For many years I have been aware that in the West we have lost the biblical tradition of the lament. When we go through personal grief we don’t know how to lament and when as a community we go through a 9/11 or a ‘05 tsunami we don’t know how to lament the devastating loss of life we are exposed to on our TV screens.
Prior to writing this I could find very little in print. There was, of course, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s beautiful book, Lament for a Son, (and since finishing Michael Card’s A Sacred Sorrow.) However, the biblical material was vast and I soon realized I could only use representative texts and would have to leave the rest out.
My primary focus in the Old Testament is on the Psalms, as over half of them are technically psalms of lament, and the writings of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is unique in that his laments not only channel his own grief, but that of the Lord himself. My primary focus in the New Testament is on the lament that is the climax of scripture, the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Having covered the biblical basis for the lament I then go on to explore how we might channel anger and grief appropriately within the lament tradition. This involves not simply discovering pathways for personal wholeness, but mechanisms for congregational and community lamentation, the resolution of corporate grief, and the forging of hope in the midst of the despair that touches us all, be it personally or through our TV screens.
My first encounter with the lament tradition was when I was living with my family in Cyprus. We had a Cypriot university professor called Andreaus in our congregation whose young son had brain cancer. We prayed much for him, but eventually he died. As his extended family was still in the Greek Orthodox Church, he wanted to honor them and have a traditional funeral. For me it was a memorable experience. Even before the service began, the loud wailing and sobbing started—and it continued throughout the service. I noticed that Andreaus himself was wailing uncontrollably throughout the service. After about forty minutes I was emotionally rung out and unobtrusively slipped out of the church to pray outside. I was concerned for Andreaus. With such a weight of grief, how would he cope with the future?
Much to my astonishment, after the funeral was over, Andreaus came up to me, smiling and composed, and asked me why I had left the service. I explained that I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of grief, and concerned for him also. He smiled again, and said, “Ray, you don’t understand, the sobbing and wailing is initiated by certain members of the congregation and then we all join in. The idea is to vent our grief as much as we can during that hour. The loud wailing and sobbing is socially acceptable and even expected. And after it is all over, my pain has not gone, but some of my grief has been expressed in the presence of God. It is therapeutic and healing. This is how it works for us.”
As a European I had misread what was going on. Andreaus was still a grieving father, but there had been a context in which he could make lamentation with his family. Sadly, we have almost totally lost the lament as a means of vocalizing grief in the presence of God in the western church today.
One quick way to measure this is by listening to the lyrics of the songs sung in Evangelical congregations. In contrast to the Psalms, which we will come to shortly, most of our hymn books—if we still have them—contain no laments, and our worship songs (with a few notable exceptions) contain almost no laments (and by laments, I don’t mean songs suitable to be sung at funerals—bereavement is a very small part of the lament tradition.) And this is a great shame as we are in danger of loosing one of the great legacies handed down to us from ancient Israel.
Poetry put to music has the mysterious ability to draw out from my heart gratitude that I might not have been consciously aware of. While driving to church, I sing and worship, and thanksgiving for the cross, for forgiveness, for God’s grace and amazing love, is drawn out of me. In a similar way, poetry put to music in lamentation also has the mysterious ability to draw out from my heart grief for suffering I have been exposed to—but again might not have been consciously aware of while driving to church. We understand that our thanksgiving, love, and adoration needs to be laid at the feet of Jesus and are practiced at placing it there in our times of worship. However, we have lost the art of doing the same with our disappointments, our pain, our bewilderment’s, and grief. And yet when we look at the Psalms, the great temple song book of Israel, half of them were written for this very purpose.
We live in an age characterized by pain. In the West, the pain is usually emotionally based and rooted in some form of alienation, rejection, and broken relationships—whether these came in childhood or adult life. In the Third World the pain is usually related to injustice, and manifests itself in poverty, oppression, disease, and hopelessness. Living at such a time in history demands that as the Church we recover the lament tradition, both for our own well being and as a gift to pass on to all those that mourn. If we don’t, the only way to survive is to shut ourselves off from the pain of the world, and tragically, since we cannot escape the media age in which we live, this is what most of us have done. We can now doze untroubled in front of the TV with tragic footage of the aftermath of the Asian earthquake running on the six o’clock news. Without the ability to make lamentation, to vocalize our grief in the presence of the Lord, to lay what is too heavy for us to carry—or even for us to understand—at his feet, there is no other way to cope.
Part of our time together—just as in the corporate worship in Israel—should be devoted to making lamentation, but we have lost the art of so doing, and our pain remains locked up within us. The result is that we carry in to church our personal pain—consciously or unconsciously—and often take it back out again. And also eventually lose some of our capacity to both carry, intercede, and to grieve for the wounds of the world.
The Old Testament is rich in laments: David wrote one after Saul and Jonathan were slain in battle; Jeremiah wrote one after the untimely death of Josiah; and Jeremiah wrote a whole book of laments to express his grief over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of his people.
Also, in Israel and the ancient Near East, there was a tradition mentioned in Jeremiah and the Gospels, referred to as the “mourning women” which still survives in some areas today. Older women would have the responsibility to attend funerals in the community and to begin the corporate wailing. As we all know from funerals, if a good number of those attending start to weep, it becomes contagious—others join in. Their job was to start the ball rolling, to help release the grief bottled up inside the bereaved, and make it acceptable for them to wail in anguish over their loss. Such women served an important function in many traditional societies by allowing the grieving process to take its natural course. This was the grief work that I unwittingly got caught up in Cyprus. The wailing women were at work but I did not know it.
THE LAMENT AS A LOVE SONG
Before beginning to look at what the Bible has to say about making lamentation, it is important to set the lament in the context of a love song. After Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son in a climbing accident and subsequently wrote his book Lament for a Son, a friend told him that he had given copies to all of his children. Wolterstorff was surprised and asked why. The friend replied, “Because it is a love-song.”
Every true lament is a love song. We only lament because we love, because we have lost something of inestimable value and it merits that we pause, reflect, weep, and grieve. If we did not then what was lost would not have been of much value. When Jacob died, he was mourned for seventy days. When Moses died, he was mourned for thirty days. When Josiah died, Jeremiah wrote a lamentation that was observed every year in Israel. Such was the worth of these men and such was the measure of the love that their people had for them.
However, if a lamentation is a love song, is our failure to write and sing them, particularly in the face of the tragedies that we read of in the media each day, an indication that we have no love song to sing? That these things do not rend our hearts and cause us no sense of personal loss and suffering? That they are remote and leave us unmoved? The lack of the lament tradition in the West is a cause for serious reflection on the condition of our hearts in the face of a wounded and suffering generation…
The Lament Tradition in The Psalms of Israel
There are many ways to appropriately lament, but I will only focus on three in this short essay.
The first is the lament tradition in the Psalms, as this is the richest legacy we have in the Old Testament to draw on. Although songs of lamentation are not the only mechanism for releasing grief in traditional societies, they have always had a central role in cultures throughout the world, particularly among oppressed people where singing was a way of vocalizing unremitting suffering and ongoing grief.
A genre known to us all is the Negro spirituals developed in the Deep South during the years of slavery. But there are many other traditions also. One is the flamingo tradition in Spain, which was developed specifically so one could sing the melody and weep at the same time. The same is true of some of the traditional Colombian music. This came to my attention when I discovered that a Colombian songwriter, now living in Spain, had just written a song to lament the Madrid train bombings. All of this stands in the lament tradition developed in Israel and handed down to us in the Psalms.
There are basically two types of Psalms: Psalms of praise and psalms of lament. And some, of course, contain elements of both praise and lament. However, as mentioned above, what is so striking is that over half the psalms are psalms of laments, which is astonishing when we compare this, the ancient song book of Israel, with our modern song books. (However, it should be noted in Israel a lament was a broader category than defined by our English word.)
Scholars do of course make more technical distinctions between the psalms than simply psalms of praise and psalms of lament. Many distinguish between about seven different types of psalms, but few would disagree with the rough and ready distinction between that of psalms of praise and psalms of lament.
One of the great theological works that has come out in recent years is the multi-volume New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. In it R. W. L. Moberly has a major essay on the dimension of lament in the Psalms. He asserts that, “the single most numerous type of psalm, more numerous even than hymns of praise, is the lament. Although this fact is routinely noted in introductions to the Psalms, its significance is less often explored. Such predominance of laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but rather are central to the life of faith. Moreover they show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith…but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith. Instead of the problems of the life of faith being put on one side, as though worship should really be just a matter of praise and thanksgiving, these problems are made central to the very act of prayer and worship [in the lament itself].” (p. 879)
I was struck by the fact that Moberly points out that the Psalms show that “anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith.” This has been the experience of God’s people down through the ages, and God himself legitimates it by giving us songs expressing such inner conflict that are now part of inspired scripture. The goal is to stand strong in faith, but sometimes the way to get there is to verbalize our doubts, our grief, and our disappointments first—in the presence of God.
Therefore, the Psalms of lament are given to us by God to allow us to legitimate our bewilderment and disappointment with God, as in the life of faith we often find ourselves in this place. And friendship with God means that even though we know he will never let us down, we sometimes feel he has let us down, and—amazingly!—he encourages us to tell him so and lament our grief and loss.
Another notable feature of the lament Psalms that Moberly points out is the theological conflict contained within such Psalms. The lament contains a theological conflict between our present experience of suffering and God’s character and promises.
There are many examples, but a good one would be Psalm 89. In verses 35–37 the psalmist spells out God’s absolute commitment to the House of David, reiterating what the Lord himself had previously promised: “‘I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered. Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—and I will not lie to David—that his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun; it will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky’” (vv.34–37).
Moberly adds that, “this is the strongest and most emphatic commitment ascribed to God in the whole OT.” But then he goes on to point out that the Psalm continues with the words: “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have renounced the covenant with your servant.” (vv. 38–45). The shock in the text is that he is announcing to all who will read the psalm that their present reality stands in complete opposition to what had been promised by the Lord himself.
The statement that, “I will crush his foes before him” (v. 23) has now become “You have exalted the right hand of his foes” (v. 42). The promise “I will not violate my covenant” (v. 34), has now become “You have renounced the covenant” (v. 39). Moberly concludes that, “the difference between the absolute promise and what has actually happened could not be starker.”
It is hard to put some of the psalms in an exact historical context, and perhaps we are not meant to as they are meant to apply to all ages. But if we look at this through the context of the exile it is devastating. The Davidic kings had disappeared. If you were living in, say, 286 BC, the promise of the Davidic throne enduring forever had obviously failed. The Davidic kings were never restored on a theocratic/territorial level. And this tension is not resolved in the psalm (at least on the level the Jews were expecting it to be resolved). Plain and simple, God does not seem to have kept his word.
But of course, we know the conflict is in fact resolved, gloriously and awesomely in the incarnation: his line will indeed continue forever and his throne endures like the sun. The conflict is resolved, but not in the way anyone was expecting. And in this way the psalms reflect the deepest levels of our spiritual pilgrimage. There often is a theological conflict between our present experience of suffering and God’s character and promises. He does seem to let us down and promises do seem to go unfulfilled. But one legacy of the Psalms is to teach us that in life such tensions are often not resolved on the level we are expecting them to be resolved. So we make lamentation, as our grief is very real and devastating. But the Psalms teach us that although his promises seem to have failed, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
But it is a conflict we should not necessarily try and resolve. Moberly points out that “It is essential to the understanding of each psalm that the tension be maintained between its conflicting elements, the formal confession of faith and the problematic circumstances. That is, it is all too easy to dissolve the tension by denying one or other of its aspects. Either the person of faith may be tempted to try to defend the faith by denying that the problem is really as bad as it appears, or people may be so overwhelmed by the problem that they simply abandon the faith altogether as untrue.” (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, p. 882)
All of us who have been in pastoral ministry know the importance of maintaining the tension between these two conflicting elements. If the situation is truly tragic we must validate the depth of a person’s loss and grief. To tell them things are “not so bad” when, in fact, they are hellish and have left them in darkness and despair is false and shallow. Yet in validating the hellishness of what they are going through we open up the theodicy question and at this point many have abandoned the faith simply because they cannot reconcile what they have gone through with the Fatherly love of God that we proclaim in the Gospel.
Lamentation, however, is the rare and wonderful gift of being able talk (and sing) to God ahead of the tension being resolved. Wolterstorff describes it as the tension in a bow between wood and string. He observes that in many psalms “lamentation and trust are in tension, like wood and string in a bow.” Psalm 42, for example, is a window where we see this “back and forth, lamentation and faith, faith and lamentation, each fastened to the other” taking place. (Lament for a Son, p. 70 & 71) And this is what brings such comfort and healing. The tension is still there, the grieving is still taking place, but in the midst of it the lament, psalms are gifts from God, songs for singing when one walks in darkness with a broken heart crying “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” yet now strangely comforted in the midst of one’s desolation.
Yet honesty demands that we confess that this is not always immediately achieved. In some Psalms the author is overwhelmed and the string breaks. Faith seems to give way and there is on the surface of things no dimension of faith that gains even a quiet ascendancy. Psalm 88 concludes with the desolating statement that “darkness is my only friend,” and there is no after word. And yet the Lord allows it into the sacred cannon of scripture, as the true lament is all about vocalizing our grief in the presence of God, even when the string has broken.
But even in Psalm 88, that ends on a lower note than any other, while he says, “darkness is my only friend” we need to pause and ask, “who is he talking to?” And of course what we realize is that he is not talking to the darkness but is still talking to the Lord. His heart betrays the words of his lips. He may feel that darkness is his only friend, but even these words are spoken to One who, while he may have withdrawn his presence, remains the rock on which ultimately he knows his life is built.
The Lament In The Writings of Jeremiah
In addition to the Psalms there is an important dimension of lamentation in the writings of Jeremiah that is not immediately obvious in the Psalms—although it is present latently in some of them.
Jeremiah was so immersed in the suffering of his people that the Rabbis speculated that he might be the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 53. His life was caught up and intertwined with that of the circumstances and tragedy of Israel, and through his lamentations we get a unique insight into the broken heart of God. Through Jeremiah we see God as totally submerged in the tragedy of Israel. The Babylonian siege plunges the city into famine, and when they eventually go manacled and naked into exile, Jeremiah—and God—go with them.
Abraham Heschel, the Jewish scholar, points out that Jeremiah’s tears, (“O that my head were waters, and my eyes and fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of my beloved people,” 9:1) are in reality the tears of God himself. The prophet has no independent emotional life and although in this scripture, and the many others like it, Jeremiah is the one who is weeping, he is simply engulfed in the grief of God and a channel for the tears of the Lord himself.
For those who struggle with Heschel and the Rabbis in seeing such a vivid and graphic portrayal of the grief of God incarnated in the prophet, one has only to peruse the pages of Jeremiah to find ample evidence of the accuracy of their insight. For instance: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, consider and call for the mourning women to come. Let them make haste and raise a wailing over us, that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush with water” (9:17, 18). Commentators agree that the “us” in the passage is both God and Jeremiah. God himself is in mourning and his heart is broken over the tragedy of Israel, “the beloved of his soul.”
And this opens up a new facet of the lament. Jeremiah teaches us that part of lamentation is coming alongside God in his grief. It is hard not to grieve when one becomes aware of the amount of pain on planet earth in the 21st century. But who among us is sensitive enough to come alongside God in his grief? If we, with all our self-centeredness, mourn the loss of 24, 000 children each day through hunger and preventable illnesses, how much more does our God whose very being is love? We cannot necessarily fix the problem, but friendship with God means that, like Jeremiah, we come alongside in his grief and make lamentation together.
However, it does not end there. In addition to having a vertical, there is also a horizontal dimension.
The prophetic task of the Church is to incarnate the grief and tears of God so that the poor and oppressed can grasp his heart towards them in the hour of their need. It was the tears and laments of Jeremiah that foreshadowed the suffering and grief of the Messiah, and reflected to his generation the heart of God towards an oppressed, suffering and broken people—even though this was a result of their sin.
The prophecy of Joel that was fulfilled at Pentecost indicated that when the Spirit was poured out on all flesh “your sons and daughters will prophesy.” The astonishing insight that Peter gleaned from Joel was the prophetic mantle that was on men like Jeremiah had now fallen on the church—we are now a prophetic community. This does not simply mean that I can now give a “prophetic word” in Church. It means that I am now part of a prophetic people in the world. As a body we can, and must, now incarnate the brokenness of men like Jeremiah through our identification with the poor and godforsaken. Through our lives, our tears, our grief, our lamentations, and our compassionate care, we enable them to see into the heart of the God, who is weeping and grieving alongside them in their pain.
The Russian Orthodox Church frequently speaks of charismatic gift of “tears.” As a Church that has been through much suffering they know that reflecting the heart of God to a people in poverty and oppression is the prophetic gift of the Church to the world. They also teach that it is a costly gift and only comes through brokenness and poverty of spirit as we enter into the fellowship of his sufferings. And this is reflected in the spirit of the lament.
I have a dear Albanian friend who though in “exile” here in the States, loves his people deeply. A few days after the Kosovo crisis began some years ago, I went to tell him that I was praying for his people, and much to my surprise—and his—I wept uncontrollably as we embraced. A few days prior to this I had never even heard of Kosovo, and now I found myself flooded with grief and broken in heart for a people of whom I knew almost nothing. But that morning I gave my friend a gift. Tears are “visible words,” and mine, both spontaneous and unexpected, were more eloquent that anything I could have expressed verbally. God shared some of his grief and pain for the suffering Kosovars through my own tears. This is our calling, and it is part of the legacy of the lament.
The Lament At The Heart of The New Testament
There is really only one lament in the New Testament, but it is at the heart of everything. Mathew and Mark choose to use “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” from Psalm 22, a psalm of lamentation, as the last recorded words of Jesus in their Gospels. And while we know that the words “it is finished” in John, and “into thy hands I commit my spirit” in Luke probably come after it chronologically, Motmann makes the point that Matthew and Mark are quite deliberate in choosing “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as our Lord’s last words. He believes they intended to highlight a dimension of the crucifixion that must not be overlooked.
Moltmann, believes that the central problem for those who suffer is not that of why God is allowing it to happen, but of where God has disappeared to while it is happening. He, therefore, believes that those who go through suffering often feel abandoned by God. And for this reason it is significant that some ancient versions translate the “why have you forsaken me” in Mark’s gospel as “why have you cursed me,” and this is how those feel who die in death camps and Asian tsunamis: they feel cursed and forsaken by God.
Therefore, in solidarity with them, Jesus dies with the same question “My God, my God, why” on his lips. It would seem that Matthew and Mark are intentional in omitting the “it is finished” recorded by John, and the “into my hands I commit my spirit” recorded by Luke (it is hardly likely they were unaware of these statements). And, if they are examined in detail, it becomes clear that the statements of Jesus recorded by Luke and John are statements made by Jesus in faith, despite the darkness of dereliction and abandonment—not because his question “why” had been answered.
And so to make the point, Matthew and Mark do not mention the words recorded by Luke and John. They want us to know that, even for Jesus, the “why” question was not answered. Jesus dies with the question on his lips that is the question of all those who experience God forsaken-ness and apparently meaningless suffering.
Motmann thinking is captured by his words that “on the cross, God is forsaken by God so that he can become the God of the God-forsaken.” The cross is now the gathering point for all the suffering and God-forsaken from what someone called the knarled root of Adam’s tree. Jesus is now the brother of all those who experience the apparent God-forsakenness of meaningless suffering. In our darkness of abandonment and desolation we now find a God who was abandoned and desolate as our companion. A God who dies with a lamentation on his lips.
If God suffers with us then pain no longer has the capacity to alienate. In fact, the reverse is true: there is now a camaraderie, a fellowship, a band of brothers that emerges when we suffer simply because he has chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are mourning and in pain. And it was this that sustained Bonhoeffer in his prison cell awaiting execution when he wrote the simple words that, “only a suffering God can help.”
But such solidarity is not found only in Jesus’ death, it is also found in his resurrection. “‘Put your hand into my wounds,’ said the risen Jesus to Thomas, ‘and you will know who I am.’” The wounds of Christ are [now] his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him—visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds” (Lament, p. 92).
He is risen, but in his resurrection he remains the crucified Christ so he can be in solidarity with all the wounded and grieving in the earth. The good news is that our grief need not become our tomb. And the practical outworking of all this is that “to believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love [and grief].”
Wolterstorff continues, “So I shall struggle to live the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in” (Lament, p. 92).
All I have said up to this point could loosely be gathered under together as lamentation in the tradition of Psalm and poem. This would include Jeremiah’s writing and our Lord’s cry of dereliction from the cross, which is, of course, a quotation from one of the Psalms of lamentation. However there are two other common mechanisms of lamentation in scripture that I would like to also highlight. The second is lamentation as the gift of friendship.
2. LAMENTATION AS THE GIFT OF FRIENDSHIP
In a situation of personal crisis, be it a chronic illness or a host of other traumatic issues, I am always grateful for the warriors who will intercede in prayer, for those who will get prophetic words and pictures, and for those with insight as to the root causes of the problem, be they personal, generational, or demonic. However, if—for instance—a chronic illness drags on for many years in the midst of fighting the good fight, I also need to step aside from time to time and grieve for a while.
As we know, grief is the mourning of the loss of what is precious to us. In my case, having battled chronic illness for so many years, so much has been lost. I have never been able to do so many things with my family that we would have loved to have done together. I have never been able to visit the universities my children attended, or go to their graduations. We cannot go on vacations together. And so the list goes on. Not big things, but dozens of small intimate losses that all add up, and because of love, need to be lamented. And even the fact that, as of today, so many prayers of so many have not yet been answered, needs to be lamented—the Psalmist was not afraid to do so, and neither should I. We know they are all precious, and held as love letters in the arms of God, but I still grieve that they are not yet answered. And if we value them, this is good and right.
And so, from time to time, I spend time on the mourning bench. Not to live there, but to sit once in a while and make lamentation. And this is where the gift of friendship comes in, as on the mourning bench I don’t want a prophetic word, or any insight into my situation, but I do want someone to just to sit with me. As it is their presence with me on the bench that is silently saying, “I don’t understand, but I am so sorry you are going through this.” And it is through their tears (which someone called “visible words”) that I sense the tears of God and know that he really does know, and actually, this is all that really matters. But I can’t get to this place of knowing alone. I need you to sit with me for a while.
Wolterstorff adds “if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, ‘I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.’ Or even, just embrace [because not] even the best of words can take away the pain. But please: Don’t say, “It’s not really so bad.” Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” (Lament, p. 34)
It is a mistake to think that a married couple can always comfort one another in their grief. They often do not, or rather I should say, cannot—and this is where the gift of friendship is so crucial in the arena of lamentation. Wolterstorff writes, “I have been daily grateful for the friend who remarked that grief isolates. He did not mean only that I, grieving, am isolated from you, happy. He meant also that shared grief isolates the sharers from each other. I must struggle so hard to regain life that I cannot reach out to you. Nor, you to me. The one not grieving must [reach out to] touch us both.”(Lament, p. 56)
The marriages of paraplegics, quadriplegics and others with severe disabilities frequently end in divorce and this is not because the spouse who is not disabled is uncaring; often quite the opposite is true. Chronic illness involves a continuing grieving process as the loss is both repetitive and ongoing. And grief eventually isolates the sharers from each other simply because both have to struggle so hard each day to regain life. They simply do not have any resources left to reach out to each other. And this is where the gift of friendship is indispensable in the process of lamentation.
We are very hard on Job’s friends, and indeed they lost their way and ended up giving Job lots of unhelpful reasons why he was suffering, but this is not originally why they came. It says in the text that they came to comfort him, to lament with him—and indeed they did. They sat in silence with him for seven days and seven nights, having torn their clothes and put dust on their heads. They were true friends, they came to sit with Job on his mourning bench. And to sit in silent solidarity with a suffering friend for seven days and seven nights is no small act of kindness and comfort.
And in all probability they would have done no more. They were part of a culture that understood the nature of making lamentation. And as C. S. Lewis discovered when Joy Davidson died, while theological explanations have their place, they do not heal the heart of the one who is overwhelmed with grief. But it was Job himself that broke the silence and began to demand answers for his suffering. He is the one that breaks the boundaries and at the end of his first speech Eliphaz only very cautiously breaks his silence with the words “if one ventures a word with you will you be offended” (4:2) as he knew that the mourning bench is not the debating hall. But the cat is out of the bag, and now things go from bad to worse. But Job brought the theological wrangling upon himself. The four friends began in the true spirit of the lament by sitting in silence together for seven days and nights, and this is a vivid insight into a culture that understood lamentation as the gift of friendship.
Having seen how we can lament in song, and lamentation as the gift of friendship, the third mechanism I would like to point out from scripture is the lament as a release of anger as well as a release of grief.
3. THE LAMENT AS A RELEASE OF BOTH ANGER AS WELL AS GRIEF
Anger is sometimes a very good thing. If we never get angry we do not love deeply. God’s anger arises out of his great love for humankind. When he sees actions that harm, devalue, oppress, and injure men and women, his anger is the fire of his love. And in our best moments we know a similar anger. Intuitively we know that many things are just plain evil and unjust and we get angry. We may encounter them in the working day or see them on the media but if we never get angry, if we always stay placid, then our quotient of love must be minimal at best.
When my four children were growing up my occasional anger at their behavior was an expression of my love. We lived on a busy street in London and the rule was that you did not run in the road. If you did, dad got angry. Why? Because of love. I did not want them crushed by a bus and crippled for life. The only way I could stop being angry about them running in the road would be by ceasing to love them.
One of the problems we have as Evangelicals is that we have lost all our mechanisms for expressing anger. Recently I discovered that a good friend had cancer—again. The implications were serious and when I heard—much to my shock—I wanted to swear. I was angry. This reaction took me off guard as swearing has not been part of my vocabulary since becoming a Christian 40 years ago. But on reflection, I did not feel it was a bad thing. I was angry, really angry, and I wanted to express it. But I had no mechanism to vent my anger. Cancer is wrong, it is evil, and God never intended that it exist in his good creation. And intuitively we feel these things and want to vent our rage at the evil rampaging in the world.
But what do we do with our anger? It can, of course, motivate us into action if the issue is one of social justice. But what about the many situations about which we can do nothing in the immediate, but the anger flares up and makes us want to swear?
The biblical answer is that we should go ahead and swear—the Jews did so all the time! (I should add that we need to make a distinction between cursing and profanity.) The Semites were an emotionally passionate people. The problem is, being English and an Anglo Saxon, I have no idea what contemporary language I should use outside of the crude profanity in the popular culture. We have lost the robust cursing that we find in the psalms of imprecation that were so central to the emotional life of the Jewish people. The ancients knew that part of healthy grieving involves anger. And it should be pointed out that technically the imprecatory psalms are psalms of lament. At times we need to swear and curse. Some things are just plain wrong and we need to curse “our enemies.”
(We do have the great advantage over the Psalmist in knowing that we wrestle not with flesh and blood, and that our real enemies are the forces of darkness: and we need not hold back in venting our spleen in this direction.)
The imprecatory psalms make lots of sense, and can be well used when seen in this light. The vocabulary used in our culture is crude, but “lite” compared with the ammunition we have at our disposal here. The ancient Near East did not go in for one-liners. If they were angry enough to curse, a simple “damn you” (I will not use some of the other more common profanity available) would not do the job. To get the anger out meant that a curse had to be up to the task: passionate, long, and fierce. And this is exactly what we have in many of the imprecatory psalms except we have lost—dare I use the word?—the “art” of how to use them, to vent our anger in the process of lamentation. But perhaps it is long overdue to start learning again.
I should also add that this explains the elements that we stumble over in the imprecatory psalms: e.g. “O daughter of Babylon…happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Psalm 137:8–9). This is written by those who have suffered unimaginably in the brutality of the exile. This is the raw anger of lamentation and part of the grieving process.
In our culture, when we say “damn you,” it does not mean you would actually consign a person to eternal conscious torment for slashing your tires on a sub-zero winters night. But this is what you feel like doing in the heat of your anger when you are trying to get your baby with a temperature of 105 degrees to the hospital. It is not what you would do several days later if you were in the position of meeting out an appropriate punishment for such a misdemeanor. And the same is true of Psalm 137. There is no indication that when the Jews finally came out on top in the days of Esther, and had the opportunity to exact vengeance, that it was in their hearts to fulfil what was written here. But swearing has its place. Anger needs to be vented. It is a valid part of lamentation.
It is difficult to know how to recover a tradition that has been lost, but perhaps this is where the church in other parts of the world can help us. What is lost in the West is still alive and well in other hemispheres, particularly among those communities of believers who have suffered much in recent decades.
Again as Christians living in the West, embedded in a culture of radical autonomy, we must not forget that lamentation is not only personal, it is also communal. At times an event happens in our community or in the nation and we need to make corporate lamentation, just as at times we need to make corporate repentance. We need to bring some resolution to corporate grief just as we do to corporate guilt.
We must not forget that the Psalms were sung in community. Singing in unison is an expression of community. And one that—thank God—we still retain as we worship Sunday by Sunday. And this is where our songwriters can help us. Over the last twenty years they have done a phenomenal job in writing new worship songs. However, because we have lost the tradition of the lament they have not turned their skills in this direction.
As I write, the Asian tsunami of 2005 has just taken place and the death toll is up to about 175,000. We have done what we can as a local church. We have collected about $75,000 and sent two teams to build houses in Sri Lanka. But inwardly I still want to make lamentation. Theologically I can frame the event, as far as one can within the mystery of evil and suffering, but for personal closure I need to make lamentation. But I have no song to sing. And this is where our songwriters can help us in the future. If half of Israel’s songbook was made up of lamentations (although not all of them in the narrow sense I am speaking of) then our songbooks are deficient in this area and there is much work yet to be done.
However, in closing, it is important to say that in emphasizing the lament tradition one is not promoting a tragic view of the Godhead or of the creation project. The Trinity is a community of extravagant self giving, overflowing joy, and superabundant vitality and life. The creation project begins with all the sons of God (the angels) shouting for joy (Prov 8), and concludes with the redeemed of the Lord returning to with singing to Zion (the New Jerusalem) with everlasting joy upon their heads (Isa 51:11.) Biblically joy, both predates and shall outlast, grief. We only lament to bring closure to our grief so that that most delicate fruit of the Spirit, joy, can flower more profusely in our lives.
G. K. Chesterton was fond of saying that man is more fully human when characterized by joy than when characterized by grief. And he was right. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we should be also if we are to represent his interests in a broken and wounded world. But he was also anointed with the oil of joy above his fellows. And the fruit of his Spirit is joy. And we are those who, although sorrowful, are always rejoicing, simply because we know that in Jesus God’s tomorrow has already broken into mankind’s today, and that now he will not rest until he brings justice to victory.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling place of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” (Revelation 21:3–5)