Lament – a visceral reaction to suffering

Jonathan Rowe, 18 September 2022

Lamentations 3: 2226, 3133; Revelation 22: 1617, 20; Matthew 27: 4554

What a week! Led by the King, millions have marked the death of Queen Elizabeth with calm dignity yet deep sadness. Regardless of whether we have actually been to London, we have not been bystanders, dispassionate observers of someone else’s grief, but mourners with our own reflections and emotions.

The Queen’s death is remarkably personal; many of us might describe our reactions as ‘lament’. This experience offers us an insight into what it feels like to lament more generally. For lament is a first-person thing – it’s to be stuck in an unwelcome situation and decry it, rail against it.

Here are just some examples of situations to which one might not be reconciled: to suffer debilitating ill-health for many years; to experience broken family relationships; to have children who are disabled or caught in the net of addiction; to live a life blighted by injustice and evil. Perhaps you know such people; perhaps you are one of them.

When life looks like this, simplistic diagnoses and easy prescriptions are inadequate. Not only are platitudes ineffective remedies, they deny the reality of our pain and anguish.

A former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, says, ‘It is no part of the Christian vocation … to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead’ (reference).

The Bible itself contains many laments, especially in the psalms and the Book of Lamentations, the source of our first reading this morning. Lamentations was occasioned by a catastrophe: the forced exile of a people to a foreign land. It was not dissimilar to the 1½ million Ukrainians moved to Russian soil over the past few months. For contemporary Ukrainians and ancient Israelites, certainties disappeared as they were forced from their houses and lands, suffered economic disaster, political and social upheaval and spiritual oppression. Disorientated in every sphere of life, the ancient Israelites turned to God with a visceral reaction to suffering: a lament.

Lament is not only a statement of confusion. It is also a process of questioning God, of asking him to explain how he can promise one thing and deliver another. It can be a full-throttled form of protest, of being angry with God.

And do you know, God can cope! In fact, lament is not looked down upon in the Bible. One doesn’t need to sit up properly and speak politely to converse with God. Shouting, complaining and being honest is just fine.

The first chapters of the Book of Lamentations contain just such complaints as the Israelites came to the conclusion that their predicament was the result of God’s action in response to their wrongdoing. (Now, I think an aside is important at this point. Just because the Israelites came to this conclusion does not mean that every instance of suffering is the result of some culpability on our part. This is a topic for another sermon, but Jesus was categorical that this sort of reasoning was wrong.)

The Israelites’ argument, though, was that if their situation was the result of God doing what he said he’d do, then they should appeal to God to keep his word, to be consistent with who he said he was. That’s why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, our reading this morning affirmed, ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end … he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone’. These words of faith are some of the only positive words in the Book of Lamentations’ remarkable juxtaposition of protest and trust.

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end’ … some of the only positive words in the Book of Lamentations’ remarkable juxtaposition of protest and trust.

The combination is most clearly seen in the final verse of the final chapter. In place of a neat conclusion, there’s an unresolved paradox: ‘Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored … unless you have utterly rejected us’. This is not the dispassionate reasoning of an academic or business analyst. It’s heartfelt, uncertain and involved: God is king; but – maybe – God forgets.

I wonder if that’s closer to our faith than the certainties we suspect others possess. If so, the Bible itself shows us how to lament, ignoring neither the reality of our situation nor of God.

As we pray in this vein, we identify with others who lament, just as Jesus did on the cross – ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani’, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In his cry of desperation, Jesus identifies with humanity’s sense of being separated from God. Our cries of lament echo ‘Amen’.

Jesus’ resurrection, though, means lament is not the only word we need to offer God. We can also praise, which is why most of the laments in the Bible end with a confidence that God, true to his word, will rescue.

The early Church recognised that it lived ‘between the times’, between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the final vindication of his followers. The Book of Revelation is a vivid case study in looking beyond the experience of persecution to a God who reigns in heaven. That’s why the Church’s prayer was ‘come’. ‘Come’, cried the Church, ‘and rule on earth, too’. And Jesus said, ‘Surely, I am coming soon’.

In this period of mourning, our nation is experiencing a profound uncertainty; we lament. Our laments offer an insight into the lament of nations that suffer more acutely and to the laments of individuals all over the world experiencing affliction. Rather than offering platitudinous answers or a blithe dismissal of others’ feelings, let us join them in protesting to God – and trusting him with a confidence that prays in fervent hope, ‘Come’. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!