I have been generally struggling with many Christians seeming inability to deal with lament. I don’t know whether it is the trap of the positive thought movement or if people just fear emotions other than happiness, but I’m finding people are way quicker to condemn individuals for lamenting than for expressing happy idyllic skewed images of their lives. We prefer content that makes us feel good and makes our lives look neat and tidy and we prefer to tell people to hide or cover up their sadness.
We are also quick to justify why we should correct people in their lament or in their sadness and grief rather than sitting with them. In fact the entire book of Job is evidence of this. Job’s friends sit in silence with him for 7 days and then move into a string of rebukes.
The traditional Jewish mourning period is 30 days, but interestingly enough the mourning period for the loss of a parent in Jewish tradition is 11 months.
Why do I point to this? Because I actually don’t think people know or have parameters for mourning. I don’t think people teach you how to mourn; I do think people are quick to try to teach you how to move on which honestly I don’t think works. I actually think we dilute mourning and it catches up with us. If we delay mourning or someone else intrudes and tells us how to do it we actually invite further damage if we are not careful.
I think there probably are expressions of grief and mourning that are inappropriate. I just think we should also be very slow, extremely slow to insist that we know what they are. And I think in order to show this, I will do what Christians typically are best at, berating you with Scriptures to deal with their own discomfort as a justification for why you are wrong and they are right about what should do, given your circumstance.
And I will do this by pointing to lamentations and the things people in Scripture said and did that they were not corrected for while they were grieving. In fact Jesus says “Blessed are those who mourn” and I think if I just used that Scripture alone and gave you the definition of that word in Greek it might be enough. It might be enough to see that Jesus’ idea of mourning is vastly different than our notion of what it is.
So here we go:
The Greek word Pentheo has two distinct and powerful meanings.
The first: properly, grieve over a death; (figuratively) to grieve over a personal hope (relationship) that dies, i.e. comes to divine closure (“ends“).
The second: (“mourn over a death”) refers to “manifested grief” (WS, 360) – so severe it takes possession of a person and cannot be hid.
Within this definition also includes to wail which is a prolonged cry of pain, grief, or anger.
The Public Laments of Jesus
In Matthew 23:13-19 Jesus pronounces a series of woes which are in fact expressions of mourning and grief while denouncing something.
Beloved if there is no room for shouting and crying out in distress against injustice in your theology, I don’t think you understand Jesus himself who for an entire chapter in Matthew 23 is grieving and denouncing destructive behavior that not only is ravaging the faith of individuals but also has kept people blind to the spiritual condition of a nation.
So what are the things Jesus is mourning over:
v. 13 shutting the kingdom of heaven in front of people, not entering it themselves and preventing others from entering it
v. 14 devouring the houses of widows, while making long prayers
v.15 making converts, that are twice the sons of hell in their oppression
v.16-22 manipulating people into swearing upon their offerings as a means of sanctification, showing that their interest in what was to be gained was material to varying degrees, some outright only interested in money.
v. 23-24 you measure your tithe but neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness
v.25-26 caring exclusively about outward appearance, appearing holy, but actually robbing and selfishly indulging. Jesus encourages them to do the work internally of the heart
v.27-28 having outward beauty, buying expensive clothes and shoes even saying things for itching ears but inwardly full of hypocrisy and lawlessness
v.29-36 it doesn’t get better, it gets worse, Jesus lets them know that though they too think they would not murder the prophets, their lineage is one that will continue on in that posture. He lets them know he is sending them people to proclaim the Word of God, Himself, who they will also kill.
v.37-39 Finally Jesus mourns how he desired to love and care for Jerusalem but they were unwilling. They were unwilling to love and be loved. Jesus acknowledges that their house has been left desolate and He won’t return unless the are willing.
The Laments of David
In the Old Testament David laments a lot of things, some of those he laments for a season, some he laments because of his own sin, some he laments because the sins of his enemies.
Psalm 34 David laments while pretending to be insane:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in Spirit.”
He goes on to draw a distinction between the God who saves and vindicates him and the condemnation of the wicked.
David mourns the loss of his ill child, mourns the loss of Absalom who turned into David’s enemy, mourns the loss of his relationship with his Father-in Law Saul, mourns the end of friendship with his brother-in law Jonathan, mourns their deaths despite not being reconciled to Saul.
David laments in song before those who knew him time and time again, not only that, David sings a lament and then orders an entire kingdom to learn the lament. In his lament he honors the positive in the man who tried to end his life on several occasions, a man who gave his daughter Michel whom he promised to David for the brideprice of 200 Philistine foreskins, to another man.
David’s lament and life was very public while it varied by mileage who caused his reasons for lamenting.
The Lament of James
The epistle of James specifically chapter 4 is a command to lament that we care too much about worldly things or possessions, about slandering others, judging others, not addressing the warfare within and the failure to humble ourselves. James says favor is available to the humble, not the proud or the stubborn who think they know better or insist on their own way.
The Lament of Jeremiah
The book of the prophet Jeremiah as well as the corresponding book of Lamentations ascribed to him are perhaps the most fascinating aspects of biblical lament. In addition to Jeremiah being the book with the most words in the Bible, it also in some ways is the most tragic while being a great depiction of faithfulness. Eugene Peterson’s Run with the Horses is a great, accessible read on the prophets life, in which he describes how Jeremiah was faithful only to ultimately die in a foreign land in exile with little to nothing. What I think is most inspiring about it is Jeremiah, who is faithful to his call prophesies and laments not only his nations downfall but their failure to repent.
Church history suggests that Jeremiah died by stoning in Egypt in exile at the hands of his own people who were exasperated by his prophetic witness.
Perhaps the most popular verse in Lamentations are chapter 3:22-24
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
In an appeal to the Lord’s great love Jeremiah acknowledges that God continues to be merciful. In context, however this verse is sandwiched by 20 verses of physical anguish followed by 20 more verses of mental emotional anguish. There is much weeping, much ache and mockery and suffering before and after, much of which is caused by his own people.
All this to say that the end of lament, the end of of grief, or rather the goal of it is hope. Grief goes too far when it enters into despair. Despair is when you become absent to the reality of good and when you become absent to the reality of the good that Christ has worked and breathed into you. The goal of “sin” is despair and separation. Anything moving us towards that bent must be dealt with. The truth about all those laments is within them is a desire for reconciliation regardless if we see it in this life. In order to get to the place of anchored hope or even the possibility of a reconciled heart and soul, I can only hope we make allowance for grief in all of its forms.
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