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.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord. (New International Version)
“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 could 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.”Nicolas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
None of us gets off this planet without experiencing terrible grief. It is endemic to the human condition.
Grief attaches itself to any significant change or loss – bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and so much more – bring grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for.
The worst response to grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on.
It’s actually unbiblical to respond that way because Holy Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses.
Lamentations is an entire book of the Bible given to a single purpose: lamenting a grievous loss.
The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim an unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him. Jerusalem would be destroyed. The people sent into exile. This only compounded Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.
Jeremiah is a melancholy messenger who preached exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And 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.
In his terrible grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple.
It was only after an extended time of grieving that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God. The Lord’s compassions become new every morning. And the renewal will happen without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.
Cheap hope tries to circumvent grieving and lamenting of loss. Genuine hope knows the true path of renewal is through the grief, not around it.
There are two popular phrases in Western culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, are harmful:
- “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts 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 the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage of grief, unable to effectively move through it because others expect them to be joyful and victorious; but they really feel downright awful – and now also feel guilty for being sad.
- “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. But they can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. Broken spirits and broken hearts, like broken bones, need time to heal.
Lament is the 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, emotional problems today.
“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.”Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss
We all accumulate losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.
All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.
So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?
- Remember our afflictions and losses. Avoid superficial responses to significant events. Acknowledge, own, and feel the pain of the loss. This is the path to realizing new life.
- Pay attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the grief process. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us, not just in spite of the suffering, but because of it.
- Do not minimize your pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s 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.
- Know that Jesus grieved. Messiah is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3) At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. (John 11:35) 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. (Luke 13:34) 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?” (Matthew 27:46) Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
Grief and lament is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and essential for 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 resetting 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.
We must 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 submitted to grief and lamented their losses are:
- Patient with others and able to wait on God
- Kind and compassionate
- Lack pretense and have no need to impress others
- Comfortable with mystery and don’t need all the answers
- Humble, gentle, and meek
- Able to see God in the mundane, banal, and lowly
- At home with themselves and with God
- Equipped to love others as Jesus did
Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us.
Slow down. Let grief catch you. Express lament. Allow grief and lament to do its deep and powerful work within you, to the glory of God. Amen.