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.

Jeremiah 20:14-18

            Perhaps you feel as though you must put on a good face, a decent front for others to see.  You don’t like other people seeing you upset or cry because it can be embarrassing.  Sometimes you might even put up a front with God.  Maybe you think God wants everyone to be perpetually happy and always come to Him with joy and gladness.  That would not be an accurate view of God.
            One of the most faithful people in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah, freely and unabashedly lamented before God – to the point of wishing he were dead.  That’s right.  Jeremiah, the incredible prophet of God, was so despondent and ashamed that he wished he were never even born.  “Why did I have to be born? Was it just to suffer and die in shame?”
            To say that Jeremiah had a difficult ministry is an understatement.  He had the ministry from hell, ministering and prophesying to people who neither liked him, nor his message to them.  In the middle of it all, Jeremiah through up his hands and let out his complaint to God.  Jeremiah was in such misery doing his ministry that he wished he was stillborn.
            Jeremiah, however, is not alone in the Bible.  David had no scruples about letting God know how he felt about his dire circumstances.  Job, likely the most famous sufferer of all, spent time doing nothing but lamenting his terrible losses for months.  What all three of them have in common is that they openly grieved with great tears, but never cursed God and did not forsake Him.
            Lamentation is the sacred space between intense grieving before God without blaming Him for our losses.  I would even argue that lamenting and grieving before God is a necessary spiritual practice which needs full recognition in the Body of Christ.  Please think about that last statement, and consider how it might become a reality in your own life and context.

 

God of all, you feel deeply about a great many things.  As your people, we also feel a great depth of emotion when our lives go horribly awry from our dreams and expectations.  Hear our lament as we pour out our grief before You; through Jesus, our Savior, with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:7-13

            The prophet Jeremiah had a tough gig.  God didn’t give him much choice about his life’s work.  Jeremiah was commissioned by God with a message of doom and destruction.  If that weren’t enough, God promised him that no one would respond, nobody would repent, and not one person would listen to what he had to say.
            The reality of Jeremiah’s life-work is what makes his response in our Old Testament lesson for today understandable: “Sometimes I tell myself not to think about you, LORD, or even mention your name.  But your message burns in my heart and bones, and I cannot keep silent.”
            Maybe you can relate in some small way.  It isn’t always easy talking about God to others, let alone talking about some subject pertaining to Him which other people really don’t want to hear.  Yet, as the people of God, we discover it is much more painful to keep it all inside than it is letting it out and taking the consequences as they may come.
            Or, it could be that you resonate with Jeremiah’s trying to distance himself from God.  You were hurt, wounded in some way, and no matter how hard you run away from him God is the hound of heaven that tracks you down and won’t leave you alone.
            Don’t keep silent.  Speak.  Let out what is important to you.  Ignoring it, wishing it would go away, or thinking God will eventually give-up isn’t going to happen, my friend.  Let the message burn in your heart.  Do something about it… today!

 

God Almighty, you have your ways in this world and they don’t always make sense to me.  Sticking my fingers in my ears trying to pretend you’re not there isn’t working – my heart burns within me.  So, enable me to speak with all the confidence of the message I have; through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit.  Amen.

Lamentations 5:1-22

            Prayer is not about getting the right words strung together in a correct formula in a perfect disposition of the heart.  Prayer is conversation.  Prayer is communication with God.  Sometimes it looks a lot more like a triage unit than a steeple, and like desperation more than ebullient praise.  God is someone we tell the truth about what is really going on in our lives.  Prayer is not prayer when we just tell God what we think he wants to hear.
 
            Jeremiah prayed, and much of it was lament, complaint, and raw feeling.  We hear his cry to God, not worrying about whether it is appropriate language or not.  So, we get prayer phrases like:  “We are worn out and can find no rest.”  “Our hearts are sad.”  “We are doomed.”  “We feel sick all over and can’t even see straight.”  “Why have you forgotten us for so long?”  “Do you despise us so much that you don’t want us?”  Jeremiah was not concerned about how he sounded, and not afraid to express his real thoughts.
 
            Every thought or feeling is a valid entry into prayer.  It is of utmost importance that we pray what is actually inside of us and not what we believe God would like to see in us.  God doesn’t like pretense and posturing; he wants the real us.  Plastic words and phony speeches are an affront to him.  We need to pray precisely what is on our minds and hearts – unfiltered if need be.  It’s okay.  God is most certainly big enough to handle it.  No matter the headache or the heartache, we only need to pray without concern for perfection.
 

 

            Gracious God, sometimes I feel like I have to have it all together to even speak to you.  But you already know my heart better than I know it myself.  Forgive my constant hiding from you, and accept my heartfelt prayer to you for grace and help!  Amen.

Lamentations 3:19-26

            Those who are regular readers of this blog know that I continually talk about the need to read and pray the Scriptures over and over again, slowly.  Reading our Bibles ought to be last thing we do in order to check it off our to-do list.  One of the reasons I believe so many Christians struggle today with how to cope with life in a difficult and changing world is that there is far too little contemplative and meditative readings of Holy Scripture.  Today’s poetry from the Old Testament is most certainly one of those Bible passages that really demands to be read several times with some thought, prayer, and flavor.  Here it is in the Contemporary English Version of the Bible:
 
19 Just thinking of my troubles
and my lonely wandering
makes me miserable.
20 That’s all I ever think about,
and I am depressed.
21 Then I remember something
that fills me with hope.
22 The Lord’s kindness never fails!
If he had not been merciful,
we would have been destroyed.
23 The Lord can always be trusted
to show mercy each morning.
24 Deep in my heart I say,
“The Lord is all I need;
I can depend on him!”
25 The Lord is kind to everyone
who trusts and obeys him.
26 It is good to wait patiently
for the Lord to save us.
 

 

Amen!

Jeremiah 23:9-22

            Martin Luther King, Jr. was much like a modern-day prophet.  In all he said and did he kept asking people to close the distance between the values they espoused and their actual behavior.  The terrible treatment King and his allies received during the civil rights movement in marches and demonstrations brought-out the awful gap between our American values of freedom, fairness, and tolerance and the reality that African-Americans really did not possess these in any manner close to the white population.  King’s prophetic ministry forced many people to come face-to-face with the disparity between beliefs and behaviors.
 
            The prophet Jeremiah knew all about such a gulf between expressed values and actual conduct.  And it was a very large chasm.  Like King, Jeremiah was imprisoned, had rocks thrown at him, and was jeered for his message of calling people to live up to God’s agenda for humanity.  White supremacy, or at least white privilege, was taken for granted in much of America before King.  In the same way, Israelite privilege was taken for granted in Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day.  False prophets kept proclaiming Jewish supremacy and insisted that the Lord would be on their side of things.  “But, I, the LORD, tell you that these prophets have never attended a meeting of my council in heaven or heard me speak.”
 
            The spirit of the age simply accepted power, privilege, and pedigree as the norm that ought to always endure.  But God thinks different.  And he sends his prophets to call us back to true justice, righteousness, and peace for all persons – not just for some privileged people who take their freedom for granted.  An exercise in healthy introspection would be to consider what our most cherished values are, and ask whether they are God’s values.  If so, then are those values truly being expressed in our everyday actions and behaviors?
 

 

            All-Seeing God, you know the true state of every heart and every people group.  Do your work of making me holy in all I do and say so that the treasure of Christ’s salvation might be expressed through me in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 17:14-27

            God had a serious thing about the Sabbath.  Throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the lack of observing a Sabbath day’s rest is consistently mentioned as a reason why judgment was on its way.  And it wasn’t just a side issue for God; He really took umbrage about treating the Sabbath like any other day of the week.  Listen to the cold description:  “If you value your lives, don’t do any work on the Sabbath….  If you keep on carrying things through the city gates on the Sabbath [in order to do business] and keep treating it as any other day, I will set fire to these gates and burn down the whole city, including the fortresses.”
 
            Whoa!  What is that all about?  Such language and warnings are pretty strange to our modern ears.  Why in the world would God be so upset about doing a little business on the Sabbath day?  The reason the Lord held tenaciously to a Sabbath rest is that it was intended as a time of sheer enjoyment and change of pace from all the other days.  It was a chance to connect with God in a special way.  It was an opportunity for God’s people to connect with each other in worship and delight in the unforced rhythms of gracious relationships. 
 
            But for centuries, the people forsook this Sabbath day because they wanted to do business, make some more money, and carry on just like everyone else did in the world.  There will always be work to do – another phone call, one more business connection or task, or correspondence to maintain.  After all, can’t let the competitors get the advantage!  So, if working on the Sabbath is what it took, okay we’ll do it.  But God interpreted all this as a profound lack of faith and stiff-arm in his face.  Rather than trust in the Lord, the slippery slope of a downward relationship with God began with simply not paying attention to the Sabbath.
 
            Whether we need to hold to the actual same Sabbath day rest today for Christians has often been debated.  But what is not up for debate is setting aside a consistent weekly time and place for extended rest with the Lord.  If we see this as negotiable, perhaps we need to spend some more time in the prophetic books.
 

 

            Holy God, you scan the earth looking for faithful people.  May the gift of faith you have given me nurture and grow into a consistent, sustained, and committed life of fellowship with Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.