One of the important elements of the book of Esther is what Esther does with the fear and grief she experiences when she is forced to choose between saving her people on the one hand and saving her own skin on the other. The dilemma is this: If she does not find a way to change the king’s mind or the king’s unbreakable edict, all her people could die. If, on the other hand, she goes to see king Xerxes without an invitation, she could be put to death. She is in an impossible situation, and anyone in her shoes would be filled with dread, confusion, and fear.
Esther does not collapse into self-pity. She does not make this situation about herself; it’s about her people. She does not wallow in the difficulty of it, but asks help from those she trusts— in this case the help is prayer and fasting. She does not retreat into the luxury and distraction she had available to her, but turns herself and her situation over to God in the best way she knew how. Her fasting is a lament— a bodily lament— that she and her people would have known as the proper response to disaster, suffering, and death.
Fasting is one way to lament, but not the only way. The Bible is full of examples people lamenting their circumstances, and the Psalms are full of laments. In Psalm 13, for example, David speaks freely of the sorrow in his heart, and does not hold back from accusing God of having forgotten him.
How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1–2)
This is lament and not self-pity. David is not implying that he should be admired because he has suffered so much. He does not parade his suffering, hoping someone will notice him. He is pleading that his suffering be relieved, bringing his complaint to God. David brings all of himself and his hurt to God, which in itself is an act faith.
Neither Esther nor David minimized their troubles and sorrows. They each knew danger, disaster, and loss, but neither gave way to the self-pity that leads to resentment and self-justification.
We might be tempted to see Esther and David as solitary heroes who rose above their circumstances through extreme effort or positive attitude. It is better to see them as persons who dealt with their overwhelming circumstances by reaching out to God and to trusted companions. Esther called her attendants to fast with her. David had his mighty men. They both cried out to God, and that was the beginning of their deliverance.
Our congregations are called to be safe places where self-pity is replaced by earnest lament among trusted companions in the presence of the God who hears us when we pray— whatever our prayer.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
“Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” — Mark Vroegop
For more on the longstanding practice among God’s people of lament, see these two short posts by Mark Vroegop based on his book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.
And see this longer article from the N. T. Wright online site:
Five Things to Know About Lament
Pastor Mark loves his wife and grown children, the Word of God, and words. And coffee,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)
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