Imagine you attend a funeral. The body of the deceased is in the casket for all to see, and everyone is appropriately dressed for the occasion. And yet everyone acts and talks as if the deceased is still living and nothing has really happened. How would you feel?
Now imagine that someone has died in a house and was laid to rest in state in the living room. No funeral was held; everyone carries on with their lives without regard to the body in the living room. What would that house be like?
These seem like strange illustrations, but they help us understand what happens when people do not give space for lament.
Lament is a powerful expression of pain and/or grief. In the Scriptures lament is most commonly associated with the book of Lamentations, composed to give voice for Israel to grieve and lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Most of the Psalms feature lament in some way or another, giving vent to grief and suffering on account of the hostility of enemies, illness, betrayal, sin, and feelings of abandonment. In the New Testament Jesus lamented over Lazarus’ death and the grief displayed by his sisters (John 11:33-35); Jesus promised the disciples would lament His death before His resurrection (John 16:20); Christians made great lamentation over Stephen after his death (Acts 8:2).
No one mistakes lament for a pleasant process; nevertheless, during this life, we will have moments and perhaps even seasons of lament. People around us suffer from sickness, oppression, and death; at times we ourselves suffer from these as well. In lament we confess the brokenness of the world subject to the corruption and decay of sin and death, and our powerlessness to do much about it (Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). When informed of tragic news, or having recognized complicity in sinful forms of injustice and oppression or inaction in the face of injustice and oppression, we do well to lament and mourn what has transpired. We may lament as individuals, giving voice to our pain, suffering, frustration, anxiety, distress, or any other malady before God (cf. 1 Peter 5:7); we do well to find relevant psalms and pray them, using the inspired Psalter to help us communicate our grief and pain before God. We also have reason to lament together in community, mourning with those who mourn, and welcoming and accepting those who have suffered among us (Romans 12:15, 1 Corinthians 12:26).
In lament we go to the house of mourning, which the Preacher wisely recognized provided greater value than the house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:2). Our modern society is enraptured with the house of feasting: youth and youthful looks are idolized, happiness seems to be the goal, and everyone seems to attempt to showcase their best life on Instagram. By necessity, therefore, aging is the worst and is to be hidden at all costs; any sort of physical, mental, or emotional difficulty is weakness and must be suppressed; discussing or focusing on our mortality is awkward and uncomfortable; and Epicureanism and its attendant desire to avoid all pain and suffering is the philosophy of the day. Very little space is given for those who suffer; anyone going through any distress or pain quickly learns that they make others uncomfortable, and do best if they hide away. They are told to get over it, happy up, or smile, reflecting the vacuous promises of the self-help movement whose promise cannot be sustained in the creation marred by corruption. Depression and suicide are prevalent, and why not? We are made to feel the crushing weight of hopelessness and inadequacy if we are not living up to the pretenses of youth, health, fulfillment, and happiness.
The church ought to be a refuge in times like these, but unfortunately, the people of God have in too many places forgotten the practice of lament. Some remain overly enraptured with the idol of positivity, mistaking Biblical exhortations to joy for the superficial happiness of the world. Most recognize the existence of suffering, pain, and brokenness in the world, but have not been equipped with the resources of lament. The modern songbook is of little use in this regard; precious few hymns give voice to grief or suffering, and they are easily drowned out by the emphasis on praise. Let none be deceived: praise is well, good, and necessary; praise is an important feature of the psalms. Yet more psalms feature lament than praise, and this is not even remotely true of the modern Christian hymnal repertoire. Prayers are often offered for those in various forms of distress, yet true lament over sin, suffering, and the like is also rarely found offered in the assemblies of the saints, and might be considered awkward or embarrassing to some. Not a few Christians have found themselves adrift, despondent and in distress, and do not where to go in order to find acknowledgement of their struggle and the means by which to find sustenance in God to endure and overcome them. Some such Christians fall away, spiritually dying of thirst in an ocean of positivity and praise.
Lament is awkward, uncomfortable, and unpleasant; by necessity it dwells upon our failings, our inadequacies, our shame, our sin, and our suffering, and/or that of others. Yet, just as in Christ we are made strong when we are weak, so in lament we are strengthened and encouraged when we confess our limitations and failures (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9). In lament we speak the reality of sin, sickness, and suffering; we no longer have to hide in shame from these realities, pretend they do not exist, or anxiously presume they can only happen to other people. In lament we humbly depend upon God, for hope of real justice, grace, mercy, and redemption are in Him and nowhere else. In lament we identify the lies of our society and culture and liberate people from the need to continue to maintain the pretense that everything is great and fantastic all the time. In lament we give space for people to mourn, to grieve, and to come to grips with their faults and failings, all of which are necessary to overcome. Lament, therefore, identifies the “body in the room”: it confesses that a grievous thing has happened, and demands coming to terms with it. If people wish to pretend nothing really happened, or act as if there is no “body in the room,” the environment of their lives, their churches, or even their nations will become toxic, full of rot, and unsafe.
Lament, however, is not an end unto itself; if we grieve and mourn but have no hope, we are no different from the Gentiles. As demonstrated in the psalms of lament and in Lamentations, lament is empowered by a strong faith in God that He will heal, enact justice, and redeem. Lament is the means by which we bury the “body in the room” so that we can find health, wholeness, and healing. The disciples lamented Jesus’ death, but on the third day their lament turned to joy, for the Lord Jesus overcame death in His resurrection (Luke 24:1-53). The hope of resurrection sustains the Christian: yes, in this life we will have suffering, grief, and ultimately death; yet, in Christ, we will overcome sin and death, and share in the resurrection in which there will be no more mourning, pain, tears, or death (John 16:30-33, Philippians 3:20-21, Revelation 21:1-22:6). We lament injustice knowing that the God of justice will soon come and judge the living and the dead and make all things right (Acts 17:30-31). It is fitting, therefore, for all lament to end in declarations of faith and confidence in God. In the world there would be no hope; right would make right; suffering and evil are just the way things are. It is because we have confidence in God as our Creator, a God of love and justice, a God who allowed His Son to die for our sins and raised Him for our justification that we can lament over present illness, pain, sin, suffering, and death.
Lament is no one’s idea of a good time but proves critical to a healthy life in faith. The way to Zion is through Calvary; we will have to endure seasons of lament if we would obtain the resurrection of life. Yet lament is not the end; our ground of hope is in the resurrection of Jesus, confidence in His return and judgment, and eternity in the resurrection in joy. May we grow in faith in God in Christ and obtain that resurrection!
Ethan R. Longhenry