A Time for Lament

By now we have heard the horrifying details. An 18-year-old gunman barricaded himself inside a fourth-grade classroom in Uvalde, Texas, and opened fire, killing 19 children and two adults, before being killed by law enforcement. This is just the latest mass shooting in America. Our minds and hearts are numb. It seems all has been said, and felt, before. 

As we try to process this latest massacre of the innocent, there will be time to carefully consider how to better protect schoolchildren. It is our responsibility as Christians to work with all people of goodwill toward solutions that enhance peace and safety for the common good.

This moment, however, is a time for identifying with those who suffer—that is, a time for lament. Like Job, we should refrain from trying to explain the situation or assign blame. Instead, let us call out to the Father, who in the giving of His only Son understands grief to a depth we cannot begin to fathom. “My tears have been my food day and night,” the Psalmist says, “while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:5). We cry from the valley where pilgrims find their hearts aching.

In these moments, the Father welcomes us into His presence to express our concerns (Matthew 7:7-11; 1 Peter 5:7). In his book Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, theologian Kelly M. Kapic has offered a helpful framework based on Psalm 22 for understanding and expressing biblical lament: 

  • A cry to God: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • A complaint or voicing of the crisis that drives the poem: “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?. . . All who see me mock me.” 
  • A petition of yearning for remedy: “Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” 
  • Often (though not always!) a claim of confidence in God: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” 
  • Often (though not always!) a commitment to praise God: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” 

“These cries,” writes Kapic, “do not form a subversive antireligious voice but operate at the heart of the biblical canon among the prayers and songs of the people of God. They are part of their liturgy and worship.”  To ignore the need for such lament is to live in denial, overlooking the simple facts that life is painful, our world is broken, we are weak, and God is merciful. It also fails to recognize lament’s redemptive importance. 

Christians, of course, have an even greater reason to trust in the redemptive power of lament. Lament is redemptive because it reflects the life of Jesus. Suffering was the hallmark of our Lord’s life. “He was despised and rejected by men,” the familiar messianic passage says, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). We are told that “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). 

The shortest verse of the Bible captures this counterintuitive reality in just two words, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). This brief statement has instigated some of the deepest theological reflection. Linguists and literary scholars have analyzed these words to understand how such basic syntax can make such a profound point. Poets and painters and songwriters have sought to plumb its depths, but they can’t—because God has wept. 

And in his weeping, 
He joined himself forever
To those who mourn. 
He stands now throughout time, 
This Jesus weeping, 
With his arms about the weeping ones:
“Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.” 
He stands with the mourners, 
For his name is God-with-us. 
Jesus wept.*

But Jesus didn’t simply weep; He embraced our misery. Physically, at the hands of guards who pressed thorns upon His brow, who blindfolded, struck, and mocked Him. Psychologically, hanging from the Cross, just a few inches from the ground. Socially, as bystanders jeered and derided Him, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” Our God knows firsthand the overwhelming nature of pain and suffering, not hypothetically, but personally and directly.  Jesus’ tears were real.

Jesus’ tears were real, but, thank God, they are not final. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we need “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13b). Just as Christ was raised from the dead, all who who believe in Him will rise (1 Corinthians 15:22-23), and all creation will be remade (Romans 8:19-21). Yes, the tears we shed today in our broken, sin-scarred world are all too real, but one day Christ will return and wipe every one of them away (Revelation 21:4].

*Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament 

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