Have you ever read the Old Testament book of Lamentations? It’s not one of those Bible books that tend to make it too often onto devotional lists, sermon schedules or motivational posters. That's too bad. At first glance, the book seems deeply depressing. It recounts the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the utter desolation they left behind. Its themes are dark. But Lamentations does something most other religious books don’t do: it runs directly into the heart of suffering with astonishing honesty. Over and again horrific themes develop throughout the book’s five chapters (each chapter being a poem with different characters). The book speaks of hurt, shame, violence, despair, kidnapping, the loss of children, reversals in fortune, cultural collapse, rape, slavery, God’s silence amid pain, starvation, grief, anger, doubt, and death. No wonder we shy from the book—it spends most of its time describing things we have to avoid.
But sometimes you can’t outrun the pain. Sometimes, like for the victims in Lamentations, the pain finds you. Then what? How do we respond when life is turned upside-down; when up is down and down is sideways? Suffering has its own kind of sight, its own vision. Pain unmasks formerly hidden crevasses of experience, widens the scope of our world—“I never knew things could be this way, I never knew people could act like that, I never knew God could be so mean…” Suffering gives us sight, but soullessly; if we see more, we understand less. It is as if curtains on a stage are retracted revealing a broader platform we didn’t know was there, while at the same time the lights on the stage dim. You get more and less, all at the same time. Confusion is just as much a part of the pain of victims as their victimization.
Lamentations realizes all this. It understands the pain of loss, the confusion with God's ways, and the anger, grief, and trouble that hardship occasions. Remarkably, God never speaks in the whole book. For those who suffer and wonder where God is, it’s a remarkable observation. The victims pray and cry for God to appear in Lamentations, but he never does. He remains aloof and silent. Strangely, the book offers comfort through the closeness it creates with sufferers who share a similar experience. The victims in the book repeatedly deconstruct and critique cheap attempts by outsiders to comfort them. They reject spiritualized, well-meaning advice from would-be comforters and beg instead to be seen, giving an extended tour through the expanses of loss and pain so that those willing to look can be brought near to it. Such an invitation to share in their suffering oddly produces hope in our own.
Lamentations gives voice to victims. It criticizes observers of suffering who try to explain the causes to sufferers ("It's all part of God's plan," "Well, you reap what you sow," "God is teaching you something through this"). A predominant theme throughout the book is that of victims pleading with God and everyone else to see them—not teach them or comfort them. The woman character in chapter 1, after enduring a harsh, elitist dismissal of her plight by an arrogant narrator says, "Look, O Lord and see, for I am despised. Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” She has lost her children, her home and her reputation. She wonders if she has lost her faith and her God as well? She continues, "Look O Lord, for I am in distress, my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me because I have been very rebellious. In the streets the sword bereaves; in the house, it is like death."
Look and see. Over and again, Lamentations wants us to recognize victims, to sit and listen, to share in their sufferings, and not offer reasons “why” or platitudes of better days. In the very midst of real and deep calamity, what is needed is presence and empathy. What is desired is the courage to listen and embrace. Sometimes, you can't make it better. Sometimes, the loss is too great. Sometimes, you don't want the future to be better because you left your heart somewhere in the past.
God can repair the wounds of grief. And part of the message of Lamentations is that God will. Waiting on God—for all its frustrations and annoyances, its seemingly sadistic experience, or its supposed threat to faith—is continually described as a normal experience of loss and grief. Suffering is a storm that one weathers, one step at a time, moment by moment. It is a frustratingly passive experience, with time moving over you instead of you moving through time. Sometimes God is damningly quiet. Lamentations reminds us, however, that God remains at work. "You came near when I called on you, you said, ‘Do not fear!'"The character in the third chapter says. But his words are more optimistic than he actually feels. A few verses later he expresses his doubts and rages at his situation. That is faith in action—fragile, gasping for air, almost dead, sickly in appearance but strong in quality. The strength of faith is otherworldly because it is a gift from God and therefore not able to be wiped out by life’s struggles. Even the living sometimes choke-caught between life and death. Faith too can choke, but since it is God’s work it does not give in to obstructions. Faith fights to the death because faith gives life.
Lamentations has the honesty to confess the sufferer's complaint: “The Lord has become like an enemy.” Yet at the same time the center of the book confesses that, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness…For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of this steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.”
New mercies, every morning. But sometimes, when mourning, you have to wait for the morning. The profound message of Lamentations is that hope and despair, grief and faith can coexist. You can have both at the same time. The book embraces the paradox that allows you to voice what seems contradictory: “I’m mad at God, but I love him. I doubt God, but I trust him. I want to die, God, but help me live.” Lamentations allows you to say you’ve lost your faith in God in a prayer that shows you still have it.
The book’s heart ultimately points to Jesus, the one who takes up our own cry and makes it his own. The Suffering Servant is our King, the intercessor who is himself victim. As victim he knows how pain and hope can coexist, and he shows us that what is lost will again be found. Death is reversed in the work of the cross. But it is a reversal whose fullness is only realized after a three-day wait.
For three days the world waited in oppressive silence. Three days it endured the stone-shut tomb where God seemed aloof. Three days doubts were stronger than truths and fear was greater than courage. Three days the disciples wept and hid in the upper room. Three long, terrible, silent-questioning days. Three days to sit with feelings of failure and loss. But on the third day the silence was shattered by these words: “Why are you weeping?” Why, indeed, since the Victim is now Victor and the sinner have been made a saint. In Christ the dead are alive, the lost are found, and the old is made new. It is a happy ending. But it comes by waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Lamentations hates the wait. Despises the silence, is angered by the pain. But hope never gives in to despair. Instead, they share a space together, crowding our hearts with confusion and pain, life and faith. The cross is both hopelessness and hope in one image, just as it is death and life, condemnation and forgiveness all at the same time. Just as the cross is a meeting place of coexisting opposites, so is our hearts. The cross says to victims, “I see you. I understand. But hidden in me is a great reversal. Hidden in me all will be returned to you. Hidden in me is glory and grace. Just you wait—I see you. You see death now, but soon you will see me. The confusion will be gone. Gladness will win. Until then, rage. Cry. Doubt. But do so with hope. The grave remains, but it is empty.