Everyone loves a story with a happy ending. A great story, usually, has a complex protagonist, an antagonist or villain, several supporting characters, a seemingly unresolvable conflict or obstacle, and then resolution to it. Even adults love a fairy tale ending where everyone lives happily ever after.
Too often though, I want my personal story to skip past the conflict, bypass the hurt, escape the pain, and avoid the darkness of life. I’d rather celebrate the joy, peace, and happiness of a simple life. Today, I’d rather not have to deal with the difficulties of a global health crisis, an impending economic recession, the challenges of social distancing and wearing masks, the injustices and inequalities of racism, the divisions of party politics, catastrophic hurricanes, and the unkindness of so many around us. I’d prefer to skip to the end of my story and just live happily ever after.
But that’s not reality.
What many people, including me, are feeling in these days conflict, division, and overwhelming challenges is grief. Sometimes it feels like sadness. Sometimes anger. Other times, stress. What we need to do is lament. Lament is how we grapple with the pain of life and the goodness of God.
Lamenting, though, is not something we’re comfortable with nor do very well as American believers in Jesus. I wonder if we reject the idea of lament because that feels like doubt? Maybe we reject the idea of lament because we’d rather not look back on past failures. We’d rather look ahead to the hope of the future.
We expect church worship services to be upbeat, not somber. For funerals, we prefer a celebration of life, not mourning over loss. For tragedies, we gravitate toward wishing for the best, rather than feeling sadness. During times of difficulty, we exhort others to “keep your chin up” and “don’t get down” We encourage others, “it’ll be okay,” “stay positive,” “things will get better.”
But what if they don’t?
What do we do when during the conflicts of life and complicated relationships there doesn’t seem to be a way out? Even more so, what do we do when God seems distant or absent?
Lament is how we confront the realities of life and communicate our frustrations to our sovereign, good God.
Reading through the Bible again this year, I’ve seen in a fresh way how biblical lament is both prescribed and exemplified for God’s people during times of conflict, division, disease, and loss. If all scripture is useful (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then aren’t even the Biblical examples (Job, David, Jeremiah, and more) and passages of lament (Psalms, Job, the Prophets) profitable for us? Shouldn’t times of legitimate, biblical lament be part of our experience and walk with the LORD, too?
Here’s what we learn from the Psalmists and the Prophets of Scripture, God welcomes our laments. In fact, nothing is more freeing and healthy in our relationship with Him than voicing how we really feel and knowing He totally understands. Our questions and frustrations don’t frustrate Him. In fact He wrote the book on them. The bulk of what we call the wisdom books of Scripture, Job and Psalms, are laments. The wisdom of God, it seems, is lamenting to God.
Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations. Romantics (including Christian romantics) want an escape. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical example of lament. It’s what happens when we ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. Lament is how we bring our sorrow to God. It’s how believers in Christ grieve. Exploring how the Bible gives voice to our pain we learn that God invites us to grieve, struggle, and tap into the rich, deep reservoir of His grace and mercy, especially, in the darkest moments of our lives. Lament invites us to grieve and trust. Struggle and believe.
This week, my Bible reading plan moved from the prophets and their story juxtaposed with 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, to Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations. Laments. The title in the Septuagint, the 3rd century Greek translation of the Old Testament, is Wailings. Lamentations was written during the siege, fall, death, and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, as well as the captivity and exile of its leaders around 586 B.C. Being somewhat familiar with the plot, I found myself already thinking of the feel good verses of God’s faithfulness and mercy in chapter 3. I was tempted to just skim over the hard parts of Jeremiah’s lament rather than truly experience his personal pain and really listen to his sorrowful complaints.
Lamentations 1:16 “I weep because of these things; my eyes flow with tears. For there is no one nearby to comfort me, no one to keep me alive.”
Lamentations 1:20-21 “LORD, see how I am in distress. I am churning within; my heart is broken…People have heard me groaning, but there is no one to comfort me.”
Lamentations 2:11 “My eyes are worn out from weeping; I am churning within. My heart is poured out in grief because of the destruction of my dear people, because infants and nursing babies faint in the streets of the city.”
Lamentations 2:20 “LORD, look and consider to whom you have done this. Should women eat their own children, the infants they have nurtured? Should priests and prophets be killed in the LORD’s sanctuary?”
Lamentations 3:1–3 “I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath. He has driven me away and forced me to walk in darkness instead of light. Yes, He repeatedly turns His hand against me all day long.”
Lamentations 3:8 “Even when I cry out and plead for help, He blocks out my prayer.”
Those are the agonizing laments of a godly man crying out to God. But a biblical lament doesn’t end with just a complaint. It chooses to trust. It continues on in life, not with happiness, but with hope.
Lamentations 3:21–23 “Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s faithful love we do not perish, for His mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness!”
In the darkness of his sorrow, Jeremiah remembered something, and more importantly, Someone, that gave him hope. The prophet remembered that the LORD’s loyal love never ceases and that He is ceaselessly compassionate. Even while contemporary changes continue to roll in and overwhelm us like the rising tide of a hurricane, there are new evidences of His lovingkindness and compassion every day that testify to His great faithfulness. Those who wait for the LORD and seek Him (Lamentations 3:25-26) eventually experience His goodness, even when circumstances, even culture and our country, goes from bad to worse. God hears us even when He doesn’t seem to answer us.
So we wait. We trust.
Even after Jeremiah remembered God’s faithful love, he continued with his complaints while he waited for God’s answer and deliverance.
Lamentations 3:46 “All our enemies open their mouths against us.“
Lamentations 3:49 “My eyes overflow unceasingly, without end.”
Lamentations 5:1 “LORD, remember what has happened to us. Look, and see our disgrace!”
Lamentations 5:19–20 “You, Lord, are enthroned forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you continually forget us, abandon us for our entire lives?“
Many of us today, including me, need to restore the practice of honest spiritual struggle with pain that gives us permission to vocalize our heartache, wrestle with our sorrow, and vent our anger to the LORD. Lament avoids trite answers and quick solutions, progressively moving us toward deeper worship and trust. With new courage to express the pain we feel, the injustice we see, and the sorrow we grieve, we discover more of the LORD’s greatness. We’re amazed that He not only allows us to talk this way to Him, but has even provided examples.
We have not only the poets and the prophets, but the example of our Great High Priest, JESUS. He wept. He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). He lamented.
Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.