Learning from Lamentations

We are living in days of painful loss and disorienting change. Our grief is great, but we don’t like to enter into it. Jesus teaches us that we will be blessed if we allow ourselves to be poor in spirit, and that we will be comforted if we allow ourselves to grieve and mourn. But we resist.

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to grieve well. We could really learn from Lamentations, that astounding book of the Bible that tells the tale of the woes that God’s people are experiencing in exile.

The Book of Lamentations is a series of intense and heartfelt cries to God, pouring out pain in poetry that is stunningly beautiful. At the time of writing, there is no certainty at all that God will even answer the cries – it feels very possible that the loss of his favor is forever. Yet the poet cries out all the same. He tells his sad story to God, and holds out Hope.

There is one verse that seems especially pertinent to us who are experiencing agony amidst a pandemic, a general election, a cultural collapse, violent divisiveness, and whatever personal problems are unique to me or you:

“Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lamentations 1:12).

We tend to minimize our own pain. “I have nothing to complain about – other people have it much worse.” That is a very quantitative way of looking at my suffering. Of course there are always going to be other people who are suffering “more.” That doesn’t negate how authentic my own suffering is!

In truth there is no sad story like my own story, nor like your own story. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, in God’s own image. My story and yours are utterly unique. God deeply desires that our whole story be told – including the sad and painful parts.

Think of a three-year old with intense nausea or a terrible toothache. What mom or dad would scold him, “Stop complaining – there are other people who have it so much worse!” True, the suffering of a toothache or nausea is not nearly as bad as a terrorist bombing or rape or genocide. But all suffering matters! Every hair on our head is numbered, and no problem is too big or too small for the living God.

Lament is a lost art. It is the telling of our sad story in a way that reaches out for comfort and care, and freely invites genuine human connection.

Lament is not to be confused with counterfeits such as self-pity or manipulation. I can think of many moments in my past, and even some in recent days, in which I have not behaved well when overwhelmed with shame or anxiety or fear. I sometimes react with childish outbursts that draw attention to how hard things are for me. In those moments of self-pity, I am not telling the truth about my story. I am grasping or taking, using or manipulating, or perhaps desperately trying to shift the shame I am feeling away from myself and onto someone else. Instead of describing truthfully what is happening inside of me, instead of vulnerably stating a need and freely asking others for kindness, I am playing on their emotions to try to take what I need. It doesn’t work, and it ruptures relationships. It tends to push others further away – which in turn easily feeds the lie in my heart that others will leave me all alone when life gets hard.

In some ways, we can’t help these less-than-kind behaviors. If we do not allow ourselves to grieve and lament, our heart will keep trying. It will come out sideways – in self-pity or manipulation, in blame or resentment, in outbursts of anger, in passive aggression, in depression, or even in bodily ailments. Our story deserves to be told, and our hearts, made in God’s own image, will keep fighting to bring our story to the light of day, even when we resist.

Lament tells our true story. It speaks the truth deeply, not so much about the factual events, but about what the experience was like. It paints a picture with the five senses, engaging the emotions and the imagination. This process takes enormous courage, because it activates our memory and draws us down into the depths. We easily fear we will never find our way out again. Those fears certainly didn’t stop Jeremiah (or whoever it was who poured out his grief in Lamentations).

Lament speaks the truth about the sad parts of our story, about the pain we are carrying. It refuses to lie or minimize. It fights the urge to shift the attention elsewhere. Far from masochism, lament is essential to authentic Hope. Instead of stashing our pain away, instead of living a compartmentalized and fragmented existence, our lamentation reaches out to the faithfulness of God for ultimate rescue and resolution. It complains to God and reminds him of his promises. It freely and meekly invites other human beings to stand with us as willing witnesses to our story, even at the risk of their saying no or bailing out. United in communion with other members of Christ, we willingly suffer and die with him, and watch and wait for the surprise of resurrection to come. As in the Book of Lamentations, we do not know when or how the rescue will come; we sense that some things are gone forever.  But for all that, we hold out Hope. We open ourselves to the possibilities promised by God, which are very well put in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot and the mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

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