How Can I Move Through My Grief? (Lamentations 1:7-15)

The Lamentations of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Her people recall the good life
    that once was theirs;
now they suffer
    and are scattered.
No one was there to protect them
from their enemies who sneered
    when their city was taken.

Jerusalem’s horrible sins
    have made the city a joke.
Those who once admired her
    now hate her instead—
she has been disgraced;
    she groans and turns away.

Her sins had made her filthy,
but she wasn’t worried
    about what could happen.
And when Jerusalem fell,
    it was so tragic.
No one gave her comfort
    when she cried out,
“Help! I’m in trouble, Lord!
    The enemy has won.”

Zion’s treasures were stolen.
Jerusalem saw foreigners
    enter her place of worship,
though the Lord
had forbidden them
    to belong to his people.

Everyone in the city groans
    while searching for food;
they trade their valuables
for barely enough scraps
    to stay alive.

Jerusalem shouts to the Lord,
“Please look and see
    how miserable I am!”
No passerby even cares.
Why doesn’t someone notice
    my terrible sufferings?
You were fiercely angry, Lord,
and you punished me
    worst of all.
From heaven you sent a fire
    that burned in my bones;
you set a trap for my feet
    and made me turn back.
All day long you leave me
    in shock from constant pain.
You have tied my sins
    around my neck,
and they weigh so heavily
    that my strength is gone.
You have put me in the power
    of enemies too strong for me.

You, Lord, have turned back
my warriors and crushed
    my young heroes.
Judah was a woman untouched,
but you let her be trampled
    like grapes in a wine pit. (Contemporary English Version)

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars. The deeper the grief, the closer is God.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The only way to the mountain is through the valley. The only way to make the pain go away is to move through it – not by avoiding it, pretending it’s not there, or trying to move around it. Pain and suffering are inevitable; misery is optional.

The reality is that, when experiencing catastrophic loss, you and I will grieve forever. We shall never “get over” it; we only learn to live with it.

Yes, I do believe there is spiritual and emotional healing. Significant change and grinding loss doesn’t need to define who we are. We can rebuild ourselves around the loss we have suffered.

Yes, you and I will be whole again. However, we shall never ever be the same again. It isn’t possible – nor should it be.

The prophet Jeremiah, the exiles in Babylon, and the remaining people of Jerusalem faced a tremendous and heartbreaking adjustment to a new world full of changes and losses. Expressing that grief was central to not becoming stuck in the past, living in the here and now, and moving into the future.

Grief is the normal mental, emotional, spiritual, and/or physical response to any significant change or loss. Grief is not optional but necessary. It is our personhood’s way of facing the pain and moving through it to a place of finding renewed meaning, support, and purpose in life.

How do people move through the grief?

  • Community: Grief needs a witness. It must be expressed. We must tell our stories of life, love, and loss. Otherwise, the grief just sits unmoved deep within and eventually becomes gangrene of the soul.

Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings.

Galatians 6:2, GW
  • Connection: Grief doesn’t so much go away as it morphs into fond memories of remembrance through ritual behavior.

Then Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV)

  • Character: No one is defined by their grief, their disease, their mental disorder, their disability, or their addiction. In many religious traditions, people are identified as carrying the image and likeness of G-d.

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.

After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun. (Romans 8:29-30, MSG)

  • Care: Practice caring for yourself. Give yourself the grace and the permission to be happy… or sad… or angry – to feel what you need to feel. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, CEB)

  • Compare not: Please do not compare your grief and loss with anyone else’s. The truth is this: The absolute worst loss is your loss, not somebody else’s.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NIV)

  • Count: Count your wins. Count your blessings. Say them out loud. Write them down. Share them with a friend or loved one.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

    and forget not all his benefits,

who forgives all your iniquity,

    who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit,

    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. (Psalm 103:2-4, ESV)

Sometimes, prayer is the only possible way forward. Maybe the Lord will once again hear us and respond, as of old:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people… I have heard their cry… for I know their sorrows.” (Exodus 3:7, NET)

May the presence of the Lord melt your fear and discouragement. May God strengthen and help you. May the Lord lift you and hold you in gracious and compassionate hands. Amen.

Lament Your Losses (Lamentations 3:19-26)

“The Lamentations of Jeremiah,” a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Psalm 74 – A Devastating Loss

Our God, why have you
    completely rejected us?
Why are you so angry
    with the ones you care for?
Remember the people
    you rescued long ago,
the tribe you chose
    for your very own.

Think of Mount Zion,
    your home;
walk over to the temple
left in ruins forever
    by those who hate us.

Your enemies roared like lions
    in your holy temple,
and they have placed
    their banners there.
It looks like a forest
    chopped to pieces.
They used axes and hatchets
    to smash the carvings.
They burned down your temple
    and badly disgraced it.
They said to themselves,
    “We’ll crush them!”
Then they burned each one
of your meeting places
    all over the country.
There are no more miracles
    and no more prophets.
Who knows how long
    it will be like this?

Our God, how much longer
    will our enemies sneer?
Won’t they ever stop
    insulting you?
Why don’t you punish them?
    Why are you holding back?

Our God and King,
you have ruled
    since ancient times;
you have won victories
    everywhere on this earth.
By your power you made a path
    through the sea,
and you smashed the heads
    of sea monsters.
You crushed the heads
    of the monster Leviathan,
then fed him to wild creatures
    in the desert.
You opened the ground
for streams and springs
    and dried up mighty rivers.
You rule the day and the night,
and you put the moon
    and the sun in place.
You made summer and winter
    and gave them to the earth.

Remember your enemies, Lord!
They foolishly sneer
    and won’t respect you.
You treat us like pet doves,
    but they mistreat us.
Don’t keep forgetting us
and letting us be fed
    to those wild animals.
Remember the agreement
    you made with us.
Violent enemies are hiding
in every dark corner
    of the earth.
Don’t disappoint those in need
    or make them turn from you,
but help the poor and homeless
    to shout your praises.
Do something, God!
    Defend yourself.
Remember how those fools
    sneer at you all day long.
Don’t forget the loud shouts
    of your enemies. (Contemporary English Version)

God’s temple was violated. The center and symbol of Jewish worship, culture, and life was gone.

Although we know that nothing lasts forever, that doesn’t mean we are always okay with it.

Asaph, the psalmist, was definitely not okay with the temple’s destruction. It was more than the loss of a building. For Asaph and his people, Jerusalem and the temple were the glue which held the world together.

They lost their center of being. And it was devastating to them.

Everyone and every society has their center, those values and practices which makes them a people. We all need a public center that defines who we are and what we are about. There must be a gravity that holds us to our place and doesn’t allow us to stray into oblivion and nothingness.

The central core of the people was eviscerated. So, today’s psalm is a lament for Jerusalem. It is a painful emotional and spiritual cry which goes well beyond bricks and mortar and the mere physical.

The ruin of the temple, Asaph complains, is the ruin of their God. Yes, it was the Babylonians who came and did the destroying and the de-centering. But it was God’s temple. God is the One responsible. It was God’s action. So, Asaph contends with God and comes at him with full challenge.

Asaph appealed to the Lord much like we do today. “Hey, God, remember how things were back there. It was good, right!? Now look at everything. It’s a mess.” The language is all meant to persuade God that things are so bad, that they are completely intolerable; thus, the Lord should do something about it.

God is bigger than the temple. So, therefore, God can and should restore the temple and make things right again, Asaph reasons. He sounds much like a person in the throes of grief, desperately trying to bargain with God to get things back to the way they were.

Point by point, the psalmist gives a sort of play-by-play to God about the awful situation and what happened. These guys who came and did their dirty work are ultimately your enemies, God, not just ours. So, take notice and act!

Remember the good old days, God, when you performed mighty acts of power against formidable foes, Asaph insisted. Against all odds, the Lord came through for the people… But now… there’s nothing. No divine action. The Babylonians came to Jerusalem, destroyed the city and temple, and got away with it.

Like a person experiencing extreme dizziness, Asaph and the people had a terrible spiritual vertigo which left them unable to get their balance and find their center.

Along with Asaph, in our horrible grief, we not only appeal to God, but we also insist, even tell God exactly what he must do, as if we were the Creator and Yahweh the creature. “Listen, Mr. Almighty God, you made a covenant with us and now you’re reneging on it with all this ridiculous silence and inaction.”

Yet, Asaph really knows better. He knows that, although the temple and the city are important as visible structures, the invisible God transcends all the tangible things we hold so tightly to.

We live in a day and age when all our religious structures are being dismantled, destroyed, done away with. Few persons now look to an institutional and visible building or system for their spirituality and worship.

And, although many believers may lament the changes and the disappearance of churches and religion, there still remains an invisible God to whom we can address – the very same God whom Asaph addressed all those millennia ago.

We are not, therefore, reduced to despair. In the end, it isn’t about buildings, ministries, programs, budgets, or church attendance – it’s about the source of life and hope in the absence of past knowable structures. It is a naked faith in the God who is there.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’s will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. Ame

Psalm 6 – Our Tears Find a Better Way

Please, Lord,
    don’t punish me when you are angry;
    don’t discipline me when you are furious.
Have mercy on me, Lord,
    because I’m frail.
Heal me, Lord,
    because my bones are shaking in terror!
My whole body is completely terrified!
        But you, Lord! How long will this last?
Come back to me, Lord! Deliver me!
    Save me for the sake of your faithful love!
No one is going to praise you
    when they are dead.
Who gives you thanks
    from the grave?

I’m worn out from groaning.
    Every night, I drench my bed with tears;
    I soak my couch all the way through.
My vision fails because of my grief;
    it’s weak because of all my distress.
Get away from me, all you evildoers,
    because the Lord has heard me crying!
The Lord has listened to my request.
    The Lord accepts my prayer.
All my enemies will be ashamed
    and completely terrified;
    they will be defeated
    and ashamed instantly. (Common English Bible)

“Don’t ever discount the wonder of your tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes they are the best words the heart can speak.”

William Paul Young, The Shack

Sometimes, even oftentimes, our tears find a better way.

It seems as if many folks don’t know this. Whenever someone is distraught, discouraged, or in the throes of despair, the advice given to them is often unhelpful, and even hurtful.

“You just need to be strong,” “Keep your chin up, I’m sure you have a lot to be thankful for,” and “Don’t cry, everything will work out okay,” are statements which betray we are uncomfortable with tears and are unsure what to do with them in others.

It can also be worse than that, with exhortations which only harm and don’t assist. “Dry up those tears or I’ll give you something to really cry about,” “Being sad and depressed like that is a sin, you know,” and “God wants you to be happy, so just put a smile on your face and fake it until you make it,” are a misuse of words and an abuse of language’s power.

So, I say again: Our tears find a better way.

To hold back our tears, to stuff our sadness and grief, does not make it go away. It’s still in there. And, if left there for too long, will come out sideways in harming others or even ourselves.

Whenever we put away our tears, we’re setting aside God’s most powerful means of healing, health, and wholeness. Tears are the conduit of integrating body and soul, where what’s going on inside is expressed on the outside.

Often, you don’t even need words when you have tears. The presence of the tears themselves becomes a form of language. They’re just there, and they are beautiful. Tears are evidence of brokenness, and more importantly, of healing and of strength, not weakness.

Tears are the body’s release valve for stress, sadness, grief, anxiety, and frustration. Like the ocean, tears are saltwater. They protectively lubricate the eyes, remove irritants, and contain antibodies that fight pathogenic microbes.

Dr. William Frey is a biochemist and an expert on human tears at the University of Minnesota. He states that our bodies produce three kinds of tears: reflex, continuous, and emotional. Each kind has different healing roles. Reflex tears allow the eyes to flush noxious particles when they’re irritated by smoke or exhaust. Continuous tears are produced regularly to keep our eyes lubricated and protected from infection.

Emotional tears were the experience of the psalmist. Whereas reflex tears are 98% water, emotional tears contain stress hormones that get excreted from the body through crying. Emotional crying stimulates the production of endorphins – the hormone necessary for happiness and a decrease of pain.

As the only creatures carrying God’s image and likeness within us, humans alone shed emotional tears. And that’s because God cries.

Jesus wept. Real tears. Emotional tears. Tears of genuine feeling and solidarity with the community, lamenting at the death of a dear friend, Lazarus.

“The Teacher is here,” Martha said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him.When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept. (John 11:28-35, NIV)

The Lord Jesus came to the village three days after Lazarus died. He knew exactly what he was about to do: raise Lazarus from the dead in a miraculous resurrection. Yet, he did not come all smiles stating, “Hey, guys, don’t be sad! Watch what I’m going to do!”

No, instead, Christ participated fully in the sisters’ and the community’s grief. Only until he had done this did he proceed to performing the miracle.

The tears, just as much as the resurrection itself, were redemptive.

There was a time, long ago, when the word “loser” meant exactly what the word says – that someone had lost someone. It was a descriptive word recognizing the aching hole in the heart that one experiences from the death of a loved friend or family member.

Now, however, the word “loser” has taken an insidious twist over the years – meaning someone who hasn’t won, somebody who didn’t have what it took to be a winner. It is now a negative term that nobody wants to wear as a moniker, at all.

Perhaps that is one reason why so many people wear plastic smiles, pretend they are strong, and insist on keeping up appearances… And it is killing us with unprecedented numbers of depression, anxiety, and outright despair with nowhere to place it.

Our tears show us a better way. It was the way of the psalmist. It is the way of our Lord. It is the way of life.

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.

Psalm 56:8, NLT

Beloved God, since all communion with You is prayer, my tears are psalms of petition and canticles of praise to You. The prayer You value greatly and always hear is the prayer of my tears; for You are a compassionate and kind God.

Surely, all truly great prayer rises from deep inside and springs spontaneously to the surface in the form of weeping. Perhaps, then, our tears are the purest and best worship of all.

May Your people not be ashamed of their tears; may they flow naturally and freely to You, my Blessed Redeemer. In times of joy or sorrow, blessed be the tears as the holy prayers of our hearts. Amen.