Regularly in this life we experience personal situations of mourning: death, disease, addiction, broken relationships, and financial hardship. In the Scriptures God has given us a means to process our feelings of grief, anger, and mourning. God has graciously offered us the biblical category of faithful lament.
Lament is not about losing faith. Lament is not about blaming God. Lament is not blasphemy. Lament is not disrespectful. Lament is not whining. Lament is not wallowing in misery.
Lament is an act of faith. Talking to God is a way of acknowledging God exists; therefore it is an act of faith. Lament is an honest conversation with God. In lament we name our pain, misery, and disillusionment. In lament we claim the promise that God hears us. We are not alone, and God listens to our prayer. In lament we lay out our questions. In lament we cling to what we know, and admit that sometimes the things we know are few.
Two things keep us from lament. First, many of us feel pressure to be positive all the time. In church and spiritual contexts many of us feel pressure to put on a happy face. We need to give each other permission to not always be positive and happy.
Second, many of us feel pressure that our faith should always resolve. We don’t like loose ends. We struggle with unanswered questions. Put differently, many of us like books and movies where all the plot lines resolve. Lament is not like that. We need to admit that in this life we will not always have answers.
Let’s turn to the book of Lamentations. In the sixth century BC the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. The prophets interpreted this as God’s judgment on centuries of idol worship as well as various forms of immorality. To the Hebrews no place symbolized safety and security more than Jerusalem, particularly Solomon’s temple. But in 586 BC the Babylonians destroyed and burned both the city and the temple. In the siege leading up to the destruction, people resorted to unspeakable things. Perhaps, most noteworthy among these was cannibalism.
Most believe the prophet Jeremiah, who experienced this invasion firsthand, wrote Lamentations. Today Jews customarily read it once a year. Maybe we should learn something from their commitment to regularly spending time in laments. One disclaimer before reading though: the prophets interpreted the destruction of Jerusalem as divine judgment. We should be careful not to interpret all pain and suffering as divine judgment.
Let me read selections of Lamentations before focusing on chapter 3.
1:1 How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. (Laments always begin with an honest description of the situation. Notice how honest this is. Too often nowadays, we like to clean things up and give a positive spin.)
2:11 My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city. 12 They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers' bosom.
4:9 Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field. 10 The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.
These verses should encourage us to be honest. It’s okay to make a list for God. Write it down. Say it out loud. This is the first thing we learn about laments. Whatever you are concerned about -- tell God. It’s okay to be honest. Surround yourself with people with whom you can be real.
The lament is not all doom and gloom, however. The book reaches its climax in chapter 3.
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 who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. 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.
Faithful lament in the Bible follows a sequence. Orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. The present way things are is shattered. A time of disillusionment and sorrow comes. But the writer longs for the time when things will be different. It’s a simple sequence. How things were. How things are. How we want things to be.
In the time of disorientation the writer lists the things known. This is the second thing we learn about laments. Name your concerns or what you don’t know. And then name what you do know. Jeremiah doesn’t understand all that has happened, but this he does know. God is love. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” I don’t know everything about God. Much of God is so mysterious. But I know God is love. I know God has a deep love for his people and his creation. God is faithful. “Great is your faithfulness.” God does not forget. God does not abandon us. God is not removed from us. God will not cast off forever. And God is good. “The LORD is good to those who wait for him.” God is not evil.
In times of grief, I don’t know much. But I know God is love, God is faithful, God is good. Knowledge and facts can puff up, and in times of tragedy, our ready answers can fall like a house of cards. But I know God is love, God is faithful, God is good. These three things keep me anchored, even if they don’t make everything better right away. They keep my faith from disintegrating.
In times of sadness we long for a time that is better. In times of pain we worry, “Will things be like this forever?” Laments say yes. Things will get better.
This is the third thing we learn about laments. Laments express hope in a renewed future. Laments hope for a better time. Things will not be this way forever. Someday, we don’t know when, but someday things will be better. A new day is coming. We anticipate that new day. We long for it. Laments give us a hopeful trajectory. We move in a direction of hope, not despair.
And you know what? Jeremiah was right. The LORD was faithful. The Hebrews outlasted Babylon. After 70 years a remnant of Jews returned to their land. They rebuilt the temple. More than that, many years later a greater temple came: Jesus Christ. And when he was torn down, he came back to life. Jesus conquered death, and in him we too can conquer death. This is the basis of our hope.
That is where faithful lament takes us. It’s an ancient biblical practice we need to recapture. We should not live lives of pessimism or cynicism, but it’s okay to lament every now and then. Give yourself permission to not always be positive, especially when things are bad.
First, be honest. Name your pain. Say it out loud. Talk to God. Two, in the midst of uncertainty, remind yourself what you do know: God is love. God is faithful. God is good. Third, take comfort in the fact that someday things will be better. Live in that hope.
Until Jesus comes back, life will have its ups and downs. We’ll receive difficult phone calls. We’ll be shocked by things in the news. We will grieve. But we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Because of Jesus, we grieve differently. We grieve in faith, in hope, and in love.
A sermon by J. P. Conway, Acklen Avenue Church of Christ, June 28, 2015