In today’s world, it is often difficult to summon optimism. Bad news swirls around us blowing our hopes and dreams like leaves in the fall wind. In this gale, we often find it hard to cling to hope and to a sense that the future will be a bright one. In general, I see myself as an optimistic person. I try to find the bright side of bad situations, and I work hard to walk the extra mile to give others the benefit of the doubt in personal relationships. I am not a naïve optimist like the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s biting satire Candide. When it is clear the ship is sinking, I don’t believe everything will be alright nor do I believe, as Pangloss would, that the sinking ship is the best thing that could happen to me. 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 sadness overwhelms me. It may be a growing storm of weary longing or a tide of lonely isolation 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 the world and its people. I can easily become overwhelmed by the numbers of people who are forgotten by our society—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 hope that the God who delivered them in the exodus from Egypt, would once again deliver by listening and responding to their lament.(1) The prophets of Israel, who cry out in times of exile, 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?” (Jeremiah 15:18). 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?” (Jeremiah 8:20-22).
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) In this same tradition, Jesus cried out with deep longing 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 terrible condition of the world—a condition that all too often, we participate in and condone.
Many face realities in life that feel completely overwhelming: illness, death and loss, poverty, hunger, job loss or under-employment, relational disruption. Lament seems the only appropriate response for those who find themselves on the losing end of things, or who through no fault of their own always find themselves in last place or left behind. Lament arises from looking honestly at these realities for what they are, and wishing for something else.
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 the overwhelming sorrow or feelings of bitterness over having to deal with what feels like more than one’s share of the harsh yet inevitable realities of life are, in fact, the crucible for real change. The same waters of despair that seek to drown and overwhelm can become the waters of cleansing. And in the midst of lament, the writers of Scripture give witness to the overwhelming compassion of God: “For if [the LORD] causes grief, then He will have compassion according to his abundant lovingkindness.”(4) Perhaps, as we remember the one who was described as a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief, lament offers a crucible in which we might experience a better compassion and care. Indeed, lament may yet have its own way of transformation.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Barish Golan, “A Look at Lament Songs in the Bible,” http://www.disciplestoday.org.
(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.