Reading Lamentations in Times of Grief
By Rev John T. Schwiebert, ThM
Earlier this summer I suggested in this newsletter that persons who are grieving a significant loss might benefit from reading the Psalms in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. This is because the writer(s) of the Psalms know how to grieve honestly, without holding back feelings of anger, frustration, pain, and even honest doubts about the goodness of God.
I would further like to suggest a similar benefit for grieving persons in reading through the short book of Lamentations, which appears after the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. And specifically I direct you now to the following words from this book. Read these words and see if you can find your own experience recorded here!
Lamentations 3: 19-33
19The thought of my affliction and my homelessness*
is wormwood and gall.
20My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
21But this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
and God’s mercies never come to an end;
23they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in God.”
25The LORD is good to those who wait for God,
to the soul that seeks God,
26It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
27It is good for one to bear
the yoke in youth,
28to sit alone in silence
when God has imposed it,
29to put one’s mouth in the dust
(there may yet be hope),
30to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
and be filled with insults
31For the LORD will not
32Although God causes grief, God will have compassion
according to the abundance of God’s steadfast love.
33For God does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
Who among us in deep grief has not felt afflicted, homeless, and bowed down (verse 19), or like we are carrying a heavy a yoke (verse 27), or like we’re being smitten and insulted (verse 30). The writer even goes so far as to blame God for the grief he feels (verse 32).
And who among us does not share the psalmist’s experience of being fully preoccupied with grief: “my soul continually thinks of it.” (verse 20).
And yet the writer, without trying to deny or avoid his grief, makes a conscious choice to be mindful of other things that he knows besides the heavy loss that consumes his life in the immediate moment: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” (verse 21)
These other things include the following affirmations:
- The steadfast love of God never ceases.
- God’s mercies never come to an end
- God is my portion
- God is good to those who wait for God (i.e. who don’t give up before the Healing Spirit can finish its work!)
- God will not reject forever.
- God will have compassion
- God does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.
So, now the writer has two realities that he can hold on to: the reality of his grief and the reality of God’s steadfast love. He can say in one sentence, “God causes grief,” and in the next sentence say, “God does not willingly . . . grieve anyone.” He cannot deny either one, but he can hold both of these truths in tension as he moves through his grief.
Just this past month I received an email communication from one of the readers of this newsletter who is presently experiencing this same tension, following two devastating losses. “I have not lost faith completely,” he writes, “and I firmly believe [in] God. But sometimes I find myself doubting [God’s] character. It scares me . . . I am going on a pilgrimage with a group from my church . . . with the hope of rebuilding my faith.”
I suspect this correspondent will come through his grief with a much stronger faith in God for having lived for a while in the tension. His experience will be similar to that of the one who testified that “the LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks [God]. (verse 25).
And perhaps he will also have a clearer understanding of how it can be that a God who does not willingly afflict or grieve can wind up causing grief. (Watch for more discussion of this conundrum in a future edition of this newsletter!)
*The writer’s affliction and homelessness is related to his exile along with other people of Judea following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in the seventh century BCE. But the feelings he expresses are universal and can apply to any devastating loss.