Good Grief: Towards a Theology of Lament

I once heard the story of a child who came home with the solemn news that her friend’s doll had been broken that day.
“That’s awful”, said her mother, “Did you help her to fix it?”
“No”, the little girl replied, “but I helped her to cry.”

It’s our natural instinct to meet brokenness with a quick fix, or at least to reach for an instant panacea that makes the pain go away.  Yet in our rush to move on, we can miss a vital stage: time and space to acknowledge pain and to articulate grieving. That’s the practice of lament – the anguished cry of loss or bewilderment when something loved is irrevocably gone. This heart’s cry is richly expressed in the Biblical tradition. From Israel in slavery crying out to God, to Jeremiah’s private anguish and the loud public groan of Lamentations, along with the Psalms of lament, we can trace “a matrix of groan” across the Old Testament scriptures (according to Brueggemann). God’s people have always found that expressing doubt and pain is essential to their growth in faith.

Why is this so vital? Brueggemann argues that lament is far from an optional pause in the journey to healing. Without lament there is a barrier to newness, a grieving not expressed that is difficult to overcome. The promise of the Christian gospel is that God is making all things new. Yet as in the pangs of childbirth, new life only comes through struggle. And birthing the new doesn’t happen quietly, not even for Jesus, who cried out on the cross (from Psalm 22): “My God my God, why have you abandoned me?” followed by a loud, inarticulate groan. Christians can flesh out the Old Testament insight (for example in Hosea) that God knows what abandonment feels like by adding that in Christ, God himself enters the world’s brokenness and responds with a cry of desolation. Knowing that in lament we draw near to the heart of the crucified God should banish forever any polite fear that our grieving betrays a lack of faith.

For Christians the place of lament is the place of Holy Saturday, the day with an overwhelming sense of terrible ending, abandonment and disorientation. As Easter Sunday is shallow without Good Friday, so praise is superficial without times of lament. There can be no triumphalism that ignores people’s struggles, doubts and pain at the perceived silences of God.

Yet neither can there be any return from the new dawn of Easter morning. Post-resurrection, are we still people of lament? Paul pointed out that Creation itself is groaning in the struggle for newness, promised but not yet birthed (Rom 8:22). There is no short cut to the gestation period. Paul also articulated the spiritual pain of his own inadequacy (Romans 7) and that of his churches : “I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”(Galatians 4:19). There is no denial or pretence. Paul is honest to God and to his fellow Christians that this is a process of struggle, but one that points towards a certain hope.

Understanding lament as a crucial spiritual resource frees us to explore it in a modern culture that often militates against it. Shown a brand-new shiny church building, pared-down and sharp-edged, someone was heard to remark: “Is there a corner where a man can go and weep?” Lament frees Christians from the need to be relentlessly happy, pointing the way to a mature faith that wrestles honestly with difficult questions. David Smith argues that this is also vital for faith’s credibility in a suffering world. We can and should join the African-American spirituals born of slavery’s unspeakable suffering: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and the protest songs of the 1960s, to modern outrage at our treatment of the planet: “O Lord, the clouds are gathering…”. Righteous anger and pain fuel our spiritual hunger for re-creation.

The absence of lament is spiritually, socially and politically a crippling loss. Lament is not just therapy – it reflects the nature of God who enters our brokenness, experiences our pain with us, overcomes it in Christ, and labours to make all things new in him. And first, who helps us to cry.

Lynn McChlery
On behalf of the Theological Forum