As a child, I understood that being a Christian meant being involved in compassion work. My parents consistently created avenues for me and my siblings to engage in the wider world: volunteering in classrooms for people with severe disabilities; serving Thanksgiving dinners at homeless shelters; creating and running summer programs in a Native village off the coast of Alaska; starting a music venue at our church for high schoolers to play and listen to Christian punk rock; and for people with nowhere else to go, randomly having them live with us for weeks, months, or sometimes years at a time.
These experiences, coupled with the myriads of missionary biographies I read, changed how I viewed the world and my role in it. The formula, in my young mind, became rather simple: Go out into the world to preach the gospel, become immersed in the lives of the people and their problems, and do everything you can to help.
Lament allows us to draw near to God and articulate both our deepest griefs and our flickering hopes.
Perhaps, at first blush, there is nothing terribly wrong with this formula. But the limitations of such a framework become increasingly clear once we find ourselves immersed in problems too big to be easily solved, recognizing that there are policies and systemic realities we’ve all had a hand in, either directly or through complicity (or silence). It’s when we’re overwhelmed by a broken world and our own inability to fix it that despair, judgment, and even apathy can set in for even the most well-intentioned souls.
Some problems will never be fixed through positive thinking or sheer grit. Instead, there are unjust realities that need to be voiced, within the safety of a loving community and relationship, and there are systems and policies that need to be confessed and repented of. Lament allows us to draw near to God and articulate both our deepest griefs and our flickering hopes. And this is precisely what the Christian church can and must offer to a world that is drowning in violence, suffering, and despair.
I can remember the first time I started to feel overwhelmed at the problems facing my refugee friends. I had volunteered through a resettlement agency to be a mentor for a recently arrived Somali Bantu family. I was 19 years old but knew I could be useful and help them. Armed with English worksheets, I soon discovered no one in the family could speak English, or even read. Slowly it became apparent that both the mother and the father in the family had issues with memory retention and learning new information (signs of trauma, I would find out much later in life). Whatever English conversation we practiced one week would be completely forgotten in a few days. What I thought would be a quick and fun learning process turned into a reminder of failure, week after week.
I had engaged in charity work but was unprepared for the circumstances, systems, and policies that lead to deep brokenness and inequality.
I started to notice more signs of how hard life was for my new friends: the various bills piling up on the countertops, including the thousands of dollars this family owed for their flights to the United States; the phone calls, interrupting the afternoons in the apartment, from fast-talking hucksters claiming to be the bank, offering free money, and trying to scam my friends out of their newly minted Social Security numbers; the cockroach infestations ignored by landlords; schools that didn’t have the resources or training to help children from non-literate, rural, and traumatized backgrounds. Or perhaps I became truly overwhelmed when I realized this family received resettlement assistance for only eight months, at which point they were expected to be fully functioning members of society, no matter what barriers they might face—like racism, classism, and little to no understanding of non-Western cultures in the public sector.
My faith started to flounder. I had engaged in charity work—trying to help this family—but was unprepared for the circumstances, systems, and policies that lead to deep brokenness and inequality. Did God see what was happening to my friends? Did He even care?
These questions, while frightening, are not new to God. If one is alive and paying attention, questions regarding divine sovereignty in response to evil, suffering, injustice, and death will naturally be raised. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann refers to these kinds of questions as pressing forth into the pain of God, which is a rich biblical tradition, evident in the work of the prophets as well as in the psalms (40 percent of which are classified as lament).
John Swinton, author of Raging With Compassion, writes that “lament is ... a very particular form of prayer that is not content with soothing platitudes or images of a God who will listen only to voices that appease and compliment. Lament takes the brokenness of human experience into the heart of God and demands that God answer.” It encourages authentic engagement with God, which is a prerequisite to actually being in relationship with Him. And it has a purpose, says Swinton. Ultimately, lament exists to give voice to suffering and to reconcile us to the love of God.
Brueggemann, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, spends considerable time articulating how the values of the world exist to make people numb to the realities of the world. We can see this in our own culture’s obsession with accruing material possessions and outrunning death, living in the perpetual now. But Brueggemann writes that “the riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings.” Or as Jesus declared in the Sermon on the Mount, it is those who mourn who will one day be comforted. People who run away from mourning are also running away from the spiritual benefits of lament.
Jeremiah, Nehemiah, David, and Jesus Himself all had what Brueggemann calls the ministry of “articulated grief.” But lament not only soothed suffering communities with honesty and an ultimate hopefulness in the work of God; it also served as a way to invite people to confess and repent. For people involved in compassion work, this is a vital understanding.
Lisa Sharon Harper, author of The Very Good Gospel, told me the meaning of the word compassion is to be “moved from the bowels” or to feel the suffering of another in the depths of your being. She desires to see Christians move from charity and compassion work (individuals and communities giving out of their abundance) and towards community development and even justice work, where oppressive systems and policies are changed. Instead of handing out sandwiches to hungry folks twice a week, what if a church helped start a food co-op in the community? This kind of approach requires relationship, listening, asking questions about the conditions that create hunger and food scarcity, and then changing those systems. Inherent in this type of work is the desire for justice, which can often look like privileged communities recognizing how they have been complicit or even profited from inequality.
Nehemiah is an example of this. He fasts and weeps from seeing what caused the walls to come down—the breaking of God’s covenants and laws, including exploiting the people and designing laws to restrict who could enter God’s presence. Explaining how that led Nehemiah to confession and public lament, Harper draws parallels to our time: “We are seeing how our sin causes the brokenness out there. We see how we actually believe in meritocracy, that God loves some more than others, and we see how we have made two-tiered structures of hierarchy.” This fundamental breakdown—the lies we believe about ourselves, others, and God—is actually what causes the need for charity. So whenever we engage in helping others less fortunate than ourselves, we have an opportunity to lament and mourn the breakdowns that got us there.
Putting Lament Into Practice
Engage in compassion work with an eye for systemic factors. Does your church have a food ministry? A Thanksgiving food box program? What are ways you can start to become aware of and involved in reshaping the policies and systems that create a lack of access or resources for food?
Pray. Prayer walk your neighborhood or parts of the city where you see the need for resurrection. Practice listening, paying attention, and sharing your laments and hopes with God.
The Bible is certainly full of these kinds of writings—which look at suffering and the complexity of the human condition—but it seems as if current Western culture has lost the art of lament. As Dr. Soong-Chan Rah writes in his book Prophetic Lament, the West has developed a theology of triumphalism that is echoed in our worship and our liturgies. Of the top 100 Christian worship songs from 2012, only five could be classified as lament. Walter Brueggemann explains the disconnect this way: “The ‘have-nots’ develop a theology of suffering and survival. The ‘haves’ develop a theology of celebration.”
For people involved in justice or compassion work, this is an important dichotomy to recognize. If we have been raised to view God as blessing and taking care of those He loves, what happens when people suffer—when they experience trauma, or war, or famine, or systems of poverty that will never allow them to escape?
In my case, this put an end to my own prosperity gospel and the neat formulas I had created for how God worked in the world (which, no surprise, tended to benefit people who looked and thought and lived just as I did). When my life slowly became entangled with the lives of people who’d suffered globally and continued to suffer in my own country due to disparity and inequality, I woke up and started to change. I listened to stories and saw hardships with my own eyes. Ultimately, I came to believe in a God who is sovereign and who sees and suffers with us. In the process, parts of the Bible that had previously meant nothing to me (which were written by and for a people who were suffering) started to unveil riches of comfort to me personally.
My Christian theology gave me a framework for compassionate involvement, but it didn’t equip me to deal with the suffering I opened myself up to when I engaged in compassion work. And this is what lament in the Bible does. It gives language for the suffering that people experience. It encourages authentic engagement with God. It invites us to both listen to suffering communities and engage in confession and repentance. And lastly, it reveals the ways we try to numb ourselves to the realities of the world.
I still see my Somali Bantu refugee friends regularly. It has been over a decade, and life is still hard for them in the U.S.—compounded by the traumas of the past and the barriers in the present. But every day I see signs of hope. The young woman learning to read, checking out novels from the library; shared meals made with love and compassion; people making progress one step at a time. I try sometimes to tell them how they have changed my faith, how it is through them and their suffering that I truly discovered who Jesus is. But perhaps they will never know. The lament they brought to me matured my faith. It allowed me to identify ways in which we are connected to each other, and ways we fail each other. But most importantly, it allowed me to hope in a God who will redeem us all, and who in the meantime is asking me to seek and act for justice whenever I can.
Illustration by Eleni Debo