Recovering the Christian Art of the Lament

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (Ecclesiastes 3)

weeping

A year ago I did a multi-post blog on the art the lament, the first of which was entitled: Sometimes You Just Have To Go Ahead and Cry.” Recently, since I summarized those posts in a message for a church in the Bay Area, I thought I’d share that primer here.

I find that biblical lament is a tough theme for many and it’s not commonly considered in many Evangelical circles. I confess that as a pastor, unless it came up in a study through the Psalms or Jeremiah, I hardly gave it any notice. But I truly believe that Christians should cry more; if not actually cry, feel the pain that God feels for the mess we’ve made of our world.

I’ve been crying more lately. I don’t think it’s senility . . . Umm, what was I saying? No, it’s not my age or that I’m depressed or that I’m losing my faith. In fact, I think my faith is greater––no, realer––than ever.

When I weep it’s over my own losses, the losses of people I know, and more and more for people I don’t know. How can we not shed tears at “Ground Zero” or when 22 people (including 2 children) are murdered in Manchester, England, and 28 Coptic Christians are gunned down on their church bus on a lonely desert road in Egypt? Homelessness, mental illness, the divorce rate, and famine in Africa should get to us, don’t you think?

Sure, I don’t just weep, I pray for miracles, and sometimes they come. Sometimes they don’t.

With war, poverty, disease, genocide, racism, abortion, government corruption we have to admit the world isn’t what it’s supposed to be. How do you think this makes God feel?

There’s a story of a little boy who threw his uneaten half sandwich in the trashcan when his mother said, “God cries when you waste food.”

“I don’t hear anything,” he said.

“You’re not listening,” she replied.

Whether over wasted food or wasted lives, if we can’t hear God cry it’s because we’re not listening. And if we don’t cry with him it’s because we’re apathetic. Apathy doesn’t mean we don’t care, it means we don’t feel. Apathy’s opposite is empathy, which is sharing someone else’s feelings, and weeping with those who weep. 

My approach to faith and being close to Jesus and people he cares about includes tears and fears and struggle. I don’t want to be a buzz-kill or anything, but I think we should look more closely at the lament.

Did you know that most, if not all, of our heroes in the Bible were big lamenters?

Jeremiah first comes to mind. He wept so much he’s often called the “Weeping Prophet.” He wrote: “Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them…Teach your daughters how to wail; teach one another a lament.” Jeremiah 9

He even wrote a follow-up acrostic poem called “Lamentations.” That’s right, a whole book in the Bible about lamenting! Check out these excerpts:

“My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.” Lamentations 2:11

“Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed. My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees. What I see brings grief to my soul because of all the women of my city.” Lamentations 3:48-51

Let the tears roll like a river, day and night, and keep at it—no time-outs. Keep those tears flowing!” Lamentations 2:18 (The Message Bible)

Here we have more than permission to cry, but an admonition to cry sometimes. It’s a “holy sorrow,” an inner ache over the human condition, that Jeremiah experienced and advocated. In the churches I hear a lot of complaining, but not much lamenting.

I’m not suggesting that we live in a perpetual sadness, but rather that we join with God in his sadness and engage in some hope-filled weeping.

David and his lyricist cohorts were also big on lamenting. Psalms, the longest book of the Bible, has huge chunks of its poetry devoted to sadness and sorrow. For example:

  • I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.
  • I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.
  • My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught.
  • How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
  • My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me.
  • Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction. (Assorted Psalms)

When we see children starving, terrorists blowing people up, and all manner of social ills, how are we to respond with spiritual and emotional integrity? The first step is to weep. It’s not all we do but it’s a start, which catalyzes the other steps in which we begin to care enough to pray and act.

When people are trafficked or murdered––we weep. When one group oppresses another over skin color or cultural differences––we weep. When people God loves are confused over their sexuality or abort their babies––we weep.

Then there’s Jesus who wept at Lazarus’ tomb and over Jerusalem’s soon demise. He even went on to tell us to do the same in his famous Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn…”

I believe that we’ve sort of mislaid the art of grieving for our personal, national, and global atrocities. No, we’re not supposed to drown in our sorrows, but on the other hand, neither are we meant to keep ourselves afloat with happy thoughts and triumphant clichés! I believe we have to relearn how to weep with the Father over his broken world.

Not all tears are created equal. There are attention-getting tears and self-pity tears, none of which are the best of tears. I’ve shed enough of those myself to know that they don’t do a lot of good.

There are tears of repentance and tears of joy. Those are good tears. Then there are tears shed in grief, in confusion, and maybe best of all, in compassion, which are some of the best tears.

“Let me feel what you feel, Lord!” is not at all a safe prayer because some of what he feels is grief and you might not like it when you feel it.

Isaiah calls Jesus “the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” It seems to me that if he’s living inside you you’ll feel some of what he feels, including the pleasant feelings and some of the unpleasant. How can we not weep with him over the abused and abandoned children in our own country and in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and on and on?

Without a recovery of the art of lamenting we will have a diminished capability for Christ-like compassion.

Given the chaos and suffering in the world, in my opinion, it is disrespectful to the sufferers and to God to have permanent Pollyanna grins on our faces. Yes, we should possess a faith-filled optimism and joy, but we cannot afford to blow past grief on the way there.

Paul was another one who knew that lament was part of the deal when he wrote about us harmonizing in the groanings of creation and of the Spirit.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. … In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8

The $1000 question then is: What good does weeping do? How is it good for us or anyone else if we’re a bunch of weepy worshippers? I’ll condense my thoughts into three brief statements.

Lamenters tend to have “real” faith (as opposed to wishful thinking)

I know, “weeping faith” sounds oxymoronic. Some people think, “If you have faith, why would you cry about anything?” But do you think Jesus had faith when he wept over Lazarus’ tomb or when he cried at the sight of his beloved Jerusalem? How about Job who cried out, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him!”? Where’s their “positive confession”?

For Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus faith wasn’t fist-pumping, high-fiving, chest-thumping faith. Did Jeremiah or Job or David ever doubt? Sure they did! Having faith doesn’t mean we never doubt or struggle or weep over the human condition. In fact, it requires it. Secondly…

Lamenters tend to get close to God

When we weep over the sins, sorrows, and sufferings of the world (along with some of our own), we weep in good company with “the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”

Getting close to God includes feeling what he feels. The Spirit grieves, Jesus weeps, and the Father, though omniscient, aches over the sorrows of the people he loves. Of course he knows eventual outcomes, but in the meantime he grieves our losses, so lament presses into the heart of the Weeper of Heaven.

Sadness and grief are a component of God’s diverse personality, and if we aspire to be near him and like him we can find him in the “fellowship of his sufferings.” (Philippians 3)

Lastly, how can we do any good for anyone else by weeping? That is, we have a world to win, why should we waste our time lamenting? I believe that…

Lamenters tend to be world changers

First of all, the intimate connection we have with God when we join him in the “fellowship of his sufferings,” empowers us to intercede for sufferers and to do what we can to alleviate their suffering. When we groan over our broken world we harmonize with the Spirit who groans along with a groaning creation (Romans 8). It’s a trio!

But our song doesn’t end there. That’s just the first stanza. It crescendos in the dynamic refrain when the “Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come,’” to a lost world! (Revelation 22)

In addition to the empowerment that comes from joining God in his lament, we’re endeared to one another as fellow lamenters. We know that what we know isn’t all there is to know! Our faith doesn’t wrap all the world’s absurdities into a tidy package––and the world knows this, sometimes better than we do. Weeping over the absurdity increases our credibility and facilitates our testimony.

The first step of evangelism is to put ourselves in people’s shoes. How else can we pray for them or speak to them about Jesus if there’s no such identification? Isn’t that what Jesus did when he put himself in our shoes? If we want to be like him, we have to do the same.

I conclude with a line from my favorite Franciscan benediction:

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy!

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2 thoughts on “Recovering the Christian Art of the Lament

  1. Mary Hall

    I once heard that the man who started World Vision prayed that God would cause his heart to break with the things that broke God’s heart. To that prayer, I add that God would show me my part in responding to God’s heart, because I don’t want to just have a broken heart! I probably won’t start an organization like World Vision, but it gives me a new vision for my world.

    Reply

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