And now, surrounded by caring believers who were nevertheless strangers, she was obviously trying to hold it together until she could get back on the plane the next morning and go home (as a chaplain, it was my privilege to sit with her in the interim hours). Her initial response was shocking in its harshness: there were no tears, no tenderness for the departed; there was only anger at his carelessness, and shock, and steely resolve.
This widow’s response came back to me as I watched a news clip of another widow this morning, a Palestinian woman in Gaza whose husband had been killed hours before in an explosion. She was crouched almost in a fetal position on her doorstep, alternating between that particular Middle Eastern grief wail called ululation, and a deep, guttural moaning. She clung to every person who crossed her path, and her tears were streaming, soaking her dress after hours of crying. Steely resolve was the last thing on her mind.
Many factors—both cultural and situational— shaped the ways in which these two women responded to the death of their respective husbands. Likewise, we know that no two grief experiences look the same, that grief is as personal and subjective as human relationships are myriad. But the stark contrasts between the wailing woman in Gaza and the steeled woman in Europe do highlight the discomfort that most American Christians bring to the grieving process. We are not at ease with the emotions of grief, anger, protest, dissent, and desperation we face in times of loss, in part because we have very few culturally-sanctioned modes of expressing and releasing those emotions. Even in the very event meant to mark the loss, funeral directors and pastors alike often strive for somberness and dignity over emotional displays. We have fabricated a distance from our grief that helps us to cope in our particular, cultural settings.
Many in the pastorate and other care industries have observed, however, that in this way of coping, we have lost the language we need to acknowledge and process tragedy. And so, we resort to theologically shallow or even dangerous clichés, such as “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God needed another angel.” We are literally at a loss for words.
This is where the witness of biblical lament texts can prove so very powerful in pastoral care. The Bible’s writers used modes of lament to encompass all the emotions accompanying grief, but then went even further, using this language of lament in response to rejection, corporate desperation, the threat of destruction, communal sin, and so on. Even a basic survey of laments in the Bible reveals an incredible range of expression:
- A DESPERATE PLEA FOR PHYSICAL HEALING:
“Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror” (Psalm 6:2).
- THE HUMILIATION OF A REJECTED PROPHET:
“O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me” (Jeremiah 20:7).
- BEMOANING THE SIN OF GOD’S PEOPLE:
“Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery; all who honored her despise her, or they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans, and turns her face away” (Lamentations 1:8).
- A VEHICLE FOR THE SPEAKER TO COMPLAIN TO GOD AND TO DEMAND A RESPONSE:
“How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:2-3).
SCRIPTURE PROVIDES MANY BENEFITS FOR US AS THE BODY OF CHRIST.
Lament passages are numerous, indeed, and incredibly effective in demonstrating the power and versatility of the language of complaint. Surely such a prominent motif in the Bible must have something to offer as we search for words in the face of similar situations.
Lament in Scripture provides many benefits for us as the Body of Christ. First of all, lament passages are powerful precisely because they give voice to the unspeakable. In daringly strong and demanding language, they give us ways to speak the grief, or anger, or desperation we are often afraid to expose before God and other believers. There is a certain spiritual safety in being able to read the words of the grieving psalmist and say, “Yes, that is exactly how I feel. If the psalmist is allowed to express that, maybe I am too!” Jesus himself borrowed such words to express the great agony of his work on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:24, quoting Psalm 22:1). Lament passages make space in our spiritual journey for the expression of doubt, anger at God, despair, and all the other emotions that more shortsighted expectations of cheerful piety may dismiss as unholy impertinence before God or weakness of faith.
Secondly, biblical lament expands our vision of God. These passages insist that the God we worship is not so little as to be threatened by our doubt, anger, and despair. They argue for a God who is big enough not only to “absorb” the impact of the lament we voice, but also to redeem it for our own good. Likewise, they encourage us to expand our vision of what it means to be faithful: it does not mean pasting a smile over a breaking heart. It does not mean “faking it until we make it” in the face of our deepest pains. J. William Fulbright’s observation about the democratic process is even more profoundly applied to the Christian faith, “Dissent is an act of faith.” In the very act of expressing lament, we are demonstrating our faith and trust in the One who hears it.
Lament in Scripture has another effect in the Church. When we dare to read these passages aloud together, when we preach them, when we remind one another of their presence in our Holy Book, we destigmatize grief and lament in our midst. As Walter Brueggemann said so perceptively:
The gathered congregation includes those who are profoundly burdened with guilt, whose lives are framed by deep wrong, by skewed relations beyond resolve, shareholders in the public drama of brutality and exploitation. There is a heaviness, and pious good humor is not an adequate response. The heaviness is poorly matched by yearning, but there is a yearning nonetheless. . . . Sunday morning is, for some, a last, desperate hope that life need not be lived in alienation.*
When we include lament in our weekly proclamations of the Word and in our daily journeying together, we welcome among us those who are seeking God even through profound pain. We make it acceptable to worship in spite of doubt. We declare again the Savior’s own invitation, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
My students have sometimes protested that emphasizing lament diminishes the Bible’s witness to the redemption and joy available through Christ, that it turns us into pessimists who do not embrace the fullness of Christ’s work. In other words, if we give too much attention to our causes for lament, it will lead only to wallowing. We will become spiritual Eeyores, unable to attract anyone to the Light of the World because we have dimmed his light with our gloom.
I have two responses to this protest. First, it has been my experience that a person, or indeed a whole community, will never hear and receive the good news of Christ and be able to embrace his healing fully until they have acknowledged the heaviness of the sin and/or sorrow they are seeking to leave behind them. Most often, the “infection” causing the sin must be expressed out of the wound before it can begin to heal.
My second response is the product of my conviction that we must read every single passage in the Bible in light of its many contexts: historical, literary, and, particularly with regard to lament, canonical. In the pages of Scripture, lament is a powerful expression, and it is a prominent expression, but lament is not the last word, and it is not the only word. We are not left in our sickness, sorrow, or sin. We do not close the Bible at the end of Lamentations. Christ does not leave us in the state of weariness and burden but gives rest! The whole point of lamenting is so the cause of our laments may be made ripe for redemption.
THEREFORE, I HAVE COME TO BELIEVE THAT LAMENT IS NOT ONLY SAFE IN THE CONTEXT OF A CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY BUT ALSO A CRUCIAL PART OF OUR IDENTITY AND OUR EXPERIENCE OF FAITH.
Therefore, I have come to believe that lament is not only safe in the context of a Christian community but also a crucial part of our identity and our experience of faith. It can become a valuable and effective part of our pastoral care if we are willing to walk with our people into these painful passages. We are, with Wesley, a people of one Book, because every part of that Book resources our faith, even the unpleasant and uncomfortable parts.
Sarah B.C. Derck serves as assistant professor of Old Testament at Houghton College.
* Walter Brueggemann. Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 15.