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Tag: Nicholas Wolterstorff

Lament For A Son: The Demonic Awfulness Of Death

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


I have been writing some reflections on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament For A SonOne of many elements of the book that I appreciated was Wolterstorff’s emphasis on the “demonic awfulness” of death (p. 54).

All too often, I think that Christians can lapse into a very naturalistic worldview where we say things like, “death is just a natural part of life.” We say this to help bring perspective to our circumstances, and in the sense that, yes, all humans die, this statement is true.

But it is decidedly untrue in the sense that death is not a part of God’s plan; it is not a feature of life as God envisioned it and is, thus, wholly unnatural. Death became a reality as a result of sin (this is, in fact, precisely what God warned Adam and Eve about). Paul describes death as the “last enemy to be defeated” and in John’s Revelation, Jesus is depicted in magnificent glory as the Living One who was dead but is now alive, and who holds the keys to Death and Hades: through His resurrection, Jesus has cracked open the tomb of Death and declared His mastery over this ancient enemy, and the Day will come when it will be no more.



From a Christian perspective, we can realize that Death does not have the last say because of the victory of Jesus and that the sting of death is minimized in the face of this reality, but Death is still an enemy. It is not something to be civilized or sanitized with platitudes about it being a “natural part of life”.

Referring to sentiments similar to this, Wolterstorff says:

“I find this pious attitude deaf to the message of the Christian gospel. Death is here understood as a normal instrument of God’s dealings with us. “You have lived out the years I’ve planned for you, I’ll just shake the mountain a bit. All of you there, I’ll send some starlings into the engine of your plane. And as for you there, a stroke while running will do nicely.”

The Bible speaks instead of God’s overcoming death. Paul calls it the last great enemy to be overcome. God is appalled by death. My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And, yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death.” (67)

But, although death is awful, Jesus tells His disciples, startlingly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” From the perspective of a society that champions youth, achievement, and happiness, and where people put on a smile and declare that things are “fine” while they are dying inside, this seems like a bizarre statement from Jesus. Why would He say such a thing?

“Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.

Such people Jesus blesses; he hails them, he praises them, he salutes them. And he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come. They will be comforted.

The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm. Disengage yourself. Neither laugh nor weep. Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world. Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be in agony over humanity’s agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.” (84-86)

Death is awful. It is an enemy, and it should drive us to mourn. But as Christians, we mourn with the knowledge that the days of death are numbered, and the Day will come when mourning will be no more.

Lament For A Son: Speaking Into Suffering

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of 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

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


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

This is part of a sub-series of posts under a larger, loosely-united series entitled A Theological View of Suffering.


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.

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