The Longing of Lament

Generally speaking, I am an optimistic person. I find the bright side of bad situations, I see the world with hopeful lenses, and I go the extra mile to give others the benefit of the doubt in personal relationships. Now, this is not the same kind of optimism like Pangloss in Voltaire’s biting satire Candide. When the ship is sinking, I don’t believe everything will be alright, nor do I believe, like Pangloss, that the sinking ship is the best thing that could happen to me, just because I am optimistic. I do all that I can to bail out the rising water, even as I wrestle against the fear and anxiety that accompanies impending disaster.

Yet despite my generally optimistic attitude and outlook, there are times when I am overwhelmed by sadness. It may be a growing storm of weary longing or a tide of bitterness that sweeps over me, drowning me with a dolor that submerges my hope. Sometimes it occurs when I think about the aging process and our hopeless fight against it. Sometimes it occurs when I am in the grocery line, looking at the baggers and clerks who wonder if this is all they will ever do for work. Oftentimes, it occurs when I cannot see the good through all the violence and evil that oppresses our world and its people. I grieve for those who are forgotten by our world—the last, the least, and the lost among us—and wonder who is there to help and to save them from drowning.

It is in these times that I befriend lament. And I take great comfort in the loud cries and mourning that have echoed throughout time and history as captured in the poems, songs, and statements of lament. Indeed, a great portion of the Hebrew Scriptures comes in the form of lament, both individual and communal lament. The Psalms, as the hymnal of Israel, record the deepest cries of agony, anger, confusion, disorientation, sorrow, grief, and protest. In so doing, they express faith in the God who would listen and respond to these emotional outpourings. The prophets of Israel, as well, present some of the most heart-wrenching cries to God in times of deep sorrow and distress. One can hear the anguish in Jeremiah’s cry, “Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will God indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?” In addition, Jeremiah cries out on behalf of the people of Judah: “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?(1)

As I listen to Jeremiah’s cries, I recognize that they arise out of a deep love for the very people he often had to speak against. As Abraham Joshua Heschel notes, “[Jeremiah] was a person overwhelmed by sympathy for God and sympathy for man. Standing before the people he pleaded for God. Standing before God he pleaded for his people.”(2) Oftentimes, my own overwhelming sadness arises when I look out upon a world that seems to love evil more than good, darkness more than light. I grieve over self-imposed predicaments, bad choices, and selfish indulgences. And I recognize my place in this world of predicament, darkness, and selfishness. Longingly, Jesus said amidst tears about the people in his own day, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace” (Luke 19:42). It is more than appropriate for us to weep and lament over the sins of the world—the sin that we, too, participate in and condone.

But beyond this, there are simply some realities in life that at times are overwhelming: the inevitability of ageing, death, and loss, poverty, hunger, homelessness, relational disruption, and many others. I grieve over those who find themselves on the losing end of things, who through no fault of their own always find themselves in last place or left behind. Lament arises from the despair of looking honestly at these realities for what they are, and wishing for something else. It is the despair that arises from not knowing what can be done or how to overcome.

Yet it has been said that “the cry of pain is our deepest acknowledgment that we are not home.” The author continues, “We are divided from our own body; our own deepest desires; our dearest relationships. We are separated and long for utter restoration. It is the cry of pain that initiates the search to ask God, ‘What are you doing?’ It is this element of a lament that has the potential to change the heart.”(3) If this is true, then sometimes my overwhelming sorrow, my feelings of bitterness over some of the harsh or inevitable realities of life are, in fact, the crucible for real change. The same waters of despair that seek to drown and overwhelm are the waters of cleansing. So indeed, let the tears flow, “For if [the LORD] causes grief, then He will have compassion according to his abundant lovingkindness.”(4) As one who desires to walk with the “man of sorrows” who was “acquainted with grief,” may lament have its way of bittersweet transformation.

Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Jeremiah 8:20-22; Jeremiah 15:18.
(2) Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 1962), 154-155.
(3) Dan Allender, “The Hidden Hope in Lament,” Mars Hill Review, Premier Issue, 1994, 25-38.
(4) Lamentations 3:32.
Copyright (c) 2011 Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM)
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