Can laments be lovable? Perhaps not like a cute kitten in a video can be lovable, but there are good reasons to love the biblical laments. If you believe me (or if you’re open to being persuaded), read on.
On Sunday my partner-in-preaching, Phillip Camp, continued his series on Matthew by addressing Matthew 23:34-39. These verses conclude some of Jesus’ harshest words, a series of woes against the Pharisees for their failures as Israel’s spiritual leaders. Such a passage reminds us again that Scripture’s strongest rebukes typically target those who profess to know God without truly humbling themselves before him rather than unbelievers.
Despite Jesus’ strong condemnations, the passage ends with a touching lament:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
The sadness inherent in words like these reflect God’s longing for a better ending, as well as his determination to accomplish a better ending. He grieves over his judgments, even though they are righteous and necessary, because he remains committed to redemption.
Isaiah 65 contains a similar lament. God mourns that although he has held out his hands continually to his obstinate people, crying out, “Here am I, here am I,” they remain committed to their rebellious ways (verses 1-2). God pronounces judgment but will not destroy because he sees his people as a cluster of grapes in which some juice remains and thus “there is still a blessing in it” (verse 8). At the end of the chapter Isaiah describes the new heavens and new earth that the divine Redeemer will create as his ultimate “better ending.”
Most of the laments in the Bible pour out of the hearts of faithful servants of God such as the psalmists, the prophets, and the wisdom writers. I love these laments because they provide fascinating insights into the divine-human relationship, even though we may find their brutal honesty discomforting. They reassure us that our own struggles do not mark our faith as “defective.” Living by faith in a God whose ways are far above ours cannot lead to a simple, by-the-numbers experience. Consequently, bringing our doubts and struggles honestly before God follows solid biblical precedent and makes it possible for us to learn and grow.
Laments serve an important purpose, however, apart from our own times of struggle. Praying and reflecting on them allows us to identify with our fellow believers who are experiencing hardships such as persecution.
What I appreciate from Phillip’s sermon is his highlighting of another type of identification found in Jesus’ lament. By identifying with his lament, we also share in his compassionate longing for those over whom he laments.
Remember that Jesus’ lament begins with a reference to the killing of the prophets by “Jerusalem.” Jesus knows that soon he and many of his followers will join those earlier martyrs. He does not express the typical human response of anger and hatred, however, but sadness over the tragic continued rejection of God’s will.
Divine laments are closely tied to to divine action that transforms the circumstances of the lament into a better future. In this case the divine action is Jesus’ surrender of himself to those determined to end his life. As we identify with the divine laments, doing so should be closely tied to our actions as well. We cannot provide atonement for the sins of others or create new heavens and a new earth. Nor does judgment belong to us. We can, however, bear witness by our words and our lives to God’s redeeming love, even in the face of hatred and rejection.
Seeking to reflect God’s love and God’s better future even now can guard us from a danger inherent in lamenting unbelief and sin in our world. Unlike the Father and the Son, we remain deeply embedded in the lamentable condition of the present creation. Remembering this fact keeps our lamentation over the sins of others from turning us into the beam-in-the-eye hypocrite in Matthew 7:3-5 or the self-congratulatory Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
Taking to heart Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem should engender in us neither hatred nor condescending self-righteousness. Instead, it should lead us to identify both with the divine sorrow for humanity’s plight and the divine love that results in the redemption of creation.