Good Grief

In search of a theology of lament.

Stuart McAlpine
After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at Cambridge University, Stuart spent several years in public education in England. Ordained in 1980, he and his wife Celia are retiring this month after forty years of pastoral ministry, thirty-three years of which have been spent at Christ Our Shepherd Church in Washington D.C. He will continue to serve as the International Director for ASK Network, a prayer movement in over thirty nations, and as a Senior Teaching Fellow for the C.S. Lewis Institute. His publications include: The Road Best Traveled; The Advent Overture: Meditations and Poems for the Christmas Season; and Just Asking: Restoring the Soul of Prayer. Here’s Hoping: Recovering Hope for Heaven and Earth is about to be published.

They would put upon God their own sorrow, the grief they should feel

For their sins and faults . . .

Let us mourn in a private chamber, learning the way of penitence,

And then let us learn the joyful communion of saints.

—T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘the Rock’”

Originally a mild oath, “good grief” is like many sanitized cursings that replace the outright blasphemous use of “God” with another more acceptable “g” word. It is well and truly vernacular thanks to its popularization by Charlie Brown, recognized by Time magazine in 1958 as his “characteristic lament.” There are few of us who have not uttered it, whether in a purposefully audible tone or under our breath. The curious thing is, what is actually “good” about it?

Christianly speaking, there is a strain of grief that though it is sourced in deep sadness and pain, can and should be described as good grief. Jesus himself affirmed “those who mourn . . . you who weep now” and the dominical blessing that acknowledged a good grief went on to promise good outcomes: “they will be comforted” and “will laugh” (Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21). This suggests that there is a journey to forgiveness and healing, to consolation and joy, to restoration and renewal that cannot avoid passing through the vale of tears, the Valley of Baka that the psalmist describes as the necessary passage for all “whose hearts are set on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:6). In the Psalms of Ascent, it is understood that an answer to the prayer “Restore our fortunes, Lord” will be given to “those who sow in tears” but who will “return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them” (Psalm 126:4–6). The “reaping” is not without “weeping”. T.S. Eliot more than intimates the same in “Choruses from the ‘Rock,’” the private chamber of lament and repentance being the prescribed precursor of the public communion of joy.

Although this matter of lament has been on my heart’s radar in the past, it has been brought back up close and personal this year, provoked principally by the desperate state of my nation of domicile, the United States. In particular I have in mind the present state of race relations in our nation and the unresolved reckoning and unfinished repentance of past and present national sins, including the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another. And of course, the more we fill the political hustings with calls for a revival of real Americanism, the more racist we become, and the more we think that we can make America great again, blindly ignoring the same moral appeals of conscience and commandment as our forefathers, the more we condemn our nation to the same founding principality and power of divisive and idolatrous mammon.

There is a journey to forgiveness and healing, to consolation and joy, to restoration and renewal that cannot avoid passing through the vale of tears, the Valley of Baka that the psalmist describes as the necessary passage for all “whose hearts are set on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:6).

This return to lament was reinforced by four books I read earlier this year, all of which appeal to the Scriptures for their authority. One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love is the last words from one of America’s oldest apostles of reconciliation, the beloved John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association. He writes, “Lament is God’s gift to us, the church. It urges us to come together and be healed.” Another, written by one of the most promising Christian historians of the next generation, Jemar Tisby, is titled The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Acknowledging that his work “may cause some grief,” Tisby writes that “grief can be good” if it becomes a natural response to the suffering of others. “It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing.” Later he suggests, “The American church can learn from the black church what it means to lament.” Black worship, particularly as expressed in the spiritual, is the expression of lament in which the triumph of hope eventually arises out of the trough of hopelessness and helplessness. Hear an echo of the Psalms, anyone?

The third book was Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Soong-Chan Rah writes, “The loss of lament in the American church reflects a serious theological deficiency.” The theology of celebration has out-shouted the theology of suffering. The loud praise song has silenced the quiet dirge. This was the indictment of God on the sanctuaries of Israel through the prophet Amos: “You strum away like David . . . but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph” (6:5). We “strum away” singing naïve and sentimental lullabies to an insomniac culture, self-deceptively desiring all to be always well with the world, to experience “your best life now,” as one author heretically puts it in a best-selling book by that title. It is the evasion of any reality that smudges the cosmetics of our “be happy” prosperity and populism.

The fourth book was Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, in which he compares the rage of Israel against enemies and injustice with the anger of black Americans. He argues for the necessity of lament as the context for both expressing rage and grief, and for seeking healing from trauma. “The fact that Psalm 137 became a part of the biblical canon means that the suffering of the traumatized is part of the permanent record. . . . We need to lament injustice and call for God to right the wrongs.” McCaulley laments the justification of slavery through manipulative “white” exegesis of Scripture: “I too am frustrated with the way that Scripture has been used to justify the continual assault on black bodies and souls. . . . We lament its distortion.” I recommend all these treatises as essential reading in our present context.

Avoiding Arrogance

There are now two equal and opposite dangers. The first is that lament becomes its own kind of buzzword, a new “in” word. Always a thoroughly biblical expression of spirituality, it plays little role in current worship, whether public liturgy or popular hymnody. Most churches want to be defined by their experience of laudation, not lament; they would rather hire praise bands than invite mourning minstrels. There are not many guitars that know how to “gently weep.” Interestingly, there is a verse that George Harrison wrote that was excised from the final version: “I look at the trouble and hate that is raging / While my guitar gently weeps / As I’m sitting here doing nothing but ageing / While my guitar gently weeps.”

The more we fill the political hustings with calls for a revival of real Americanism, the more racist we become, and the more we think that we can make America great again, blindly ignoring the same moral appeals of conscience and commandment as our forefathers, the more we condemn our nation to the same founding principality and power of divisive and idolatrous mammon.

In our lament we cannot be pridefully comforted that we are among the few who really get it! How can lament that is the handmaid of humility and brokenness be turned into a badge of enlightenment and spiritual pride? It is vital to remember that our responses of lament are not original, not primarily rooted in our experiences or perceptions, but rooted in the character and heart of a reconciling and redeeming God.

The second danger is that we engage in a kind of check-the-box spirituality of the conscientious consumer. Lament here will be treated as a temporary expression that remains unincorporated into our understanding of hallowed ordinariness in our worship, discipleship, and community life. Lament? I read the book, attended a webinar, did a Bible study, skimmed an article, and even wrote a lament psalm in a practicum once. What’s next? Lament can only cease if the intimacy of prayer ceases. Lament is not a stand-on-its-own subject, not even a self-conscious practice or a means or a method. It arises unannounced, inarticulately and passionately out of our communion with God about the reality of our lives and times. Lamenting and asking of God are inseparable. If we do not pray much we will not lament much. Of course, it may well be stirred initially by suffering or crisis, either of self or others, but if it is not connected with the nature and character of God, it will just end up as a sad soliloquy and possibly degenerate into complaint and self-pity, eventually petering out.

With dry eyes, we lobby for our bastardized version of evangelical morality and cease to weep over the consequences of the abandonment of God’s righteousness in the public square. The parable of the publican and Pharisee is foundational to Jesus’s teaching about prayer. The former beat his breast, lamented his sin, and asked for mercy; and the latter, the defender of public morality, sanctimoniously asked for nothing in his self-centered soliloquy disguised as prayer. Hard-hearted pride knows nothing of soft-hearted weeping. Self-confidence, especially in one’s own righteousness, cannot and does not lament. Again, what different outcomes Jesus showed between the one who lamented with a godly sorrow and left “justified before God” and the one who left self-justified and just the same.

It is vital to remember that our responses of lament are not original, not primarily rooted in our experiences or perceptions, but rooted in the character and heart of a reconciling and redeeming God.

Like Israel of old, my nation is deceived by its own sense of exceptionalism, for our “Americanism” expresses our strutting arrogance not just before the watching world but before God. T.S. Eliot described those who “walk proud-necked like thoroughbreds for races . . . Thinking good of themselves.” Not surprisingly, this is followed by “Let us mourn.” Israel forgot that the experience of God’s favor does not make one an above-the-law favorite. Truly, “God shed His grace” on us, but our national hymn’s lauding of this favor so that our “alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears” is not helpful. Our cities do not gleam but groan, and grief increasingly waters the topography. Dimming tears are exactly what are required to blur this deceptive vision of ourselves and our achievements, this disinformation about our purity, our protection of our citizens, our transparency, and our commitment to healing, all qualities traditionally conveyed by the symbolism of alabaster. If we do not learn to lament our fall now, we will like Israel be forced to learn it, exiled from what we thought was our positional place in the world, and our folk belief in our deserved and protection of divinity. Again, like Israel in Psalm 137:1, there we will sit down and lament in captivity the loss of our freedoms. If it is the eventual grief that leads to repentance it will be good grief, but what about good grief now before it is too late?

Distinguishing Between Godly Versus Worldly Sorrow

What could possibly make ultimately good something that feels presently bad? Writing to the Corinthians Paul distinguishes between the kind of grief that is good, “godly sorrow,” and a grief that is not, described as “worldly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:8–13). He acknowledges that an earlier letter he had written to them had caused them sorrow, but that he did “not regret it.” Helpfully, he explains why his emotion is so contrary to theirs: “not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance.” This was a godly sorrow that “God intended” for good spiritual consequences because it “brings repentance that leads to salvation” and “leaves no regret.” But there is also a “worldly sorrow” that is not good grief because it brings spiritual “death” with all its loss and despair.

If we do not pray much we will not lament much.

Not all laments are equal, and the outcomes of godly and worldly sorrow could not be more different. Unlike godly sorrow, worldly sorrow eschews repentance in favor of regret that some have described as “unconsummated repentance.” Like regret, remorse is not necessarily repentant, and may be the response to being found out—not the result of a conviction that asks for forgiveness. Consequently, worldly grief neither seeks nor experiences change, and more often than not simply leaves a trail of unresolved emotional debris in its wake. It is self-centered rather than being God or other-centered; self-piteous rather than merciful. It is more concerned with personal pain than the possible suffering of others. It counters the shame felt by self with the blame of others.

Through the prophet Malachi, God tells the people that though they appear to be lamenting (“You flood the Lord’s altar with tears,” 2:13) they are actually weeping and wailing because they are not getting what they want on their terms. God is specific here and says that he should not be expected to respond to their lament while evil continues to be pursued. What appears to be a public obedient act of lamentation is actually compromised and corrupted by the unholy motivations and intentions of the heart. It is a worldly sorrow.

For Paul, godly sorrow is always known by its fruits. “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you.” He then gives a checklist of outcomes that endorse the goodness of the grief: “what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.” There is no sorrow for oneself here. There are grievous situations that we bring on ourselves, specifically our sins that engender this good grief when conviction is accepted and not quashed by denial or dishonesty. There is a righteous response to the seriousness of the cause of grief, to what requires not just a clearing of name but a cleansing of conscience. There is no cloying and hopeless condemnation but a resolve to seek justice and resolution with an indignation that goes hand in hand with compassion. The humility of godly affections leads to the obedience of godly actions. The self-focused passivity of worldly sorrow is contrasted with the forward- and outward-looking passion of godly sorrow. Worldly sorrow has the power to imprison us in its imploded emotions and to bind us to thoughts and feelings that subvert our peace, our hope, and our joy. The places and times, the events and relationships where consolation failed and grief was unassuaged can become the coordinates of bitterness and hopelessness. Our retaliation undermines God’s restoration. Only our wounds are perceived, and we lose the efficacy of the salvific wounds of Christ. It is spiritual death to Paul, precisely because it refuses resurrection life. Godly sorrow waters hope. Worldly sorrow drowns it.

Frankly, lament does not appear to be good grief to many who are religious because it can run the risk of not sounding theologically kosher. Indeed, lament challenges a comfortable armchair theology that is diffident about bringing reality into the presence of God. Psalm 88 is described as the most helpless of all laments because it does not come out of the downward spiral with a sudden yank of the emotional joystick, with some “I’m thankful really” line or an expression of definitely unrealized but desperately anticipated hope. The last line of this psalm has been immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel in the opening line of Sound of Silence: “Hello darkness my old friend.” No one is talking about a future dawn here. Welcome to canonical lament. But it is out of the painful questioning of God that there comes a recovery of prayerful asking of God, and for God, a return of intimate conversation out of the incommunicado brokenness of feeling abandoned or justifiably aggrieved.

But lest we satisfy ourselves only in observing the discomfort of the religious, when it comes to lament, it also does not pass as spiritually mature for those whose understanding of the “charismata” is only about Pentecostal exuberance. We like to characterize Pentecost more by the tongues than the tears, but one of the consequences of the Pentecostal bestowal of the Holy Spirit was that Peter stood up to give an explanation for what had just been experienced, with this recorded response: “When the people heard this they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). The revelation of what their sin had done to “this Jesus . . . by nailing him to a cross” did not result in ecstatic joy and singing in tongues, but in a massive public lament. The presence of God that swirled like a mighty wind did not render unnecessary the responsive outpouring of lament. Indeed, the church’s first recorded apostolic sermon (Acts 2:14–30) hammers home the necessary relationship between lamenting and repenting. It is one of the nonnegotiable manifestations of any coming of the Holy Spirit that brings conviction and confession. Lament is charismatic, and serves to help us know, feel, and bear the grief of God.

Lament and the Prophets

The Bible has so much to say about this good grief. Of course, there are many reasons why we do not choose to attend to it, or express it, especially if we suspect strong emotions, or are threatened by them, as was Eli the priest who chose to put Hannah’s grief down to pouring too much wine and beer, not to the “pouring out” of her soul before the Lord. The default positions of steeling oneself, suppressing, hiding pain, shutting down, interiorizing, and keeping a stiff upper lip will all render lament discomfiting and disturbing. It does not fit in cultures that condition people to be emotionally constipated. Is it really helpful to say that lament is “not British” or “it’s un-American” at the very moment these nations need to lament? Barbarians did it because they were uncouth and uncivilized, but lament has never been the business of the cultured or the wise, the intelligent, or those who were strong in their own eyes.

The humility of godly affections leads to the obedience of godly actions.

Nehemiah’s story is a powerful illustration of the interrelationship between lament and prayer, between godly sorrow and godly action. Lament is the context out of which the restoration of Jerusalem arises from the rubble. When he heard about the state of his nation “he sat down and wept” (1:4). It was through lament that he both received the burden for change and discharged that burden. Lament baptized him in reality, the necessity to face the facts: “great trouble . . . disgrace . . .walls broken . . . gates burned with fire” (1:3). General observations suddenly became personal confrontations. Like Nehemiah, we have to stop and let it sink in and absorb the shock. Like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, perhaps we need to be hung over the abyss in order to utter the same response: “The horror!” We should take a long look and then first lament our indifference. What affects us? To the extent we are affected we will act. Someone has said that we cannot repair the ruins we have not wept over.

Lament is not an occasional flavor of the month—cultural, national, and personal crises permitting—but an integral part of the DNA of normal relationship with God. Contrary to many commentators’ views on a text like Lamentations—that lament is an aberration not to be distracted by—Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann rightly contends that lament is not some minor key in the prophets but a major, resonating, unmissable chord, foundational to both their personal prophetic calling and to their prophetic call to the people. Their anticipation of lament was spiritually logical because they knew that the nation could not be sustained, living as they were living, any more than we can. Not surprisingly, it is the man known as “the weeping prophet,” Jeremiah, who has so much to teach us about this.

Following a graphic inventory of national sins, in which Jeremiah describes Israel as an easy lay, the grace of God cries out as God himself laments and cries to the heavens, “Be appalled at this!” Suddenly the focus moves from their appalling guilt back to God’s appealing grace. So eager is God’s heart for godly sorrow and its fruit of repentance that he even gives them the script to ask for repentance and to confess their sin and disobedience, shame, and disgrace (Jeremiah 3:25). But this divinely required response is a lament. “A cry is heard on the barren heights, the weeping and pleading of the people” (3:21). From now on, the asking of the people for the mercy of God for the nation is in the context of lament. This is the same in Lamentations: “The hearts of the people cry out to the Lord . . . let your tears flow like a river day and night; give yourself no relief, your eyes no rest (2:18–19). When it came to prayer, lament was not an option or elective, an additive or an adjunct.

Lament challenges a comfortable armchair theology that is diffident about bringing reality into the presence of God.

Lament becomes the key prophetic means by which a protest is expressed against falsehood and its effects, insisting that we engage the truth about what God hates as well as what he loves, confronting and denouncing a wrong theology. It could be argued that the loss of lament leaves us uncritical of what is false and deceptive, and encourages us to stay tolerant of things as they are. The language of lament is a weapon of our spiritual warfare in its challenge to principalities and powers, calling into question their rule and despotism. Lament causes you to feel present reality in a way that you have to think and consider, remember and act, protest and advocate, denounce and confront. The entirety of Amos’s prophetic word to the places of worship that were packed precisely because they were being fed a false message is chillingly relevant: “I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping” (8:10). It is not about full churches but faithful believers. The background music for all that follows is not high-souled worship. It is a requiem Mass.

Lament is learned in a prayer room not a classroom, especially when we join others and experience it as a community commitment, as a corporate lament. We cannot bear it alone. When you read Lamentations, there is a distinctive change from individual and personal lament to a corporate, collegial, community expression of grieving together. To begin with, it talks about “the man who has seen affliction” (Lamentations 3:1). The references are to “me . . . my skin.” But before the chapter ends there is a change. The need is for a corporate confession. The prayer is now “Let us examine our ways . . . let us return to the Lord. . . . Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven and say we have sinned” (3:40–42). God is no longer referred as he but as you, suggesting a recovery of relationship. Lament recovered relationship through the agency of prayer and recovered these Israelites as agents of God’s mercy because they persevered in prayer.

Lament in the Psalms

Although the biblical prophets exegete the need for lament, most of us first encounter lament in the Psalms. A third of the Bible’s prayer manual consists of laments, while it is estimated that not even one percent of present worship or prayer includes lament.

The Psalms contain so many different and distinctive genres, but the largest category is the psalmody of lament, “the valley of weeping” (84:6), that makes pain audible, that expresses distress of one kind or another, for one reason or another, and that engages the reality of suffering, ranging from what looks like clinical depression (88) to sharp accusation (89). These psalms are crammed with complexities, perplexities, anxieties, affliction, and dereliction in search of consolation. The psalmists neither hide their hopelessness nor mute the cries for deliverance. They long for presence while feeling absence. Perhaps it is this genre that attracts most readers, because we need companionship in identifying pain and getting help to voice it in a manner that is not piously religious. These laments lift the lid, Psalms 42 and 43 being among the most well-known: “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” They illustrate many of the different reasons for lament: being perturbed by oneself, one’s own thoughts and feelings (42:5, 11) and addressing one’s own soul; being agitated and frustrated by God himself: “Where is your God? . . . I say to God my Rock, why have you forgotten me?” (42:3); and being angry because of others, who have become enemies of our joy and peace and maybe even our view of ourselves. “Why must I go about mourning oppressed by the enemy . . . my foes taunt me.”

The central statement of the lament is that it is “a prayer to the God of my life” (42:8). Again, the heart of lament is prayer. People see this in different ways, some saying that lament leads to petition and others that petition will lead to lament. It is pointless arguing the progression. They are inseparable and not even two different activities or expressions. Listen to Scripture: “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you” (2 Kings 20:5). “My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God” (Job 16:20). “They mourned, wept, and fasted . . . for the nation” (2 Samuel 1:12). Lament is brave asking, preserving us from repression and suppression that do such incredible damage to body, soul, and spirit. Lament is good psychology, not just good theology. It does not remove prayer but improves it. There is always a journey at hand, not only within individual psalms but also within the whole collection: from predicament to praise, from woe to worship, from hell to hallelujah, from humiliation to exaltation, from fear to faith, from depths to heights, from grief to gratitude, from darkness to light, from pain to peace, from rage to reconciliation, from sin to salvation, from lament to laughter.

So many things may instigate the psalmist’s lament: personal, communal, or national suffering; enemies; fears; experience of loss and death and consequences of sin. These laments have a pattern in their structure, usually beginning with a cry for help, followed by the complaint, and, if it’s really bad, a cursing that inveighs against the enemies. Typically, before a total wipeout, there will often be some expression of confidence or recovered hope in God, and if this produces enough encouragement and resurgence of faith, the psalmist may even squeeze out a muted blessing. “Put your hope in God for I will yet praise him!” (42:11; 43:5).

When you analyze the lament psalms, you notice that there are different but repeated prayers: Arise O Lord (3, 7, 9, 10, 17, 74, 94). Grant, give us help (60:11–12). Remember your covenant (25:6). Let justice be done (83:16–18). Don’t remember our sins (51:1; 79:8–9). Restore us (80:3). Don’t be silent (28:1–2; 86:6). Teach me (143:10; 90:12; 86:11). Vindicate me (35:23–24). The refrain here is that you cannot engage prayer in the psalms without engaging lament.

Lament and Paul

Outside Jesus, it is Paul’s prayer life that we know more about than anyone else’s in the New Testament, and not surprisingly, he knew what it was to lament personally, as well as urge others to lament: “I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). “I am afraid I will be grieved over many who have sinned” (2 Corinthians 12:21). “You are proud! Should you not rather have been filled with grief” (1 Corinthians 5:2). He talks to the Philippians about the mercy of God that intervened “to spare me sorrow upon sorrow” (2:27). When he thought of the state of the Jewish people not accepting their Messiah he wrote, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Romans 9:2). It was out of lament that he actually wrote some of his letters like 2 Corinthians: “I wrote this lest I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice. . . . Out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears” (2:3–4). His summary statement of his own life and ministry is telling: “I served the Lord with great humility and tears” (Acts 20:19); “remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (20:31). What an epitaph! His prayers for his people, for the church, and for others were melded with deep lament.

However, as exemplary and instructive as David, Jeremiah, and Paul are when it comes to learning about both the experience and expression of lament, we need something even more foundational. A proper theology of lament has to be rooted in a doctrine of God, not a doctrine of man.

Lament and God

All good theology begins with the nature of God, not the needs of man. A theology of lament begins with an understanding of the lamenting of the Godhead before it is about my lament, in the same way that a theology of suffering begins with the suffering of God, and specifically his redeeming work in and through Christ on the cross. You can hear the cry in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by. Is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?” (1:12). If it is only about my suffering or our suffering, as defensible and understandable as that might be, it will likely end up in complaint, not lament, and there is a big difference.

Scripture is clear about the relationship between divinity and lament. There is a grief that God appears to allow, even bring, when he ceases to strive with man’s self-destructive willfulness, and withdraws his presence and leaves us to our own devices. Micah talks about God’s love that will gather “those he brought to grief” (4:5). For the psalmist, it was God who had “fed them with the bread of tears” (80:5). Lamentable events are used by God to get people to at last turn to him and lament their sin and ask for help and deliverance. However, “Though he brings grief . . . he does not willingly bring grief ” (Lamentations 3:32–33). There is also the grief that God feels. Only nine generations after Adam the book of Genesis tell us, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become. . . . The Lord said, I am grieved that I have made them” (Genesis 6:5–7). But even after the covenantal rescue with Noah, and with Abraham, the unfolding history of Israel was summed up by the psalmist: “How often . . . they grieved him” (Psalm 78:40). Lament is the response of God’s grief to our sin but also our infirmities. The psalmists understood this: “You consider their grief” (Psalm 10:4).

If lament is divinely commanded, then our refusal to do so, our cultural evasion of it, is quite simply an act of disobedience.

It is Jesus who is the ultimate “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3); the one who has “borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (v. 4). This is the substitutionary work of Isaiah’s servant. We can never forget that the laments of the Savior and Redeemer were sourced in that which we are called to lament: our sin and wickedness, our wrong and guilt. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus offered his prayers and petitions “with loud cries and tears” (5:7). This was his modus operandi. In the Gospels he shed tears when he encountered a refusal to accept his revelation (Bethany), his requirements (rich young ruler), and his relationship (Jerusalem). In the Upper Room he did not spare his disciples the impending lamentations. “You shall lament” (John 16:20). His lament in Gethsemane was so overwhelming that he described it as a “sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Lament was the crucible for submitting to the will of the Father. And was it not the harrowing psalm of lament, Psalm 22, that he cried before death? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46). We should not forget that as prophet Jesus gave the signs of his coming in Matthew 24, saying that the litany of disaster and dereliction that was going to come upon the world was only “the beginning of sorrows.” Lament, Jesus confirmed, is a subject that we will engage, whether willingly or not, whether now or later.

Long before Paul pleaded with the Ephesians not to “grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30), Isaiah described the rebellion of God’s people that “grieved his Holy Spirit” (63:10). The grief and lament of the Holy Spirit is the response to so many sad failures on our part: failure to recognize his person, to remember his purpose to mature and perfect us, to realize his presence, to respect his purity and thus harden our consciences, to respond to his promptings thus avoiding conviction, to receive his provision of his gifts and graces. Again, lament is trinitarian. Thus a theology of lament must be grounded first in the character of God, not the crises of man. Our lament has to be responsive to more than circumstance, because the fact is that we are not always moved by need. God’s heart response is utterly true and consistent. Reacting to the circumstance my way and for my reasons replaces relating to the character and heart of God and discerning his meanings and responses. If there are legitimate and righteous grounds for lament, then God in three persons is the chief lamenter.

Collecting Our Tears

Perhaps the first response to the evident lack of spiritual lament over the brokenness of nation and citizen, over our response to the evil and viral injustices and consequent irreconciliations that divide and fragment the people, should be repentance. If lament is divinely commanded, then our refusal to do so, our cultural evasion of it, is quite simply an act of disobedience. God commanded the prophets to call the people to lament “with broken heart and bitter grief” (Ezekiel 21:6).

Repentance will sift our motivations as we lament our own sins before we lament the sins of others, and it will invite us to move on with a humbled and chastened heart. Having been forgiven for the disobedience of not lamenting, we will be more sensitive to the need to forgive the very parties that are indicted in our lament. Again and again, whether an Old Testament prophet like Joel commanding us to “return with weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12), or a New Testament apostle like James commanding us to “grieve, mourn, and wail” (4:9), lament is not a divine elective. It is a normal spiritual response to backsliding, to sin, to unfaithfulness, to spiritual adultery that cannot be faked or fabricated. For the prophet Jeremiah, it was a normal, logical response: “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed. I lament” (8:21). For Paul, writing to the Corinthians, to be filled with grief and lament was the normative response to sin that breaks the fellowship of the community: “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief?” (1 Corinthians 5:2).

There are no wasted tears. “Put my tears in your bottle,” requested the psalmist (Psalm 56:8). The choice for us as we face challenging personal as well as national situations is this: Are we going to chuck our hope in the trash can, or are we going to put our tears in a bottle? Will we be able to say like Paul, “I served the Lord . . . with tears”? It is distressing and shameful that there is so little lament when there is so much that is lamentable. Lament is the maternity ward of spiritual affections—but in birth there is pain. We would rather have love without labor, and laughter without lament. We want the actions without the affections.

It is distressing and shameful that there is so little lament when there is so much that is lamentable. Lament is the maternity ward of spiritual affections—but in birth there is pain.

Of course, there is lament right up to the last book of the Bible. In Revelation 5:4 John says that he “wept much.” He lamented that there was no one to open the scroll. But hope broke through the grief: “Then I saw a Lamb.” Yes, we live in this vale of tears, but we live with the blessed hope, that the day is coming when “he will wipe every tear” from our eyes (Revelation 21:4) and there will be no more lamenting “or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Lament has been described by many as prayer in a minor key, as the vocalization of pain. Minor it may be, but its vocals can be majorly loud. We need its volume in our triumphalist culture that is obsessed with success and avoidant of suffering. We need both its tutorage and tutelage as we learn how to be courageous with our perplexities and pains, as we stretch for the right words to help us to grope our way through the brambles of grief. These stifled articulations, despite the sorrow, reach out to grasp a divine grip that assures of redemptive and healing purposes and possibilities. Lament is a grief, but it is also a grace. It is a given, but it is also a giver and a gift. We need lament—good grief!