“To cry is human, to lament is Christian” (Mark Vroegop).
But what is lament, and how is different to crying? We all cry for various reasons in this broken and painful world, and many tears are common to Christians and non-Christians alike. The tears shed when peeling onions are common, as are the tears of physical pain; but it is in the emotional weeping of grief, that lamenting differs from crying. We as Christians do “not grieve like the rest, who have no hope (1Thes 4:13). Therefore, to discover the difference between crying and lamenting, we need to consider both grief and hope.
J.I. Packer says, “grief is the inward desolation that follows the losing of something or someone we loved – a child, a relative, an actual or anticipated life partner, a pet, a job, one’s home, one’s hopes, one’s health or whatever”. It could be the loss of limb or an ability. It could be the loss of confidence or security. It can be the loss of a relationship with a child due to drug addiction, or a spouse or parent due to dementia, they are no longer the person they once were.
The key words in Packer’s statement are “loved” and “losing”. It has been said that grief is the price we pay for loving. It is a value equation. The more we valued and/or loved the person or thing lost, the greater the sense of loss, and the greater the resulting grief and bereavement. Bereavement means having something ripped away from you. Job had lost all his children and most of his wealth. In Lamentations, the residents of Jerusalem, which had recently been sacked after suffering an 18-month siege, had lost family, friends and neighbours to starvation, warfare, and exile. They had suffered the destruction of the city, and the temple. That was tantamount to having lost the presence of the LORD. It was a lonely, desolate, and destroyed city (1:1). They had lost everything, they felt forsaken by God. With grief comes the tears.
Tears are often considered a problem, an indication of something wrong, something that needs fixing. Tears need to be stopped, dried, wiped away. Christians sometimes feel guilty about their tears and are critical of the tears of others. “Christians shouldn’t grieve as the world grieves, and therefore should not be crying. Christians should always be rejoicing”.
Three things to notice about tears:
- Tears are ok. The Bible is full of tears. God has special regard for our tears (Psalm 56:8), He keeps count of our “tossings” (Ps 56:8 ESV). How our tears and tossings go together in the quiet hours of the night. Tears are good, acting as a release valve for the aching heart. The pages of Lamentations are wet with tears (1:2, 16, 20, 21; 2:10 – 12, 18 & 19; 3:48 & 49 etc.).
- Tears are repetitive and random. Reading through Lamentations we notice the repetitive nature of the book. We come across similar emotions and scenes time and again. Well, that is what we should expect as Jeremiah makes his way around the war-torn city. He repeatedly comes across similar scenes of devastation and repeatedly experiences the same emotions and heart ache. That is the way life happens. This is such an important truth to grasp and own. There is a common misconception that grief is linear, made up of sequential stages which you go through one by one, ticking the boxes on the successful completion of each one, until finally, you are “over it”. How I hate those words, “over it”! The common theory is that the first stage is shock, the second is numbness, the third is confused realities, the fourth is guilt, the fifth is release, the sixth is painful memories, and the last one is re-entry – learning to live again. Those are all facets of grief, rather than stages. While we commonly do begin with shock, followed by numbness, there is no definite pattern.
They can be experienced in any random order and may often be repeated in any random order, as life happens and triggers various memories and emotions, often without warning. And this can go on for years. Certainly, we grow, and heal, and learn to adjust. The sorrows which, at first were dumping you like “sea billows”, onto the seashore, do with time and God’s grace become blessed, and cherished memories which bring a sense of “peace like a (gentle flowing) river”. But that does not mean you will not experience deep sorrow again – even many years later. In the case of the loss of a loved one, remember that they were of great value, created in the image of God, it is an insult to the glory of our creator to think we should just “get over it”.
- Christian tears and grieving are lament. This is where the difference between crying as the world does and lamenting as Christians do, comes in. Christian tears always have a hope component attached.
Whereas worldly crying is at best a helpless and hopeless crying out to nothing, and at worst a skeptical and even angry turning even further away from God, Christian Lament is turning to, and crying to God. Christian lament is running to, rather than away from God. Which brings us to the subject of hope.
Christian writers, including Mark Vroegop and Colin Smith have often categorized Christian Lament into four stages or categories. I have synthesized Vroegop and Smith’s summaries.
Firstly, there is TURNING to God or TALKING to God in TEARS. This is the fundamental difference between crying and lament. We turn and run to the man of sorrows acquainted with grief, the one who was sent to heal the broken hearted (read Isa 61:1-3), the one who will ultimately wipe away all our tears.
Secondly there is COMPLAINING to God, or the airing of our grievances or confessing of our guilt, if necessary. God knows our grievances and our sins; we cannot hide them from him. He can take our criticisms, as wrong as they may be, and he is faithful and just to forgive us all of our sins if we confess them.
Thirdly there is ASKING of God. Making our request known to Him. This is the hope and healing phase. Here we acknowledge that He is sovereign and even though His is the hand that has struck the blow, He is the physician who heals the heart.
Then fourthly, and lastly there is TRUST. This is the Job 13:15 moment, “though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”. It is a moment of choice. It is a choice we make to TRUST Him and to PRAISE Him. It is the Psalm 13:5 moment “BUT I have trusted in your unfailing love”. It is the Lamentations 3:19-24 moment:
“Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.
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.”
We normally quote or sing v22-24 in times of blessing and ease, but Jeremiah sings them during a time of tragedy, trauma, grief, desolation, and destruction.
Trust is a choice. A choice to bless the hand that struck the blow.
And that is not some kind of obscurantist denialism. It is an acknowledgement of the most certain facts of all. That despite the brokenness of our situations and circumstances, God IS, God is sovereign, and God is good. As such He can be trusted and is worthy of our praise.
We, like Job, may not like the circumstances, we may not understand what is going on (Deut. 29:29), but we humbly submit to His transcendent love, goodness, wisdom, and grace.