publishing with my latest devotional, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. The devotional guides readers slowly through Psalm 88, which is perhaps the most intense prayer of lament in the Bible. The psalmist acknowledges the uncertainty and pains of this life, but he refuses to give up on God. It is because he believes deeply in God’s promises that he can raise his protests to God as he endures trouble. The writer of Psalm 88 also shows us how we may take our role as covenant partners with God very seriously even as we face doubt, confounding pain, or depression.

In his influential paper, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (you should read it), biblical scholar Walter Brueggemman says the discipline of lament has been lost in much of contemporary Western Christianity. He describes the importance of lamentation in our relationship with God as well as what we lose when we no longer engage in lament:

When the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate…. A community of faith that negates laments soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions at the throne (which is a conclusion drawn through liturgic use), they soon appear to be improper questions in public places, in schools, in hospitals, with the government, and eventually even in the courts. Justice questions disappear into civility and docility. The order of the day comes to seem absolute, beyond question, and we are left with only grim obedience and eventually despair. (107)

Sadly, I think Brueggemman is right that we have forgotten how to offer laments to God. Without lament, we have little ability to interact honestly with God when we face suffering and injustice. My Companions are in Darkness is an attempt to relearn this vital expression of prayer.

My Companions are in Darkness Cover

Along with the daily readings and reflections, My Companions are in Darkness also contains brief essays that explore the necessary role of lament in our covenant relationship with God as well as explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. An appendix at the end of the guide describes some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalm, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

My Companions are in Darkness is available at Amazon.com for $1.99 on the Kindle format, or $5.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

My first self-published devotional, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 is also available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author page at Amazon.