The Art of Lament

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My grief over the death of my child is a good and precious thing.

 

Your mother dies of old age.

Your child dies in a car accident.

Your friend takes his own life.

Your business, to which you have devoted your life, goes bankrupt.

You grieve.

Why do you grieve? Most of the people who read in the newspaper about the death of your mother do not share your grief. Why do you grieve when they don’t? You grieve because you were attached to her; they were not. We grieve when something to which we are attached—a person, an animal, a project, an institution—dies or is destroyed or maimed.

Lament Is Part of Our Nature

Is it part of our good created nature to grieve when something to which we are attached dies or is destroyed, or is this part of our fallen nature? John Calvin thought it was part of our created nature, and so do I. “Afflicted by disease,” Calvin writes, “we shall both groan and be uneasy and pant after health; pressed by poverty, we shall be pricked by the arrows of care and sorrow; we shall be smitten by the pain of disgrace, contempt, injustice; at the funerals of our dear ones we shall weep the tears that are owed to our nature. . . . Our Lord and Master groaned and wept both over his own and others’ misfortunes. And he taught his disciples in the same way” (Institutes III.viii.10).

Here Calvin explicitly says that it belongs to our nature—he means our created nature—to weep at the funerals of our dear ones, to grieve over the loss of health, and so on. What’s more, he assumes, without explicitly saying so, that it is a good thing to be attached to our relatives and friends, to our health, to our reputation. If he did not think it was good to be attached to such persons and things, he would not say that it was a good thing to grieve over their loss.

Of course, we are sometimes attached to things that we should not be attached to; we sometimes care about things that we should not care about. But friends and relatives are not in that category; nor are health and reputation. These are good things, and so we rightly care about them. Something is seriously wrong with the person who isn’t attached to anybody, who is indifferent to his health, who isn’t invested in any institution, who doesn’t care about his reputation in the community. Such a person doesn’t grieve over anything. He is, Calvin says, “like a stone.”

Christians sometimes suggest that their grief is an indication of weak faith. If only my faith were full and strong, they say, I would not grieve over the death of a child; instead I would tell myself that the child is now “in a better place.” It’s hard for me to believe that such people think they should not have been attached to their child, hard to believe that they think they should not have loved her. They must mean instead that Christians should try to stifle their grief.

The Language of Lament

The psalmist thought otherwise. A fair number of the psalms are psalms of lament; they give voice to grief. Psalms 13, 22, 42, 69, and 77 are examples. “I am weary with my crying,” says the psalmist, “my throat is parched” (Ps. 69). In Psalm 42 he laments, “My tears have been my food day and night.” The language is even more vivid in Psalm 22:

I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

it has melted within me.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.

No stifling of grief here!

Though the community sees the tears of the psalmist and hears his groaning, it is to God that he addresses his lament. Faith endures. His grief does not destroy his faith in God; rather, his faith incorporates his grief. And his lament gives voice to that incorporation.

This incorporation does not come easily; far from it. The psalmist’s faith is tested, sometimes severely so; and the psalmist does not shy away from saying that it is tested. Psalm 22 opens with the cry of abandonment that Jesus repeated on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.”

Grief within Faith

Notice once again that it is to God that the psalmist addresses this cry of feeling abandoned by God; though his faith is severely tested, it nonetheless endures. The psalms of lament give voice to a faith that endures in the face of feeling that God has forsaken me.

The psalms of lament invariably conclude with the psalmist’s declaration that, whatever his present feelings, God has not, in fact, forsaken him. There is more to his life with God, more to the life of his people with God, than this present sense of abandonment in grief. “In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (Ps. 22).

The psalmist trusts that his sense of abandonment will lift, and that God’s goodness will again become evident to him. “Put your hope in God,” he reminds himself at the end of Psalm 42, “for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” “I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord's praise, for he has been good to me” (Ps. 13). “I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you” (Ps. 22).

Some Christians find their loss so religiously disturbing that they give up on God and treasure their grief. Others seem to think that faith requires them to stifle their grief. What we see in the psalmist is a third way. Rather than grief without faith or faith without grief, we see faith incorporating grief. The psalmist’s lament gives voice both to his grief and to the faith that incorporates his grief. Indeed, he sings praise songs—but not only praise songs, also songs of lament.

If my attachment to my child was a good and precious thing, then my grief over the death of my child is a good and precious thing. And if my grief over the death of my child is a good and precious thing, then my challenge, as a believer, is not to stifle my grief but to do my best eventually to incorporate it into my life of faith.

I may eventually discover that a faith that incorporates grief is stronger and richer than a faith that sings only praise songs.

Study Questions

  1. Name a grief that you have experienced in your life. What effect did it have on your faith?
  2. What was the hardest thing to deal with regarding your grief? What helped you heal?
  3. Wolterstorff states that Calvin implies that “it is a good thing to be attached to our relatives and friends, to our health and reputation.” Are there things we should not be attached to and therefore not grieve the loss of? Name a few.
  4. Does grief offer gifts? If so, what are they?
  5. What is the best way to accompany someone on the road of grief and loss?

About the Author

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, Fellow of Berkeley College at Yale University, and Senior Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia. Among his many publications is Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987).

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