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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