Many churches have “praise teams.” But how many churches have “lament teams?” This was the question raised by author and musician Michael Card in his book A Sacred Sorrow. Reflecting on 9/11, he came to realize that the church has no language to express its deepest grief, though it overflows with slogans to describe its greatest joys.
“Worship is not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If this were true, then according to this modern American understanding of worship, the poor would have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While Jesus would pronounce a blessing on those who mourn, we pronounce a curse. Those who ‘labor and are heavy laden’ can find no place in our comfortable churches to lay their burdens.” (Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow)
A major part of the reason we strain to understand suffering is we lack the proper vocabulary. So long as the church values happiness over holiness, we will continue to slap band-aids on hemorrhaging wounds. “Everything happens for a reason,” we insist—or, more likely, repeat from somewhere else. “God never closes a door without opening a window.” “Time heals all wounds.” In the absence of the rich language of lament, we’ve come to embrace slogans. And I can’t be kind about this, because we’ve exchanged the deep, mysterious nature of God’s word for a series of cheap, insipid, overly-simplistic bumper-sticker phrases that will not sustain you for the journey ahead.
As we return our attention to Jeremiah’s lamenting speeches, it might at first seem as if we’re looking at more of the same. That’s because in many ways, yes: neither Jeremiah’s nor Israel’s circumstances have changed. And maybe that’s the point. Sorrow—deep, true sorrow—is so rarely a passing thing. It is a fever that settles deeper than skin and settles into your bones.
If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or depression, then perhaps you can readily identify with the way Jeremiah describes the strange way that physical pain accompanies emotional anguish. In Jeremiah’s case, this was a direct result of God’s judgment, but for us today, we don’t always know why we might experience such things. And if you do struggle with anxiety or depression, it could simply(!) be that your own brain chemistry suffers from the same brokenness as the rest of creation.
I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; 2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; 3 surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. 4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; 5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; 6 he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. 7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; 8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; 9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. 10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; 11 he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; 12 he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. 13 He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; 14 I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. 15 He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. 16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; 17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; 18 so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” 19 Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! (Lamentations 3:1-19)
The language of Lamentations 3 reminds me of yet another passage of suffering: Psalm 22. It was a song originally written by David—roughly 500 years before Jeremiah’s day, and about 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning…14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet– 17 I can count all my bones– they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:1, 14-18)
It’s hard to read David’s words without picturing the crucifixion scene: Jesus’ bones being pulled from join to be nailed to the wood, surrounded by scoffers who gamble for His clothing, his mouth and strength dried from the intensity of the moment. And in that moment this same psalm finds his dry lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
David couldn’t have possibly known that he was writing a hymn for a funeral. But God did. Christianity teaches that all scripture finds its origin in God’s heart (2 Timothy 3:16). This means that God composed a song that would express the suffering of God himself. A recent worship band—Caedmon’s Call—wrote the lyric: “You planted the seed that grew the tree that grew the cross that saved me.” It’s all part of the larger plan, even though we don’t always understand what it means in the meantime.
In Lamentations 3 we see Jeremiah’s lament break in two. He suddenly shifts gears in verse 20, turning his attention from his own infirmity to God’s ultimate sovereignty:
20 My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. 21 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: 22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” 25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. 26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. 27 It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. 28 Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; 29 let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope; 30 let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. 31 For the Lord will not cast off forever, 32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 33 for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. 34 To crush underfoot all the prisoners of the earth, 35 to deny a man justice in the presence of the Most High, 36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit, the Lord does not approve. 37 Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? 39 Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? 40 Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD! (Lamentations 3:20-40)
For Jeremiah, he could only trust in the larger character of God. Thousands of years later, we have all the more reason for hope. We have the testimony of Jesus and His Church. On the cross, all lament breaks in two. We see the reality of suffering, but we see that suffering was experienced by the God of all creation. No other religion is like that. Islam presents a god who is violently angry with sin—yet never steps into history to experience suffering on his own. Eastern religions teach that existence is suffering—but the solution is to escape suffering by subjugating desire. Only Christianity teaches us that God enters into history to experience suffering on our behalf. And only Christianity teaches us that in our darkest moments, we have a God who leads us not around our difficulties, but through them. We often lack answers, but we at least have the Answer.
And He is enough.