The Need for Lament

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore, I will wait for him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24, NIV)

Lament is painful and lonely, yet, necessary and the only true agent of healing.

Every single one of us face situations at some point in our lives which cause us to grieve.  In fact, grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss.  Bereavement, divorce, major surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, terminal diagnoses, missed expectations, bitter disappointments, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events that bring grief to our lives.  They are all cruel episodes we would rather not face.

What’s more, grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life:  moving to a new house in a new area; the empty nest; getting married; having children; a beloved pastor leaving a congregation; or, beginning a new job.  These all result through some sort of loss, even if that loss were chosen and necessary.

The worst possible way to approach any of these kinds of situations, for good or for ill, is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, and just move on.  It is, believe it or not, unbiblical to take such an attitude because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.  In fact, we have an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss: The Old Testament book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem.  And not only was Jeremiah to proclaim a very unpopular message, he was given the promise that the people would not listen to him and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile.  The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long and extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach.  God’s words came true.  The people did not repent of their empty worship and wayward lifestyles.  They persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment.  The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of this once great city with its grand temple.  It’s only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.  Jeremiah (much like the biblical character of Job) lost everything but his own life.  He had much to grieve over.

Without exception, none of us can have the hope of love, compassion, and new life apart from the need to first lament our losses.  There is a popular phrase in our culture that I would caution us to use very sparingly in our conversations with others who have experienced loss: “Get over it!” is often used much too quickly and can short circuit the grief process and put grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope.

Far too many people in both the world and even the church remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move on because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful and now guilty on top of it for being sad.

I would like you to hear me loud and clear on this:  embracing lament is the only pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person like Jesus.  Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many if not most of the emotional problems in the church and the world today.

Jerry Sittser wrote an important book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.  Sittser tells of the time when he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on.  In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes:  his mother, his wife, and his daughter.  If anyone knows the need and the power of lament it is Jerry Sittser.  And here is what he says:

“Catastrophic loss, by definition, precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones’ loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a Yale philosophy professor.  In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident.  He has no explanations – just grief.  At one point he had a profound insight:

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.  It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live.  I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live.  But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

We all accumulate an unwanted host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving every loss as they come to us.  As we lurch ahead we cling to these words of Jeremiah:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what Jeremiah did:

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love.  This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love for us – not only in-spite-of the suffering, but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering.  We must sit with our pain.  Do not sluff-off our loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is nothing.  Year after year many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments.  The result is a profound inability to face pain, and it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved.  His message predicted what Jesus faced in his Passion.  The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Okay everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people.  When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city, desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks.  On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!”  But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it.  Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells.  The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden.  But you need to be willing to wait, in some cases, years.  Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan.  Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot.  They have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They possess and ability to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to outrun the painful grief which resides within.  So, please, my friend, slow down and let it catch you.  Let it do its deep and powerful work within you.

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