“Let the tears roll like a river, day and night, and keep at it—no time-outs. Keep those tears flowing!” Lamentations 2:18 (The Message Bible)
A friend of mine had just come from visiting a church’s worship service when I asked him what he thought. He was complimentary of the gathering as a whole but made one provocative comment that I haven’t been able to shake now for weeks. He said, “The theme of all their songs was happiness and triumph. Whatever happened to the lament in worship?” He went on to say that he wouldn’t vote for doing away with songs of joy and victory in our worship then added that he has observed a distinct dearth of the dirge in our modern way of relating to God.
I think the reason it stays suck in my craw is that for months now I have been studying the book of Jeremiah and his follow-up acrostic poem called “Lamentations.” That’s right, there’s a whole book in the Bible about lamenting! Its author, the “Weeping Prophet” routinely wailed over the spiritual and social condition of his people, conditions not at all unlike those of our own day.
The sin of the people, the cruelty of the wicked, the giddy indifference of the everyday crowd-all this was a deep wound in Jeremiah. He hurt because he cared. … He felt in his own being all the aching hurt of unrequited love. God’s message, he also felt the rejection in every bone and muscle. Their blasphemies cut him; their clumsy rebellions bruised him; their thoughtless rituals salted his open wounds. Eugene H. Peterson in Run With the Horses
I have noticed a dearth of Jeremiah-like holy sorrow in the Church, that inner ache over the condition of our world. I hear a lot of complaining, but not much lamenting. While I’m not recommending we live in unrelenting despondency, I can’t help but think that the Lord of history is wondering where his intercessors are hiding.
“I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” Ezekiel 22:30
I was going to call this “The Lost Art of the Lament,” but thought better of it as it might scare a number of my readers off. I get that. Who wants a dour sort of spirituality? Be assured that I propose no such thing, so please stick with me… Let me begin with a select few excerpts from Jeremiah’s poetic journal:
My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city. Lamentations 2:11
Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed. My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees. What I see brings grief to my soul because of all the women of my city. Lamentations 3:48-51
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: 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. Lamentations 3:21-23
I included the latter passage, from which at least one famous hymn and any number of worship choruses have been written to remind us that our weeping isn’t hopelessness, but hope-filled weeping. “Sorrow last for the night but joy comes in the morning” and he turns our “mourning into dancing.” Mourning comes first and dancing comes after. That’s the typical order. It’s not illegal to switch them around, but just unlikely. My mourning isn’t usually turned into dancing until I’ve mourned. When I skip mourning and impatiently rush to get to the dancing, the dance is somehow less than it could be. It could be said that we dance only as well as we mourn.
Jeremiah’s grief was over the destruction of his people by Babylon. “What I see,” he said, “brings grief to my soul.” When we see suffering, sin, and sickness in our world we must grieve. We can’t ignore it, we don’t surrender to it, and railing against it is no substitute for grieving it in harmony with God.
In the Church do we express so little lament because we’ve forgotten how to grieve in general or that we consider it faithless and unspiritual? Maybe we feel that we have enough sorrow in our daily lives and we come to church for some reprieve from the realities of the world, about which I confess there exists a limited value. But for whatever the reason, our songs, our sermons, and our conversations have a distinct lack of biblical sorrow about the sin and sickness of our world.
Is it too much to say that much of the Church worships the idol “Positivity”? Is it possible that we’re afraid of lament and are self-medicating on happiness? Though I advocate no grim view of God or practicing any sort of a sour spirituality, I wonder if we would benefit from taking a peek at the massive trove of lament Scriptures, not only in Jeremiah and Lamentations, but throughout the Bible’s songbook (Psalms 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129 to name just a few.)
I’ll make some comments about these in a future post, but in the meantime I want to take issue with the prevailing success narrative in the Western Evangelical Church. “We can do anything we set out to do… We can solve all the world’s problems… Reach for the stars… the sky’s the limit!” I heard one uberfamous TV preacher say recently, “You weren’t created to be average. You were made to succeed!” He went on to preach from the stage of his many million dollar church facility victory, success, and take over the world!
Would that it were possible, if not biblical. I wanted to shout at my laptop screen, “Okay then! If that’s true, then commission your followers (more like fans) to take all that innate power of theirs and solve all the world’s problems – disease, war, racism, hunger, and genocide! If all is victory and success, then use it to fix the world!”
Don’t get me wrong, we can change the world, but it’s more of an inch at a time. We can make a difference here as crucified gospellers, but it’s not an all-at-once flash in the pan and it’s not by leveraging some supposed positive Jesus vibe.
So, what do we do as we labor to incrementally advance the will and ways of God and yet there’s still a long, long way to go? What do we do when most of the world lives in hostility toward the righteousness, peace and joy of his kingdom? How do we respond with emotional integrity to the realities of starving children, genocide, terrorism, and moral confusion, when the change we labor toward hasn’t yet arrived? We weep. We must weep while sowing precious seed (Psalm 126), for blessed are those who mourn in hope of someday being comforted.
Where our own sinful habits demand their own way and resist the Spirit, we grieve and cry for help. Where innocent people are trafficked or slain or sick unto death or radicalized we weep. When one part of the human race oppresses another over skin color or cultural variances we weep. When God’s beloveds become confused over their sexuality we weep. When one camp of God’s beloveds hate and persecute another camp we weep.