A Lenten Lament
Suffering blurs the vision. Through the fog of confusion or the veil of tears, afflictions obscure our lens of life. They tend to displace our emotions and reconstitute our rationale. Normality is often abruptly upended. Suffering becomes what feels like an inescapable labyrinth of lament.
This emotional entanglement is explored throughout various books of the Bible, but it is particularly palpable in the Old Testament. The Psalms, for example, express various authors’ raw feelings, and the unhinging nature of suffering is on full display:
“My soul pants for you, O God… My tears have been my food day and night… how I used to go with the multitude.”(1)
In our distressful moments, we long for this language of lament. We long for approval to voice our sorrows, an invitation to lament both individually and corporately. This invitation is found in the Christian religious tradition called Lent. This 40-day period is a time of spiritual and emotional preparation leading to the events of Holy Week and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is a time where all who lament can feel encouraged to do so. It is also a time where the suffering of Christ reorients our focus. We are not alone.
Jeremiah was arguably the biblical figure most known for his intimate relationship with sorrow. He was burdened with the unenviable task of prophesizing God’s justice and ultimate judgement against his fellow Israelites, who, despite warnings, were engaging in unjust practices and behaviors. Their disobedient hearts resulted in exile and the destruction of their beloved city. Throughout his lengthy book, Jeremiah endures rejection, suffers loneliness, languishes in isolation, and sustains beatings. Anguish is ever-present. “My grief is beyond healing; my heart is broken… I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief.”(2)
In the midst of our current global crisis, we feel besieged by the presence of suffering, too. Like Jeremiah, our eyes may feel like fountains of tears. Perhaps it is the persistent prick of seclusion. In this time of social distancing, isolation can be even more discomforting. Perhaps the anguish of anxiety looms in a ubiquitous manner. Uncertainty and the unease that accompanies it have ironically become synonymous with regularity. Perhaps the loss of a loved one has soaked our joy in sadness. Hope can feel as fleeting and remote as the mandated lack of human embrace.
Jeremiah experienced similar emotional hurdles as the impending doom of his people edged closer and closer. Immediately following his self-titled book, there’s a rather intriguingly titled book called Lamentations. Officially, the author is unnamed, but Jewish interpretative history recognizes Jeremiah as its writer. The purpose of Lamentations is simple, yet critical. It serves as a communal expression of lament over the tragic suffering and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
The book is structured as five poetic laments. The author cleverly used the Hebrew alphabet as a mnemonic device so that mourners could easily recall and recite them. How peculiar, or perhaps profound, that God saw fit to convey the message of Lamentations through poetic utterances. He not only invites you to share your grief, but in a sublime manner, the language of poetry shows that your lament itself carries a mysterious beauty. Its splendor is not found intrinsically in the mourning, but in the one before whom we are invited to openly mourn:
“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
Our march toward Lent is important for similar reasons: we are reminded that pain is not simply our own to bear. We march toward the life, death, and resurrection of one who defeats the pangs of pain and death with pangs of pain and death of his own. Jesus experienced many of the emotional obstacles the Israelites felt and we currently feel as his destiny with a Roman cross approached. He felt isolation from those who professed to love him most. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he laments to the Father: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He was afflicted by anxiety to the point that his sweat became blood. And he ultimately endured excruciating pain as his body was subjected to the torturous institution of crucifixion. The season of Lent and this Holy Week before us prepare us to receive one whose grief was great but whose determination for what lied ahead was greater, one in whom death and mourning and pain shall one day be no more.
Nicholas Wolterstorff in Lament for a Son chronicles his grief over the early death of his son. As he processes his pain through lament, he comes to a broader realization of the power of “Christ’s rising and death’s dying.” He writes:
“To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won.”(3)
Lament in full view of Christ’s suffering love refocused Wolterstorff’s lens on life and death. Though the bite of agony persists, the hope of Christ’s rising and death’s dying prevails. Lament helped him see not only his own experience but the world anew. Pain took him from a personal recognition to a communal recognition: “What I have learned, to my surprise, is that in [lament’s] particularity there is universality.”(4)
Many of us are learning to see the world anew as well. Our hearts ache over the many sufferings of life, but let us not languish in our lament on our own. There is one who reminds us that we neither die nor suffer, we neither grieve nor lament alone. He is the living embodiment of hope, the suffering servant who teaches us how to love.
Brandon Cleaver is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Detroit, Michigan.
(1) Psalm 42.
(2) Excerpts of Lamentations 3:22-24.
(3) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 92.
(4) Wolterstorff, 5.