The Lost Art of Lament: Part 2, The Dangers of Not Lamenting
I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, or maybe even two-thirds full. That makes me dispositionally allergic to lament. Early on in my life, I would have emphasized that we are resurrection people who live on this side of the cross. What we need is more joy and confidence in the Lord. We know the end of the story, so let’s live there. All those things are still true, praise God. They’re just incomplete.
Both beauty and brokenness are necessary to complete the story of grace. We can fall off the theological horse in either direction. Alone, neither plastic praise nor doom-and-gloom introspection will glorify our suffering triumphant King. Frederick Buechner says the Gospel moves from tragedy to comedy to fairy tale. God recognizes how hard it is to hold the tension of joy and sorrow together, so he invites us to bring our pain and questions to him while we wait.
But what if we turn down God’s invitation to lament? What’s so dangerous about not lamenting, and what do we gain by rediscovering this lost art?
What’s so dangerous about not lamenting
All relationships depend on trust and honesty to thrive. This is especially true of our relationship with God. Refusing to be honest with him breeds distance and distrust. Not lamenting is the equivalent of giving God the silent treatment, concealing your true heart. When you don’t tell him what you care about, you tend to assume he doesn’t care. A wedge grows between you, and the relationship becomes anemic.
Paul Miller interprets Jeremiah 2:5-8 as God’s rebuke to Israel for not lamenting while in exile. “A sure sign of their wandering hearts is that no one is in God’s face. No one takes hold of God and pulls.”
When we trust in God’s sovereignty, we wrestle through the implications with him. David Powlison says, “Trust never anesthetizes the threat. You do not quietly press on with unflinching composure. You’re not calm, cool and collected. You’re noisy and needy. It’s faith working through love.” Such faith is not passive, but full-orbed, dialed up and highly saturated.
Refusing to express ourselves has other unintended consequences. Like a ball held under water, our pain will eventually emerge in some form. Experts call this “displaced grief.” It reveals itself in things like addictions to numb the pain, anger from being unable to control the uncontrollable, and every form of relational conflict. It can even lead to chronic illnesses, whether physical, mental or emotional. Our grief has to go somewhere. Where has yours gone? Lament says: Don’t bottle up your emotions. Go to the One who bottles your tears (Psalm 56:8).
God himself invites us: “That pain you feel? Bring it here.”
What we gain by lamenting
As we come to Jesus in our sorrows and struggles, we gain more of him. We find light and hope because he is the source of both. He is our Wonderful Counselor. He speaks into our sorrows. He sits with us in them. The Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote, “If your Lord calls you to suffering, do not be dismayed, for He will provide a deeper portion of Christ in your suffering. The softest pillow will be placed under your head though you must set your bare feet among thorns.”
But we don’t just lament for our own sake. We love others by lamenting with them. Like Job’s friends initially sat with him on his ash heap, so we need to sit uncomfortably with others on theirs. Then we turn together to God and ask Him our whys and hows and how-longs.
We love people when we see and hear them. We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). Our sorrows are halved and our joys are doubled and our hearts are enlarged. Our joys grow brighter precisely because we share our sorrows. Our celebrations are more exhilarating because we lament.
We all love the classic hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which is taken from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” These words offer shimmering hope against a dark background.
Jeremiah, the author of Lamentations, helped the silent, famine-struck Israelites by uttering the lamenter’s most common question: How? Using it, he leads them from stunned silence in chapter 1, where they can’t articulate a prayer, to chapter 5 when they’re finally able to speak to God as a community. The triumph of grace is that his broken people can and are talking to God. They’re holding onto God and not letting go because he’s not letting go of them.
A beautiful and surprising byproduct of lamenting together is discovering creative solutions. On The Redemptive Edge podcast, Creative Action Begins with Lament, Donna Harris says, “Lament is where genuine creative action begins. It is not an alternative to acting, but it’s actually the essential preparation. If we don’t lament, we are in essence saying, ‘Evil is here to be suffered and lived with’ – as opposed to, ‘Evil and injustice and hardship and brokenness are enemies to be attacked.’”
Why keep learning to lament
I have had five chronic illnesses for 25 years, worsened in part because I bottled my emotions and chased the idol of productivity as a coping mechanism. One scene stands out as a pivotal point in my story.
On the day of my father’s funeral, we learned that my mother’s cancer had returned. Her oncologist called between the graveside and memorial services: “I’m sorry for your loss, but we need to see your mother this Friday.” I stood motionless and silent while the nurse repeated her planned phrase.
A year and a half later, I still couldn’t cry. Living in survival mode, learning a new normal, and managing exhaustion seemed to justify delaying grief. Or so I told myself. Finally I started seeing a counselor who was well acquainted with grief herself. She explained that my emotions had seized up, like how melted chocolate hardens when you add cold milk. The shocking severity of my mother’s news, compounded with the fresh grief of losing my father, outpaced my ability to process.
Much like Jeremiah did for the Israelites in Lamentations, my counselor let me borrow her words to grieve. And like Job’s friends did for him (before they spoke), she sat on my ash heap with me. She held space for me to bring Jesus my crushed spirit, and she walked with me on my path of suffering. With the comfort she received from the Lord, she comforted me (see 2 Corinthians 1:4).
I’m still no expert in lament. I’m learning just like you. But I’m motivated to continue growing in it because I want more of Jesus, and I want to love other people more the way he loves me.
Still need more convincing?
Read about Job, Hannah, Ruth, the prophets, Habakkuk, Lamentations, Psalms, Jesus in the Garden and on the cross.
Read Part 1 of The Lost Art of Lament: The Surprising Hope of Lament
Enlarging Your Soul through Grief and Loss by Pete Scazzero
Creative Action Begins with Lament podcast by Donna Harris
How to Grieve Racial Violence Through Lament by Mark Vroegop