Lament in a Broken World
A vast literature on happiness has emerged in recent years that is based on “positive psychology.” Instead of emphasizing neurosis and disorders, psychologists are exploring what leads to human fulfillment. One book is called Authentic Happiness. That is good in its place, but we have little instruction on the wise use of woe. There is no book called Authentic Sadness. Virtuously aligning human feeling with objective fact is no small endeavor, and it takes us far beyond pleasurable sensations. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man.
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or out contempt.
If Lewis is right, then some objects and situations merit lament as well. But our affections are too often out of gear. We often weep when we should laugh and laugh when we should weep, or we feel nothing when we should feel something. Decades ago, a pop song confessed, “Sometimes I don’t know how to feel.” We have all felt this confusion. Nevertheless, our affect should follow our intellect in discerning how to respond to a world of groaning in travail and awaiting its final redemption (Romans 8:18-21). We live in between times and “under the sun,” as Ecclesiastes puts it. Accordingly, we are obligated to know what time it is.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).
Sadness has its seasons as does happiness; this is simply because God’s creation has fallen into sin and has yet to reach its culmination in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21-22). Before then, we are still exiles, but living in hope. If we are to be godly stewards of our emotions, we must know the signs of the times, know our present time, and know what these times should elicit within us.
Our sadness should be judicious and obedient, not hasty, melodramatic, or inane. This is a moral and spiritual matter, not one of mere feelings. Emotions easily err. After the Colorado Rockies baseball team was eliminated from a playoff game some years ago, a Rockies fan reported on television that this loss was like “a death in the family.” That struck me as pathetic, if not daft—a sadness spoiled by a disordered soul. I wonder how her family members responded to this, since the sadness was not rightly related to the event that occasioned it.
Sadness intrudes unbidden in a variety of dark shades. I cannot offer a taxonomy or hierarchy of it here. (Robert Burden did so in 1621 in his Anatomy of Melancholy.) Rather, consider one often-misunderstood form of sorrow—lament. What is it? Frederick Buechner wrote that “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” In that spirit, lament is where our deep sadness meets the world’s deep wounds. And this world has its wounds.
The largest wound of all wounds was the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered more than anyone ever had or ever will, and with the greatest possible effect. His cry was the apex of all laments, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; See Psalm 22:1). It is only because of this lament that our laments gain their ultimate meaning. If the perfect Son of God can lament and not sin, so may we. Further, that anguished cry was answered by his resurrection on the third day.
Christians lament because that which is objectively good has been violated or destroyed. Creation itself is objectively good—deemed so by God himself (Genesis 1). Christians lament because objective goods have been violated. Yet humans have rebelled against God, themselves, each other, and creation. As the Preacher puts it, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff notes that Jesus blessed those who mourn (Matthew 5:4), because they are “wounded visionaries,” seeking genuine goods that escape their grasp. In this sense, their godly frustration is their blessing—and the aching will one day be answered.
But when we lament, we do not do so in a void of meaninglessness. Even though many of our desires are disordered, and thus vain or evil, a good many of them remain in line with God’s desire to restore shalom. We cry out over the loss of a child, over war, over stupidity, cupidity, immortality, and more. Paul was in anguish over the unbelief his countrymen.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel (Romans 9:2-4; see also 10:1).
But Paul never descended into despair or gave up the cause of Christ. Even having suffered terrible torments for Christ, he marched on, knowing that our “labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Lament is not only a literary genre of Scripture but is an indelible category of human existence east of Eden. (Consider the many Psalms of lament, such as 22, 39, 88, 90, as well the Book of Lamentations). It can be done well or poorly, but it cannot be avoided by any but sociopaths. Fallen mortals bemoan life’s suffering, often mixing their grief with outrage. Whether outwardly or only inwardly, they raise their voices, shake their fists, beat their breasts, and shed hot tears. The Negro spiritual intones, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” The blues, leaning on the spirituals, lament in a thousand ways. “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out,” cries Eric Clapton. When Duke Ellington played his wordless lament, “Mood Indigo,” on his first European tour, some in the audience wept. Even heavy metal, full of thunder, rage, and debauchery, often laments life’s burdens. In Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” the singer’s voice is the personification of cocaine. It lies, enslaves, manipulates, and pulls the strings of the addicted. This is a roaring, electronic lament. But there is no hope; it is protest without promise.
We all bewail the injustices, suffering, and terrors of this life, but not all worldviews make room for the full expression of human personality amidst these misfortunes. For instance, the Zen poet, Isa, lost several children and his young wife. In his deep sorrow, he went to a Zen master who told him that “Life is dew.” It all passes away and one must adjust to the inevitable. This is the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment to the impermanent. But Isa, made in the image of God and wanting a better answer, wrote a short poem: “Life is dew, life is dew…and yet, and yet.” Isa could not accept the cure, because Zen did not understand the disease. Life is more than dew. Zen let him down, because it would not let him inhabit his sorrow.
If we have established something of the meaning of lament biblically and philosophically, we need delve into its practice in this world of woe and wonder, of weeping and laughing, morning and dancing (Eccles. 3:1-8).
First, those who take the Bible to be the knowable revelation of God about the things that matter most (2 Timothy 3:15-16) should discover the genre of lament in Scripture. Besides the Psalms of lament and Lamentations, perhaps Ecclesiastes is the richest biblical resource. The Teacher is weighed down by the seeming futility of life, but realizes that sadness gives needed, if unwanted, lessons.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4).
Ecclesiastes, more than any other book of Holy Scripture, has given me the perspective and language of lament necessary for my own sad sojourn during the last fifteen years. It is a deep well of tough wisdom for the weary soul.
Second, lament requires a deep knowledge of God, of the world, and of ourselves. It is often said that our hearts should break where God’s heart breaks. We should “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15), and not the opposite. To adjust our emotions to reality, we must gain knowledge from the Bible and sound thinking (Romans 12:1-2). We are not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). A corollary is that we should know what grieves the Holy Spirit, and grieve along with him.
Third, lament is not grumbling, which is selfish, impatient, and pointless. The children of Israel grumbled against God even as God was providing for their pilgrimage, just as he promised. Paul says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Phil 2:14). While the distinction between grumbling and lament is not easy to make, it is a real distinction. Scripture encourages lament and warns against grumbling, but I may defend my selfish outbursts as lament. Isaiah declares a lament was needed, “The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and to wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth” (Isaiah 22:12). James says much the same to Christians who should lament over their sins: “Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:9-10).
One day God will lift up those who mourn and grieve before him on his terms. He will judge and resurrect the entire cosmos in the end (Daniel 12:2). On this, we place our trust and direct our hope. Yet the Lamb then in our midst was once scarred, crucified, and buried the sake of our redemption. God counts our tears before he takes them away (Psalm 56:8; Revelation 21:4). Learning to lament is, then, part of our lot under the sun. We and our neighbors are better for it, tears and all.