The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Lament (Page 1 of 2)

Lament For A Son: Speaking Into Suffering

I have been writing some brief reflections on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent Lament For A SonOne aspect of this little book that I really enjoyed was Wolterstorff’s discussion of what we should say to people when they are suffering.

Hopefully, many of us have heard and heeded the warnings to not be like Job’s friends, who sat with him in comfort for several days and then began to talk, only to make matters much worse. I would wager that anyone who has experienced significant pain and loss has also dealt with “miserable comforters” like Job’s friends.

And yet, while we should be careful about what we say to those who are suffering, we should not let the fear of saying the wrong thing prevent us from saying anything or from avoiding the suffering person altogether.

“What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.” (34)

While Wolterstorff offers grace to those who blurt our “strange, inept things,” he does offer a caution for the sort of thing that should not be said:

“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” (34)

And, finally:

“Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings—never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.” (35)

This brings us back to what I said in the beginning. While care should certainly be used in what we say to those who are suffering, ignoring the sufferer out of concern that we may say something hurtful is, itself, a hurtful act. In many ways, it may feel like just being with those who are suffering and expressing our love for them is “the least we can do”, but in a very real sense, it’s also the most we can do.

It reminds me of a Swedish proverb that I have come to love: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

Increasingly, I have come to realize how much we live in a society that seeks to avoid and minimize death as much as possible. In such an environment, the sort of meaningful presence that Wolterstorff suggests does not feel natural, and is something that we may be tempted to avoid. But as followers of Jesus, we must seek to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6.2); we must speak into the suffering, whether we use words or not.

Lament For A Son: Lament As Love Song

As I mentioned previously, I recently finished Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent Lament For A SonI enjoyed the book so much that rather than do a standard review, I decided to do a series of short posts based on some of the different ideas the book discusses.

In the preface at the beginning of the Lament For A Son (written more than a decade after the death of his son), Wolterstorff speaks of the lasting nature of grief, and of lament as well.

Grief is a lingering wound:

“Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is at it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides.” (5)

A lot has been written about grief, and there are several generally-agreed upon principles: there is no single “correct” way to grieve; there is no proscribed pattern for how to “get through it”; no fixed timeline for how long grief lasts; there are healthier and less-healthy ways to deal with grief.

Grief is not fun; it does not make us happy, but as Wolterstorff references above, there is something good and valuable about it because it testifies to the worth of the person we are grieving over. The person worth loving is worth grieving over. I would suggest that lament is a healthy response to grief, and in a similar vein, lament is rooted in and motivated by love:

“A friend told me that he had given copies of Lament to all of his children. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because it is a love-song,” he said. That took me aback. But Yes, it is a love-song. Every lament is a love-song.

Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?” (6)

It is love that prompts us to lament. We mourn the loss of a family member, we grieve the life-threatening illness of a dear friend, we cry out at the injustice that plagues the oppressed, we react in shock and sympathy at the indifferent destruction of natural disasters. Love of neighbor—a kingdom value—prompts us to look around at our world of Sin and Death and lament that God’s kingdom has not yet come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

But Christian hope prompts us to look ahead:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

(Revelation 21.1-5a)

Will love-songs one day no longer be laments? The testimony of Scripture says yes: we await a Day when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death shall be no more, and neither shall there be crying, mourning, nor pain.

But Love will remain. The God who is Love will make His dwelling among us.

Reflections on Lament For A Son

I recently received Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A Son, which is a series of short essays composed after Wolterstorff’s 25 year-old son was tragically killed in a climbing accident. Wolterstorff is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale, and in Lament For A Son, he certainly writes from a theological perspective, but overwhelmingly, he is writing as a grief-stricken dad.

Suffering is a topic of interest for me;  I have written quite a bit about suffering, and specifically, viewing that topic from a theological perspective; I’ve also read a good deal about suffering as well. Lament For A Son is unlike other books I have read; rather than delve deeply into the topic of suffering in an analytical, systematic fashion, it delves deeply through emotional, soulful lament.

The book is short, and the essays are brief and disjointed, but I have found it to be incredibly profound. So much so, in fact, that rather than post a typical review, I decided to do a series of short posts highlighting some of the different ideas brought out in the various essays.

For example:

“Death is the great leveler, so our writers have always told us. Of course they are right. But they have neglected to mention the uniqueness of each death—and the solitude of suffering which accompanies that uniqueness. We say, “I know how you are feeling.” But we don’t.” (25)

I think this is a helpful reminder. With the absolute best of intentions, we seek to enter into the pain of others we care about. We want to break into their isolation and sit with them in their grief. We want them to know that we are with them, and that someone understands what it’s like to feel what they are feeling. But that empathetic impulse, as noble as it may be is also, unfortunately impossible to realize. We may imagine how another person feels, but we cannot know; we can neither clone the relationship that the other person had with their deceased loved one, nor can perfectly replicate the emotional responses of another person.

Each person, each relationship between people, and thus, each death which severs the relationship between two people is unique. Let us come close to those who are grieving and let us sit with them. Let us listen to the words and emotions that they share. Let us seek to understand. But let us not heighten the sense of isolation experienced by those who are grieving  by saying, “I know how you are feeling” when they know good and well that we do not, truly.

The Christian Response to a Broken World

Over the weekend, my family and I passed the 50-day milestone of our COVID-19-inspired home isolation. I have tried to view this as an opportunity for growth, and there have certainly been some benefits to this season, but like the vast majority of folks, I acknowledge its challenges and am ready to move on to something else.

There is no denying that this is a rough time all around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and millions have contracted COVID-19. Financial uncertainty is widespread, as millions have lost their jobs.  The quarantine directives have been particularly devastating in parts of the world with food insecurities where starvation is a legitimate threat. Closer to home, financial stress and sheltering-in-place have created a volatile mix that, according to some reports, has led to a spike in abuse, mental health issues, and suicide.



In light of what is literally a worldwide crisis, you would like to think that perhaps this shared experience could bring us together somewhat—unify us in a time of need as we all pull together to jointly overcome. To be sure, that has happened to a degree, but louder, shriller voices continue to sow discord and division, placing blame along party lines and even promoting wild conspiracy theories.

From my perspective, the response to these events from a lot of Christians has been pretty disappointing as well. Too often, we are quick to speak and slow to listen instead of the other way around (see James 1.19), and when we react in that way, we can often add fuel to the fires of heartache, division, and confusion that are already waging.

The reality is that we live in a broken world marred by lots of problems. As Christians living in this context, how should we respond when tragedy occurs? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are three responses that I believe are helpful in the face of tragedy:

(1) In response to a broken world, Christians should lament. Perhaps our most basic response to suffering is that we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12.15). That seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but recently, instead of this, I have seen Christians telling those who weep that what they weep about isn’t really a big deal or worth weeping about at all! When the world gives us evidence of its brokenness, we should acknowledge that brokenness, allow ourselves feel distress, and bring that distress before God. It has become popular, in some circles, to criticize prayer as a response to horrible tragedy, but as Christians, we should take no note of such dismissals. Christians believe that God is ultimately sovereign over the universe, and thus, He is the one who can do something about the brokenness in our world. It is absolutely appropriate that we bring out laments before our Father, as we yearn for a day when He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21.4).

(2) In response to a broken world, Christians should aid the suffering. I think part of the reason that a lot of people are critical of prayer is that they feel that this is all that Christians do. And perhaps that can be a fair criticism at times, because God certainly expects us to accompany our prayers with righteous actions. Philip Yancey says that the church forms the front line of God’s response to the suffering world, and I think he is right: Christians have a responsibility to get into the mess of the world and try to do something to clean it up. That is probably accomplished less by questioning the statistics that are released, distrusting the media, or berating government officials, and more by being present with those who suffer, and looking for ways to aid those who are in need: offering a shoulder to cry on (even a socially-distant one!) for the grieving, a card or phone call for the lonely, a bag of groceries or a check in the mail for those with financial needs.[1]

(3) In response to a broken world, Christians should proclaim Jesus. Too often, this part is neglected. In John 16.33, Jesus was speaking to His disciples on the night of His arrest and He said simply, “In this world you will have tribulation.” Though not spoken directly to us, those words certainly apply to us as well; as recent and ongoing events remind us, we live in the same world, a world which was created good but has been tainted by sin and is now characterized by heartache. As Christians, we weep with those who weep, we do what we can to help those who are suffering, but we also remember the second half of John 16.33: “In this world you will have tribulation…but take courage, I have overcome the world!” As Christians, we also proclaim that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that sin, illness, suffering, strife, injustice, and death do not get the last word. As Christians, we long for the day when Jesus returns, when death dies, and when every tear is wiped away from our eyes.

This is not an exhaustive list, and I am certain that more could be said. At the same time, I am equally certain that if Christians everywhere would respond to suffering and tragedy in our world in these ways, the Christian witness would be strengthened, the suffering of people would be limited, and the borders of God’s Kingdom would be expanded.

This is an updated version of an older post


[1]If you have been blessed with financial means and would like to share with those who are in need, please contact me. I am working to help some ministers in impoverished areas who are providing food for vulnerable populations who are at risk of literally starving, and I would be happy to help your gift get to a place where it could accomplish much good.

Hurting With God: Faith and Lament, Part 2

The Disappearance of Lament

In addition to the examples we looked at in the last post, there are many, many more that we could look at just in the Book of Psalms. In fact, there are more lament psalms in the Book of Psalms than any other type!

  • Psalms of Lament: 60 out of 150 (40%)
  • Psalms of Praise: 41 out of 150 (27.3%)
  • Psalms of Thanksgiving and Trust: 27 out of 150 (18%)
  • Miscellaneous Psalms (teaching, wisdom, worship, etc.): 22 out of 150 (14.7%)*

We know that the Book of Psalms functioned much like a songbook for worship in both the lives of the Israelites and also the early church; with 40% of their songs containing lament, clearly lament was an acceptable part of their worship and their lives!

What about us? Are we as comfortable with the language of lament as our spiritual ancestors?

A research assistant at Abilene Christian University did a project where he examined some modern hymnals (song books), divided the songs into different categories, and compared them to the Book of Psalms. One of the books he examined was Songs of Faith and Praise, which is the hymnal we use at the congregation where I work, and is a popular hymnal in Churches of Christ.

Of the 885 songs in Songs of Faith and Praise: 

  • Songs of Thanksgiving and Trust: 392 out of 885 (44%)
  • Songs Praise: 264 out of 885 (30%)
  • Miscellaneous Songs (songs on worship, invitation songs, patriotic, about Christ): 197 out of 885 (22%)
  • Songs of Lament: 32 out of 885 (<4%)

Compared to the Book of Psalms, 40% of which is comprised of lament psalms, Songs of Faith and Praise includes lament songs 1/10 as often! I know this is not the most scientific study, but I still think it shows a general truth, which is that we have largely lost the biblical language of lament. Something which is a huge part of the Book of Psalms, and thus a major part of the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament and the early church has largely been removed from the way we speak to each other and to God.

If you think about it, really the only time where we lament together is in the aftermath of a death, but even then in our modern funerals we’ve gotten to where we hardly leave room for lament. Instead, we try to have upbeat “memorial services” where we tell funny stories about the departed, and we expect that after a few weeks people ought to “get over” their grief and get on with their lives. We live in a culture that does everything it can to avoid death, suffering, or discomfort, and a lot of times, that’s how it is in the church as well.

There is no room for lament in our lives.

Now some people might think that this is a good thing: “Well, sure there are a lot of these laments in Psalms and Jeremiah, Habakkuk, etc., but those are in the Old Testament! We live under the new covenant; as Christians, we shouldn’t say things like this because we have victory through Jesus! We should be able to face any trial with a smile on our face!”

Historically though, we know that the early church valued the Book of Psalms as much as the Jews did. New Testament writers refer to the book of Psalms over 400 times, and as already mentioned, the Book of Psalms served as the hymnbook of the early church. The Psalms were very important to the early Christians.

Furthermore, Jesus, our example in all things, shows the characteristics of lament in his life. When His friend Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps, despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead! If it was okay for Jesus to show emotion and be upset when He was troubled, it’s certainly okay for us as well.

When Jesus approaches Jerusalem before the Triumphal Entry, He laments over it because He knows it will be destroyed. Soon after that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, contemplating His coming arrest and crucifixion, Jesus cries out to God and says, in effect, “Father, if there is any way You can save Me from the horror of what’s coming, please do so!” That is lament.

On the cross, in the midst of his torment, Jesus famously cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is a direct quote from Psalm 22, which is one of the lament Psalms.

In addition to the value of the psalms in the early church, we can see clearly that lament was a part of the life of Jesus. Lament is not just an Old Testament phenomenon, it is a biblical phenomenon. It’s a part of faith.

Bringing Lament Back Into Our Lives

And we can see that it’s a part of faith by looking at the laments themselves. In the laments we read together, there is a pattern which arises and this is generally true in the laments:

  1. They are addressed to God recognizing that He is the One who is in control.
  2. They involve a complaint; something is wrong in the life of the one who is lamenting.
  3. They contain a request: the lamenter wants God to do something about the complaint.
  4. Usually, the laments close with confidence and praise: having turned their request over to God, the lamenter is confident that God is in control, and praises Him for His watchful care.

Seeing these different parts of lament shows that laments are different from just whining and complaining: lament is not about pouting because we don’t get our way. Instead, lament is what occurs when deep faith confronts deep suffering: we suffer, and in our faith, we turn to the Only One who can do anything about our suffering, the God who is in charge and who cares for us.

This faith language which we have lost is something that we need to reclaim.

Think about it this way: you can tell how close your relationship with another person is based on how honest you can be with that person. With that in mind, how honest can you be with God? I think that we’ve gotten the impression that somehow it is wrong or irreverent when bad things happen to ask God questions or to express our frustration or even anger with Him. And because of that, when times get tough, people either walk away from their faith, or they just bury their emotions and pretend that everything is okay.

But God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows when we questions. He knows when we are frustrated. He knows when we are angry with Him. And He can handle that. And rather than us trying to swallow these feelings and pretend they don’t exist, God wants us to bring that to Him. 1 Peter 5.7 tells us to cast all of our anxieties on God, because He cares for us.

And Scripture shows us how to do that. Through the language of lament, we can see how we can cry out to God in our suffering in ways that are honest, but in ways that are still faithful.

Conclusion

Is the church meant to be a place of support and healing where we can be honest with one another about what is going on in our lives and honest with God? Or is it a place of white-washing and mask-wearing, where we put on a brave face and pretend everything is okay even when it most definitely is not?

In these last two posts, we have looked at lament:

We’ve seen how it is a biblical practice, a language of faith that we see throughout Scripture, and especially in the Psalms. We’ve noted the disturbing way in which lament has largely disappeared from the songs we sing, from our culture at large, and even from funerals sometimes. And hopefully, we’ve seen that lament is something we need to reclaim and bring back as a part of our lives of faith. Lament emphasizes that God is in control, that He is the One who can do something about our suffering, and that as a result, it only makes sense that we bring it to Him.

I want to close with three suggestions for how lament can aid us when we go through difficult times in life. When the tough times come, I urge you:

  1. Be open with your brothers and sisters in Christ about what is going on and how you feel. If we are serious about being the family of God, then that means we are here for one another, and we need to support one another.
  2. Read through the Psalms. We just looked at a few examples, but 40% of the book is lament. There is a wide array of language which is used to cover a wide array of problems; see how people of faith voiced their suffering to God.
  3. And most importantly, be honest with God about your suffering. Maybe using some of that same lament language from Psalms, take your suffering and lay it at His feet. He is the one who can handle it and do something about it.

*As I mentioned in the last post, these thoughts (and also the statistics) are greatly informed by Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting With God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.

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