Lamentations 3:22-33 – The Need for Lament

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We all face situations, at points in our lives, which cause us to grieve. Grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss. Bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events bringing grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

Grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life, for example, moving to a new house in a new area, an empty nest, getting married, having children, or beginning a new job. These all produce grief, even if that loss and change were chosen, anticipated, or necessary.

The worst way to approach these 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 take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses. We have with Lamentations an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim a very unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him, and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile – only compounding Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching 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.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple. It was 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.

The hope of love, compassion, and new life comes from first lamenting our losses. There are two popular phrases in our 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, compound the anger and sadness:

  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 or level of grief, unable to effectively move through their grief because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful – not to mention now guilty on top of it for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. 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. That’s because they can’t. Broken spirits, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Embracing 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, of emotional problems today. 

Jerry Sittser, a Reformed pastor and professor, wrote an important book entitled, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Many years ago, 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. Sittser writes:

“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

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor emeritus at Yale University. 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 expressed 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 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.”

Nicholas Wolsterstorff

We all accumulate many 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 that 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. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses. We need to avoid superficial responses to significant events. We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to see new life.
  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 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. Jeremiah did not minimize his 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. 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 “Come on 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 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. 

But you have 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 are:

  • More patient with others with an increased capacity to wait on God.
  • Kinder and more compassionate.
  • Lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.
  • Comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.
  • Humble, gentle, and meek. 
  • Able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but also in the mundane, banal, and lowly.
  • More 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 it catch you. Let grief do its deep and powerful work within you.

*Above painting of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

**Above painting of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

Job 6:1-13 – A Response to Suffering

Job by French painter Léon Bonnat, 1880

Oh, that my grief was weighed,
    all of it were lifted in scales;
    for now it is heavier than the sands of the sea;
        therefore, my words are rash.
The Almighty’s arrows are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison,
    and God’s terrors are arrayed against me.
Does a donkey bray over grass
    or an ox bellow over its fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or does egg white have taste?
I refuse to touch them;
    they resemble food for the sick.

Oh, that what I’ve requested would come
        and God grant my hope;
    that God be willing to crush me,
    release his hand and cut me off.
I’d still take comfort,
    relieved even though in persistent pain;
        for I’ve not denied the words of the holy one.
What is my strength, that I should hope;
    my end, that my life should drag on?
Is my strength that of rocks,
    my flesh bronze?
I don’t have a helper for myself;
    success has been taken from me. (CEB)

The Old Testament character of Job is famous as the poster boy for suffering, grief, and sorrow. A divine and devilish drama was taking place behind the curtain of this world, of which Job had absolutely no clue about.  All he knew was that he lost everything – his family, his wealth, and his standing before others.  The only thing left was his own life – and he was in such physical pain and emotional agony that he was ready to die.

Yet, the greatest pain of all seems to be the silence of God. Job has no idea, nothing to grab ahold of no earthly sense of why he was going through such intense and terrible suffering. His cries, tears, pleas, and expressions of deep hurt seemingly go un-noticed. Job felt truly alone in his horrible pain of body and spirit.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Job’s story is as old as time – probably having taken place 4,000 years ago. And here we are, all these millennia later, knowing the story of why Job suffered, as well as the end of the story. But Job himself never knew why he suffered, even when God spoke and restored his health and wealth.

It is so extremely easy and normal to ask the question, “Why!?”  When we are in the throes of emotional pain and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, there is only trust left for us. We do what is unthinkable to others who have never known God – place our complete reliance and hope on the God for whom we know is not really sleeping or off on a vacation. We believe, even know, God is there. For whatever reasons which we might never know this side of heaven, God chooses to remain silent.

The genuineness of faith is not determined by giving the right answers to a theology questionnaire. Genuine faith is made strong through the trials, sufferings, pain, and lack of understanding in this life. We all suffer in some way. How we choose to respond to that suffering, either by cursing God and becoming bitter, or holding to God even tighter and becoming better, is totally up to you and me.

God of all creation, you see and survey all your creatures here on this earth. Sometimes I just do not understand what in the world you are doing or not doing. Yet today I choose to put my faith, hope, and love in you.  I may not know what the heck I am doing, but you always work to accomplish your good purposes, through Jesus Christ, my Savior, along with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Psalm 42 – Sadness and Hope

As a deer gets thirsty 
    for streams of water, 
    I truly am thirsty 
    for you, my God. 
In my heart, I am thirsty 
for you, the living God. 
    When will I see your face? 
Day and night my tears 
    are my only food, 
    as everyone keeps asking, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Sorrow floods my heart, 
    when I remember 
leading the worshipers 
    to your house.  
    I can still hear them shout 
    their joyful praises. 
Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. 

I am deeply discouraged 
    as I think about you 
from where the Jordan begins 
at Mount Hermon 
    and from Mount Mizar.  
Your vicious waves 
    have swept over me 
    like an angry ocean 
    or a roaring waterfall. 

Every day, you are kind, 
    and at night 
you give me a song 
    as my prayer to you, 
    the living Lord God. 

You are my mighty rock.  
    Why have you forgotten me? 
    Why must enemies mistreat me 
    and make me sad? 
Even my bones are in pain, 
    while all day long 
my enemies sneer and ask, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. (CEV) 

Sadness. Every human on planet earth knows the feeling. Since we are emotional creatures, profound sadness even to the point of depression and/or despondency will happen. Yet, despite the universal nature of discouragement and tears, many Christians buck the sadness.

Far too many believers focus so exclusively on victory in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, and glorification that they use religion as their denial when unwanted emotions like sadness come banging at the doorstep of their soul. 

So, I most emphatically say: Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. Experiencing sadness is neither wrong nor selfish. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is necessary to sit with our emotions and feel the breadth and depth of them. Both our spiritual and emotional health come through an awareness and robust engagement with our feelings. To refuse to feel is to put the stiff arm to God.  

The psalmist does anything but deny his feelings. He brings them before the Lord and spreads them out before the Divine. Why am I discouraged? Why am I restless? Why the sadness? Could it be that God has forgotten me? Where is the Lord? Is God angry with me? Are my troubles the result of divine wrath? 

To blandly say we have never uttered or thought such questions is a telltale sign of denial. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel because such emotions complicate their lives. Besides, discouragement and sadness hurt. “Why feel,” we reason, “when it only brings pain?” 

Ah, yes, the avoidance of pain. And there is no pain quite like emotional and spiritual pain. Much like an open wound which needs a liberal application of painful peroxide, so our spiritual wounds must sting with the salve of emotional feeling. Healing is neither cheap, easy, nor painless. It typically hurts like hell. 

The psalmist’s own pain revolved around feelings of alienation from God, being cut off from fellow worshipers, and harassed by others around him. Understandably, he experienced despondency and loneliness. The psalmist wondered if anyone, including God, even cared what he was going through. In other words, he is desperate for God to show up. 

I am going to make a simple observation about this psalm: The psalmist did not get any answers to the several questions he posed. He even repeated them, to no avail. The only form of comfort the psalmist received was to remember what God had done in the past. Somehow, someway, this will help with the difficulties of the present. 

There are times in life when we must recall what we know about God, ourselves, and others. If the Lord has delivered in the past, God can do it again. If others helped before, perhaps they will be present in the here and now. And just maybe, even likely, you and I will discover a resilient spirit within. We already possess everything we need to not only survive but to grow and thrive in life. 

Hope arises from holding the big picture of the past, present, and future together at the same time. When present circumstances are difficult, and it appears we are about to swallowed up into the now, we must hold the past and future along with it, in careful tension. Then, we shall find the ennoblement to keep going. 

Trust in the future, a confident expectation of hope, is born from the trustworthiness of the past. A prayerful song in our heart will carry us through till our hope is realized. 

Guilt, Grace, and Debt-Collecting: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Nikola Saric
Parable of the Unforgiving Servant by Serbian German painter Nikola Saric

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35, NIV)

It is unfortunate that one of the few guarantees in life is that someone will hurt you, and that hurt will tear a hole in your heart and last a long time.

When the hurt comes, we all must decide how to handle the issue of forgiveness. Oh, it’s easy to talk about forgiveness when you are doing fine – its another thing when you are hurt. One man, during a conversation with his Pastor, had this story:

“Nineteen years ago, this guy stole my wife away from me. They got married and moved to Florida while my life unraveled.  After I was arrested for assaulting a police officer, this guy smirked through the entire hearing.  When I was convicted, he flipped me the finger. I’ve hated him for nineteen years. He’s coming up here next week. I have a thirty-two-caliber pistol strapped around my ankle, and when I see him, I will kill him. I’ve thought about it. I’m sixty-three years old. I’ll get a life sentence, but I’ll also get free medical, a warm bed, and three meals a day.  I’m ready to end my life this way.”

We may wonder: “Why even bother to forgive?  Why even care about that person?” Emotional pain and angry hurt can be so deep that we see no need for forgiveness. “After all,” we might reason, “look at what that person has done to me!”

Jesus does not want bitterness to be the last word; he wants it to be forgiveness. The parable of the unmerciful servant is a piece of Christ’s teaching concerning “little people,” that is, people who are, by status, lowly and unimportant to others. The heavenly Father’s heart is one that cares deeply for them. They are lost, lonely, and languishing in pain. They need help. Jesus clearly explained what to do, giving a three-step process to privately go to others who have hurt us and win them back through reconciliation (Matthew 18:15).

The disciple Peter, ever the wondering, if not wandering disciple knows that if a person hurts someone, they might do it again. So, if a lost sheep is brought back to the fold, and then is offensive again-and-again, at what point do we say enough-is-enough and stop forgiving?

We as people can often feel a keen sense of “ought to.” We feel we ought to pay the debt we owe to others, and that others must pay us the debt they owe. This works on the emotional level just as much or more than any other arena of life. If we offend someone and they become angry, we believe we ought to make them feel better.  If someone angers us, we expect them to make it right and make us feel better.

The late Methodist scholar and author, Dr. David Seamands, said the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are: 1) The failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and, 2) The failure to give that grace and forgiveness to other people. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Seamands.

We have grace available to us in Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. We cannot earn forgiveness.  Grace is free.  Equally true is the fact that no one owes us anything.  Grace is free for others, as well.

The Failure to Receive Forgiveness

In the end, was the unmerciful man in Christ’s parable forgiven?… No…. Why not?… Because he failed to understand forgiveness and receive it.  It was not the master’s fault; it was the man’s own fault. So, why did he react so mercilessly to a fellow person in debt? (The man’s debt was in the billions and could not be paid off, but the other man’s debt was just a few dollars). The unmerciful guy failed to grasp the master’s grace; he didn’t get it.  He thought he could work it off, and when the debt was canceled, he could not wrap his heart around such mercy. None of us can repay grace – it is free.

The inability to know and receive grace drives many Christians to the tragic treadmill of constant striving for perfection, achievement, and recognition from others. Many people refuse grace and instead try to get rid of their guilt through endless work – fueling the workaholic, motivating the addict, and animating much of the service done in the church and the world. The problem is not a lack of understanding sin or acknowledging personal sinful actions among Christians; the problem is what to do about it. Too many believers are trying to work-off their debt.

The Unforgiving Servant by American artist James B. Jangknegt

Here is a little test: Why do you do what you do? Why do you do good and right things?  Be honest.  Is it to truly worship and celebrate the Lord who has erased such a great debt of sin in our lives? Or, are we working to pay off a debt to God?  Am I striving to assuage my guilt? Are we searching to feel better through our service to others?

We can be so accustomed to operating according to guilt instead of grace that we don’t know what to with the absence of guilt – so we just go back to guilt as our default setting, like a dog returning to its vomit. Furthermore, the tragedy is compounded by insisting that others operate out of guilt, too.

Another little test: Are we content to simply ask people to help or to serve, or do we believe that there must be arm-twisting with some guilt to motivate them? Guilt and arm-twisting are inconsistent with the gospel of grace.  If we believe we must guilt our kids, family, co-workers, neighbors, or anyone else before they will do anything, then it is us who have a spiritual problem.

Ideally, we live and work out of a sense of gratitude toward God and not by guilt. Yet, there are always folks who continue to work out their unhappiness on other people by insisting they get on the guilt train along with them. We are unable to forgive ourselves, so we live with the guilt and try to pay off our debt, making ourselves and everyone else miserable in the process.

The Failure to Give Forgiveness

The unforgiven are the unforgiving. The reason the guy in the story responded so violently to a person who only owes him a few bucks is because he never really believed he was forgiven by the master in the first place. He could not envision a world in which his debt was paid. The unmerciful man was still operating as though life were a matter of collecting debts.

At the heart of many broken relationships and emotional conflicts is an insistence on debt-collecting. We want from others something they cannot give us. God in Christ erases the great debt we have, not some other person.  Yet, we go out and seek from others what only God provides. People are good at being people – but they make lousy gods. It is God who meets the deepest needs of our hearts – your spouse, children, friends, church, and community cannot do it. That is a job for Jesus. The watershed issue is grace – whether we can receive it, or not.  We cannot give something we have not first received.

It would be weird if a marriage vow went something like this: “I have a lot of terrific inner needs and inner emptiness and debts to pay, and I’m going to give you a marvelous opportunity to fill my Grand Canyon of insecurity and take care of me!”

Sometimes people have a nasty tendency to make idols of other people and look at them as though they owe us a debt of happiness, joy, and peace. For example, the weird marriage vow, if followed through with, inevitably will result in debt-collecting. A few years down the road the spouse says, “This is not what you were like when I married you… You owe me!” Our insecurity comes from the inability to receive grace. It is all about grace. Everything is about grace, not guilt and not debt-collecting because the debt has already been paid and the guilt has been erased.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled (with the blood of Christ) to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. (Hebrews 10:22)

Conclusion

You and I are forgiven. There is no need to collect a debt which is already paid. The cross of Jesus Christ has taken care of the sin issue once for all, and not one person reading this is an exception to grace. Here is a final exam, to determine if there is someone we need to forgive:

  1. The Resentment Test: Is there someone you resent? Is there someone who has wronged you?  When you see them or think about them, do you have resentment in your heart?
  2. The Responsibility Test: You say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for ________.”  This is passing the buck and believing that my happiness is dependent on another person. The truth is that no one is responsible for your emotional well-being and happiness except you.
  3. The Reminder and Reaction Test: Is there someone who “presses your buttons?” This is when we see or talk to a person who reminds us of someone else who hurt us, and we react to that person by transferring our anger and/or pain onto them.

The Pastor responded to the man mentioned earlier who had lost his wife to another man by saying, “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter if you go to jail because you’re already in jail.  The guy who stole your wife and smirked at your hearing isn’t in jail. You are. You are a prisoner of your own hate, and you are slowly killing yourself.”  A week after that conversation the man called the Pastor and said, “You know, I get your point.  I put the gun away.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail – and I want to get rid of this bitterness.”

The way to do deal with bitterness is through forgiveness. To forgive involves a long journey, just like every other aspect of following Jesus. Hopefully, by retelling the gospel of grace to one another week after week our hearts will be soft.  We will want to begin the journey to forgive others, stumbling forward with hearts torn by hurts, yet set free by grace.

May it be so to the glory of God.