Wrestling with Grief and God: Lamentations

In 586 BCE, the Babylonian army laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. Three months later, with the citizens facing starvation, the walls were finally breached. The city was taken, the Temple razed to the ground, and Judah’s ruling classes removed from the Land. (See 2 Kings 25.1-12 for the story.) For the people of Judah, this was a social, political, and religious calamity of the first order. Beyond the immediate trauma of living through the siege and razing of a city, from the perspective of the Jerusalem elite, life was now unfathomable: Without a Temple, they could not worship their God; without an heir from David’s line, there could be no king; without their capital, there could be no nation; and because of all this, their God looked embarrassingly weak compared to the gods of their occupiers. The world as they knew it had ended. This is the context for the biblical book of Lamentations, which records the nation’s trauma and grief. It begins:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
[…]
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter. (Lamentations 1.1, 4)

Today, as I start this series ‘Theology from Under the Rubble,’ I’d like to explore Lamentations as an exercise in collective grief work, and talk about the importance of taking the time to work through feelings of grief and loss for all of life’s calamities, big and small.

Lamentations is one of the shortest books in the Old Testament. It consists of five poems set in a chiastic structure, meaning that the main point comes not at the end of the book, but in the middle. Scholarly consensus suggests that the book was collected in the first couple of decades of the Exile, likely combining material from the immediate aftermath of the sack of Jerusalem with later material looking back to it with a bit more distance. The poems use visceral language and big metaphors to express themes such as traumatic memory, divine abandonment, confusion, human responsibility, protest and survival. Together, these themes suggest not quite an exercise in theodicy (the age-old question of the justice of God in light of human suffering) but rather in resiliency. That is, the main question of Lamentations is less “How can God be just in light of our suffering?” than it is, “How do we go on living after what has happened?” Or, put in even stronger terms, “How do we survive what God has done?” (House, “Introduction”)*.

Whatever answers we might propose to such questions, Lamentations demands that those answers be earned through the pain, not by bypassing it. It is a bold act of collective remembrance:

Jerusalem remembers,
in the days of her affliction and wandering,
all the precious things
that were hers in days of old. (1.7a)

What do they remember? The grief expressed in Lamentations is not straightforward. This complicated grief reminds me of the conflicting inner voices after a bad breakup, or the often difficult mourning experiences of those who’ve lost someone with them they had a difficult relationship.^ In Lamentations we see a juxtaposition — and sometimes even open conflict — among feelings of:

  • Trauma: “Our skin is black as an oven from the scorching heat of famine. Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah. (5.10f); “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children” (4.10)
  • Self-pity: “My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city.” (2.11); “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” (3.16-18)
  • Self-recrimination: “Jerusalem sinned grievously, so she has become a mockery” (1.8); “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.” (3.42)
  • Blaming God: ”The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel“ (2.5); “See, O God, and look, to whom You have done this …” (2:20)
  • Justifying God: ”The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word…” (1.18)
  • Reconciling God’s actions with God’s character: “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (5.1); You have taken up my cause, O Lord, you have redeemed my life. You have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause. (3.58f)
  • Repentance: “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord.” (3.40); “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old” (5.21)

Yet, even in the midst of all this grief — even in the complications of it caused by their belief in God’s complicity in their suffering and their own responsibility for it — at the heart of Lamentations is one of the most profound expressions of trust in God found in the entire Bible:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord. …
For the Lord will not
reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
(3.21-26, 31-33)

At the end of the day, despite all evidence to the contrary, they look out from their grief and insist that God is with them and will not ultimately abandon them.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that Lamentations provides a perfect example for us in our own experiences of both individual and collective loss. It is a collective and canonical exercise in grief work. The fact that Lamentations is in our Bibles offers a divine recognition of and sanction for human feelings; by legitimizing the expression of Judah’s trauma and anger at God, it legitimizes our own expressions of pain and sorrow. This is important because so much of popular Christian spirituality suggests the opposite, that our belief that God is good and loving and present with us means that we cannot be honest about our sadness and even anger at God for the circumstances of our lives and for the loss of the things, people, and places we love. Lamentations rightly insists that this is nonsense. We will not emerge healthily from our grief if we don’t give it time and space to be.

Unsurprisingly, what the poets behind Lamentations knew instinctively has been validated by contemporary specialists in the psychology of grief, loss, and post-traumatic stress. There is a saying among grief counselors that holds that the keys to working through grief are “tears, talk, and time.” About this, Leslie C. Allen notes:

Sadness must be allowed to permeate one’s life, so it can gradually do its cleansing work. There is a Yiddish proverb that calls tears the soap of the soul. The release, rather than the bottling up, of inarticulate emotion is a valuable first aid to be applied over and over again to the raw wounds of grief. … [T]he purpose of talking is to articulate grief, to face up to haunting memories with the defining clarity of speech, and to talk through emotions and reduce them to words, words that still hurt, but (one hopes) at a slightly lower level on the pain scale. (A Liturgy of Grief)

We see this process at work in Lamentations. It gets the feelings out with wailing and gnashing of teeth, and it talks about the community’s trauma, sometimes in visceral ways (reminiscent of what Brene Brown calls, “shitty first drafts”), and sometimes in more removed, thoughtful ways — often shifting within the span of a few words. While scholars once suggested this kind of rapid mood swing within Lamentations was evidence of poor style, it is consistent with contemporary observations about how we process grief: It isn’t a linear process and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

All of this resonates deeply with my own experiences of dealing with loss. When I had my debilitating experience of divine abandonment at the age of thirty, one of the worst parts was hearing the platitudes and ‘helpful’ suggestions of loved ones. These nice thoughts were all so disconnected from my experience as to be gibberish. Even as time passed and I moved on with my life, I still felt haunted by that past. Then, about five years after the initial trauma, I was inspired to start reading up on grief and loss as a way of navigating my experience. I realized that while I had used the terms ‘grief’ and ‘loss’ when talking about my experiences, I had used them as metaphors: I hadn’t owned them — after all, I had lost things like prayer, community, identity, and lifestyle, not a ‘real’ loss. But, once I took it seriously as ‘real’ loss and did the work, things started to change. My heart slowly began to grow lighter. I stopped having the invasive memories and recurring rants at God. And I eventually emerged again, whole — still marked and changed by my experience of loss, but what had once felt like a gaping wound now felt like a vast reservoir of grace and love.

All this is, I believe, of great relevance for us today. We, as a collective and as individuals, have experienced a lot of loss over the past few years. Even just thinking about the pandemic alone, it has directly caused 6 million deaths around the world, to say nothing of the incalculable losses of opportunity, experience, and income, and the strain placed on our mental health, relationships, and businesses. We have so much to grieve, and yet there has been little in the way of collective mourning. On top of the pandemic we’ve had to deal with increased political polarization, an unending stream of natural disasters, and a (for many, new) recognition of our national sins. And now a war that threatens a comfortable, thirty-year-old world order. We have so much to grieve. So much loss to take stock of, and so much to lament. We talk a lot about what recovery from the pandemic, or what racial reconciliation might look like; the message — the gift — of Lamentations is that we cannot truly recover or be reconciled without leaning in to the pain first.

The way forward is always through. And that means expressing our sadness, sorrow, suffering, anger, disappointment and everything else. This is not a faithless act, but in fact a tremendous act of faithfulness. God is big enough for our feelings. There is no use in trying to bypass them in the name of faith. The way forward is always through.

* Please see the full bibliography for the series for details.

^ See, Mongelluzo, 123ff or Allen, 29 for more on complicated grief.

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