Reviewed by Caleb Valentine
How should Christians understand and use the lament psalms? Frederico Villanueva seeks to answer those questions in It’s OK to Be Not OK. Villanueva is no stranger to loss, grief, and injustice. As a pastor and seminary professor in the Philippines, he has experienced and ministered in the midst of typhoons and governmental corruption, as well as the personal tragedies that are common to all. He begins his introduction by relating his experience of typhoon Ondoy in 2009, which caused the loss of much life and property. The next week, when he went to preach at a church, he was disturbed to find that the typhoon was not even mentioned in the service, and the songs they sang had nothing to do with the recent disaster. Everyone there had experienced it, but it did not change anything about their Sunday gathering, not even their songs to God. Villanueva uses this experience to illustrate his observation that there is often a mismatch between what we sing and what we experience. It seems that only happy songs and positive testimonies are allowed in our churches (2). He writes, “There is no room for negative emotions like despair, sadness, loneliness, fear and anger; no room for negative actions like struggling, mourning, weeping, crying and questioning God; no room for negative situations like failure, accidents and calamities” (5). The problem, of course, is that the people in our churches experience all of these negative aspects of life. Does the Bible, and therefore the church, have any means for honestly engaging these realities?
In chapter 2, Villanueva makes the case that the lament psalms are suitable and necessary for the life of the church. He observes that while laments are found throughout the Old Testament, they are particularly concentrated in the psalms. Because the psalms were used in worship, these laments have a community function that makes them quite fitting for congregational use. These laments are not simply general complaints about life; they are addressed to God himself. They are honest prayers (9-10). Villanueva lists three benefits that come from preaching the lament psalms. They create space for negative experiences within the worshipping community; they challenge people to confront their sufferings and struggles, and they invite people to come to God and pour out their hearts to him (11). He writes, “We will learn to appreciate [the lament psalms] as poetry, which vividly expresses our human sorrows, as pointers to God, as they teach us a theology of suffering, and as prayers, with which we can identify and which we can make our own when words fail us because of our grief” (12).
The following chapters are structured around Villanueva’s 8 theses drawn from the psalms:
- It’s OK to be down.
- It’s OK to be sad.
- It’s OK to cry.
- It’s OK to be afraid.
- It’s OK to struggle.
- It’s OK to be angry.
- It’s OK to question.
- It’s OK to fail.
In chapter 3, “It’s OK to Be Down,” Villanueva begins by asking if we are even allowed to be down as Christians. Are we not, as some say, supposed to be stronger than ever when we’re in a difficult place? Villanueva is eager to tell Christians that it is OK to be down. To be down is to be tired, weak, and worn, with life seeming dreary and dark (15-16). He points out that some of those who seemed to have the greatest faith in the Bible also experienced times of being “down.” Psalm 42-43 is used as an example of how to be down and how to process the experience. The psalms teach us that “being down is not necessarily a sign of weak faith or that we live far from God. On the contrary, it can be an indication of a growing and deepening relationship with God” (20).
Chapter 4 states that “It’s OK to Be Sad.” The opening question is, how do we respond to sad, painful situations in our lives in a way that glorifies God? Drawing on Walter Brueggemann, Villanueva speaks of seasons of “orientation,” “disorientation,” and “new orientation” (27). Following the psalms, Christians can respond to each season differently, and thus be better prepared to receive the next season. Chapter 5 reminds us that “It’s OK to Cry.” Villanueva observes that Christians often feel obligated to appear happy and strong at all times, even when a loved one has died. However, he argues that faith in God does not eliminate the place of mourning in life. In chapter 6, “It’s OK to Be Afraid,” he asks if the many commands to not be afraid in the Bible mean that fear is disobedience for a Christian. These exhortations are not actually commands, he says, but encouragements to those who truly were afraid. Chapter 7, “It’s OK to Struggle,” is a theologically significant chapter. Villanueva acknowledges that Christians struggle with finances, emotional problems, the will of God, and our own weakness. He addresses the tension between present hardship and future glory and reminds readers that we are all in a process of being changed.
Chapter 8, “It’s OK to Be Angry,” tackles one of the most difficult issues in the psalter – imprecatory psalms. Villanueva asks if Christians are allowed both to be angry and to express their anger. He helpfully reminds readers that we do not need to fear that God will act solely on the basis of our angry prayers but should instead trust that he will always do what is just and right. The important thing is that we bring our anger to him. There is much valuable reflection in this chapter borne from living and ministering in a non-western context, and readers may very well find this to be the most significant part of the book. Christians in the US should listen carefully to people like Villanueva.
Chapter 9 argues that “It’s OK to Question God.” Previous chapters explored lamenting to God, but can believers lament against him? Villanueva writes that, in God’s wisdom and patience, “He allows his people to express their honest feelings and thoughts even though these may contradict what he tells them and wants them to know” (100). Jesus is held up as an example of how we can question God while still being in total submission to him. In chapter 10, “It’s OK to Fail,” Villanueva calls Christians to acknowledge failure to one another, not just success. He observes that we are quick to celebrate “answered prayer” but don’t really know what to do when we fail. Villanueva includes a summarizing conclusion chapter as well as some sample sermon outlines in the appendix. There is a lot of conceptual overlap between the chapters, and the book might be improved by combining some of them. However, it is short enough that the redundancy does not become an obstacle to finishing it.
The subtitle of the book is “Preaching the Lament Psalms.” However, as may be clear from the above summary, the majority of book is more personally oriented. Villanueva’s goal is to help pastors preach the lament psalms, but he primarily does so by reflecting on lament in a more personal way. This book is of little help when it comes to actually preparing or delivering sermons on the lament psalms. However, what it does do well is orient its readers, whether pastors or lay people, to the permissibility and importance of lament in the Christian life. The style is simple, and Villanueva avoids any technical academic jargon or discussion. Thus, this is a book that pastors could easily and helpfully give to church members who are struggling with the pains and difficulties of life.
Pastors will benefit from this book if they have not yet reflected on how lament should shape the life of Christians and the church. It is an important corrective to triumphalistic, always positive and encouraging expressions of Christianity. However, the book’s brevity and simplicity mean that is only an introduction to these topics. Perhaps the best way for pastors in the US to use this book is to give it to those who lead worship in their church and discuss it with them.
Caleb Valentine is an M.Div student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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It’s OK to be Not OK: Preaching the Lament Psalms