Deep grief is isolating. Even our best friends pull back. Why? We are not good at hearing laments from broken people. They are disorienting, unnerving, and messy. This is particularly true of people who we expect something “more” of in their lives and walk with Jesus. We slide into moralizing or theologizing against people when we feel like things are getting out of balance.
We are in a season where everything feels out of balance; whether from COVID, political and social division, isolation, or loss. We are in a season that is a dark night for many, with grief compounded by grief.
Pastors and ministry leaders, your are not alone in the crushing darkness of conflict (1 Thess. 2), loneliness (2 Tim. 4:16-17), shame, and weariness in doing good (Gal. 6:9). It can be paralyzing. As Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “Thus, frequently, there comes a point at which development and advance seem to have come to an end and we are in some kind of doldrums when it is difficult to know whether the work is moving at all, either backwards or forwards. All seems to be at a standstill and nothing seems to be taking place.”
In all of this we experience the gap between the hopes we hold in the promises of God and the reality around us. It is what Scripture calls the desert, the wilderness. It is enough to drive us to a seemingly unending cycle of denial, determination, and outright despair. All three of which can be accomplished prayerlessly, and can come to define our prayers.
There is another way, and it is the only way we can survive dark nights – lament. Lament is different than self-pity or depression. As Paul Miller observes, “A lament grieves that the world is unbalanced. It grieves the gap between reality and God’s promise. It believes in a God who is there, who can act in time and space. It doesn’t drift into cynicism or unbelief, but engages God passionately with what’s wrong.”*
So, why is it that we are so bad at entering into lament? We have a tendency to get uncomfortable. Our theological systems don’t allow us to express mystery and confusion. We might even get nervous about unwittingly sliding into theological error in a statement from our emotional depths. Or we just don’t want to come off as self-pitying navel-gazers who burden people with our problems when we want to be the problem solvers.
Most of us do not like to be dependent on others. This makes lament inherently terrifying and dis-equilibrating. “A lament puts us in an openly dependent position, where our brokenness reflects the brokenness of the world. It’s pure authenticity. Holding it in, not giving voice to the lament, can be a way of putting a good face on it. But to not lament puts God at arm’s length and has the potential of splitting us. We appear okay, but we are really brokenhearted.”**
Even as we pursue greater dependence on God, it is also important to lean toward dependence on His people. As isolating as grief can feel, none of us can heal in isolation. The beauty of the church is that we are all limping forward together. No one has come through the past year feeling like everything is fine, at least not honestly. Being open with our own doubts, fears, and brokenness can serve as a profound gift to others as we open up, because we will hear our own stories in the stories of those around us.
A few years ago, during an especially dark night, a dear friend framed a page from a hymnal for me. It now hangs on the wall in my office. It includes an Isaac Watts hymn that is written in reflection on Psalm 23. During a year of grief, isolation, and anxiety, we can look to a better source of rest and identity.
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
O may thy house be my abode and all my works be praise
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come
No more a stranger, nor a guest, but as a child at home.
* Paul Miller, A Loving Life, 31.
**Miller, 48. Emphasis mine.