Glenn Pemberton was one of my professors at at Abilene Christian University and has been a preacher for decades. He recently wrote a book called Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms. It is informed and relevant, and it arises from the author’s personal experiences with pain and loss.
Dr. Pemberton points out the church’s lack of lament, and the reasons vary: “the wishful optimism of our culture, discomfort with ambiguity, impatient need for quick solutions, and… well-intended but misguided theology.” Some researchers have studied the lament psalms; others have written on the use of lament psalms in preaching, prayer, and public life. In the midst of this literary expansion, however, “the practical translation of this work has yet to take much hold in our churches.” Pemberton’s goals, therefore, are “to make a complete and persuasive case for the restoration of the language of lament in the life of the church and in the lives of believers” and “to teach the language of lament by careful examination of the lament psalms.” He hopes that “this volume brings further attention to the loss of lament in our churches, exposes what this loss is costing us, and stirs our minds to imagine what might happen if we spoke and prayed the full spectrum of the biblical faith languages,” whether used “for personal reading,” “in church Bible classes and small groups,” or as an academic textbook.
The first chapter establishes that humans share a story of “unpredictable, unstable, and life-threatening seas and storms… chaotic forces that stand against human life and well-being.” The author anchors this claim in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job, which provides “good news… that the sea/chaos does not have free reign in this world” and “bad news… that the sea still exists and works chaos in our world.” Such observation leads to the following questions: “How do we live with and relate to God when the waters pound and choke us? What do we say to the God who has the power to restrain the storm but chooses instead to let it pour?” Instead of seeking an explanation for the storm, the author proceeds in an attempt to find a way “to swim” when “this storm is flooding my life.”
Chapter Two teaches about biblical lament language, highlighting the diverse forms’ “commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain.” The Book of Psalms contains more lament psalms than any other kind, but the church has largely lost this language of lament. The author documents this loss through the research of his student, T. Austin Holt IV, who analyzes three contemporary hymnals that heavily voice thanksgiving and praise to the neglect of lament.
The third chapter establishes lament as a practice of Jesus and the early church. Chapter Four explores the details and dynamics of lament language. The next seven chapters investigate the problems that give rise to such language: sin, discouragement, health, opponents, and God. The twelfth chapter shows the relationship between lament and thanksgiving, and Chapter Thirteen suggests practical ways to restore lament language in the life of the church. There Pemberton wisely prescribes incremental changes instead of pendulum swings, and he encourages us to practice lament in a “healthy balance of faith languages modeled for us by the Psalms.”
The primary strength of Pemberton’s work arises from his background in both academics and ministry, combined with his personal experience of loss and pain. His scholarly competence provides intellectual substance that more devotional works avoid. His pastoral heart leads to suggestions for ministerial improvement that more academic texts miss. His experience of lament gives his writing a tone of authenticity that compels readers to finish the book and to find points of connection with their own lives. The textual analysis and ministerial suggestions cooperate to “help us regain the wholeness of expression to our God and include the hurting more fully in our worship” (Lowe), and the relevance to everyday life gives readers a reason to recommend the book to a broad and diverse readership. (I gave a copy to my mother when she visited me last week.)
This strength can be a weakness, too. Scholars may prefer more academic texts; Pemberton minimizes his references to scholarly literature. Church leaders may prefer less academic books; the author connects his study to ministry but largely provides textual and theological insights. The blending of approaches, however, exemplifies ministry-related scholarship that empowers theologically informed worship.
Pemberton’s approach from a “low church” experience can be a weakness for readers in more liturgical traditions. Some large portions of Christianity still maintain a substantial place for lament psalms in worship (Wagner-Wassen). While those churches might benefit more from books with other approaches, this one speaks meaningfully to the author’s own and similar heritages; it “provides refreshing corrective for churches inundated with a thin, borrowed and Evangelical liturgy” (Fleer).
Especially helpful is the author’s application of his study to issues of justice, most notably in Chapter Nine. Churches in cultural contexts of affluence and power, even when they fail to recognize their privileges, need this call to speak for and with the oppressed and hurting. We in worship leadership must ask what the lament psalms say to us, to people experiencing lives drastically different from our own, and to our responsibilities as God’s people in and for the world.
I highly recommend Dr. Pemberton’s book to anyone seeking to swim life’s stormy seas, needing permission and place to voice raw emotions to God, or simply wishing to learn more about the Bible, specifically its lament psalms. In the words of Mike Cope on the back cover, “For its biblical insight, this book will sit proudly on my shelf next to Brueggemann’s works on the Psalms; for its pastoral care, I’ll be handing it out to many friends… and church leaders.” The work’s integration of scholarship, ministry, and personal struggle makes it well worth the sticker price and reading time.
This review is modified from one I wrote for a course at Harding School of Theology.