In Western cultures, the call to lament is often an uncomfortable one. In a country where it’s easy to avoid seeing pain or loss, where entertainment is the air we breathe, where every screen we see and touch was sold to amuse us in some way, we have to go out of our way to listen to sorrow. We have to seek out hurt if we are to engage it. In our culture built on instant gratification, glamorized social media, and modern convenience we choose when we want to inform ourselves and when we don’t. We can choose to look the other way as we pass a food stamp mom in the grocery store or to avoid the street corner with the homeless man. We can skip commercials for relief agencies on tv, and we can be blissfully unaware of apartment complexes in our own city filled with refugee families.
Christians have a higher obligation to dwell with the grieving in their loss, yet we have let our culture inform us about what is ‘appropriate.’ It isn’t in vogue to schedule up a free afternoon to weep with someone. When someone loses a family member how often do we visit? Do we stay away for fear of impinging on their privacy? Do we send meal or a card in place of our presence in that room with inconsolable loss? When was the last time you held someone rocked with uncontrollable sobs?
No. Grief is for privacy, says our culture. Run to the next thing, return to work, plaster a smile on your ache because you shouldn’t be upset after a few weeks, certainly not in public. As a friend of someone grieving we offer books instead of blessings and cards instead of care. We offer Hallmark brand peace instead of presence and lament: ‘I’m sending prayers,’ instead of the visceral, skin-to-skin prayer in which your uncomfortable words ring somehow even more hollow into an already hollow silence.
Those of us in grief are no better. We’d rather stick our hand down a paper shredder than ‘inconvenience’ someone with an outburst of emotion or ask them to listen to our jumbled thoughts and emotions. Why do we feel the need to put on a happy face no matter the circumstances? A fake mask of peace does not show the world God is sufficient in our time of grief. Jesus said he gives peace not as the world gives. His peace does not lead to a sunny disposition in the face of loss. It led him to weep at the tomb of a friend three days dead while cherishing hope of resurrection. His peace hopes for miracles, trusts in the goodness of God, and looks to the Lord as the only one who can satisfy in the ‘even so’s of grief.
The peace Jesus gives does not lead us to sing the same happy songs at church every Sunday. His peace holds us at anchor so well that we need not fear sorrow will irreparably rip us apart and we need not hide our lamentation for fear he is not good enough or big enough to answer it.
I’ve just spent over a month in Jeremiah and Lamentations. It’s overwhelming how deep and many-sided grief is. I filled half a piece of paper writing down one-to-two word descriptions of the emotions in the first chapter of Lamentations alone. The poetry is powerful and it evokes feelings too strong for prose. I feel helpless and useless immersed in grief that real and raw. And I think that’s the point. Emotions stronger than us remind us we are made in the image of God. Though we feel them imperfectly our reactions to loss, injustice, and brokenness are echoes of divine design in the deepest parts of our souls. Such emotions stretch us outside of ourselves. The depths of such grief remind us that we long for the better country, and for the perfect presence of God.
Lamentations is the gut-wrenching account of God’s people taken into exile after a brutal defeat in war and ravages committed against their land and people. The first half of the book repeatedly records the speaker’s longing for a comforter. He watches in horror as all his people depended upon falls away. National allies desert them. Neighbors become enemies. Enemies gloat. Those who would take pity on them recoil and hiss at God’s people as at a nation unclean, wicked, and cursed.
In such indescribable grief, the poet laments a suffocating aloneness. He feels totally cut off from friends, family, allies, or even strangers who would offer aid and comfort. His words demonstrate that grief can be too wild for reason, and lamentation and hope are the only comforts fit to deal with such a powerful force. He longs for a comforting presence. His repeated requests for a friend to comfort knell like a haunting church bell at a poorly attended funeral. What he wants is a person to share in his lament.
We don’t share emotion often; we hold it as a personal matter. Lamentation is the opposite of that. It’s the tradition of keening, of a period of mourning, of wearing black. It’s the throat-tearing cries of grief as well as the continual undercurrent of stifled sobs. Lamentation is taking on and sharing the grief of another. Lamentation helps someone deprived of a homeland or a child, someone with a broken heart or a broken body—someone who has lost—by inhabiting their grief with them so they do not feel so alone in it.
The book of Lamentations shows that grief is meant to be shared if we ever hope to find comfort, and that the only ultimate unfailing comfort is in the Lord. The third chapter brings the book to a climax, stating that the poet’s only hope is in the Lord, whose mercies are new every morning, who is good to those who seek him, and who is the portion and inheritance of our souls. The Lord is our hope in suffering because he sees injustice and judges. He hears our cries, calms our fears, and redeems our life. These are the words of the poet in his desperate grief. Knowing God is his hope.
But the poet doesn’t trust God in blind faith. He trusts God because of his character. No matter how one answers the question of how a good God could let bad things happen, Lamentations answers with a profound sense of God’s justice and his mercy. Only the mind and heart of God can fully grasp and balance satisfactory justice against sin, with abounding mercy for the repentant, and whole justice for the victim. His inexplicable character solves the conundrum that seems to have no logical solution to the human mind. The Lord’s fresh mercies for sinners who are victims and victims who are sinners are always a source of fresh hope, and the Lord’s love to any who seek him and “kiss the rod,” is the best rescue we could imagine from any kind of loss we can experience.
“For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.
To crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the earth,
to deny a man justice
in the presence of the Most High,
to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
the Lord does not approve.
Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?”
The Lord is just, but he also deals in compassion and steadfast love. We could not imagine a better anchor in grief and sorrow. And as we open our eyes to the call to grieve with others, the book of Lamentations should be our guide. Its poetry is impressive. Capturing deep emotions in few words, it crams the whole spectrum of human grief and loss into five short chapters. Hope in loss is a theme of Lamentations, but that hope depends fully on knowing God and following him in grief. Psalm 126 must have been written in answer to Lamentations. The words are too similar to the last chapter be anything otherwise. They’re a reminder that when God restores a broken, grieving world, he gets all the praise, and recognition.
Lamentations 5:14-15, 19-22
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why do you forget us forever,
why do you forsake us for so many days?
Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
Lamentations ends with the words above: a statement of faith, a request for hope and restoration, and a humble question about whether God’s justice has yet been satisfied. The book ends there, but the story does not. Psalm 126 is one answer, and in it God’s people recount his goodness and his answer of comfort. Jesus came to earth later in redemption history and died as our sacrifice so that we might be reconciled with God and live continually in the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. Grief will always be around until Jesus comes back, so lamentation will be necessary until that time too. But in Jesus we have an even clearer answer of hope in the face of life-shattering loss.
As I read through Lamentations and processed my thoughts for this blog I was broken for the billions on our planet who grieve with no comfort and no hope. They have no answer and no anchor to hold them steady in times of sorrow unless we who know God do something about it. I have felt convicted and challenged to probe deeper with friends, believers and not, to find and empathize with their past and present. As a believer I should be a person of safety and comfort, always ready to help people unburden themselves and put it on Jesus. I should be the comfort in answer to the poet’s plea ready to point any and all to the hope I have in Christ. I should invite confidence and have a listening ear ready. Kindness shown to someone in distress is the surest way to point them in earnestness toward God.
So, dear reader, take time in your life to seek out the sorrow our culture buries under a sympathy card or a well-meaning meal. Ask an immigrant what she loved and lost in her home country. Ask what he would be doing in the spring in his country. Share wordless tears and a hand to hold with someone who just lost their grandparents. Ask about their ache, even if it has been years ago now. Listen to a single mother grieve about the life she cannot give to her kids. Remind someone with a chronic illness that their drawn-out grief is not an inconvenience to you but an invitation into their life to comfort and listen. Do not limit grief to hushed parlors, but share it in the congregation. In all these situations, call out hope. Point to the God who deals both justice and mercy, who restores our soul.