Recovering Lament: What Should We Do With Unresolved Pain?

by Ryan Tafilowski

What does COVID-19 mean? Well, it depends on who you ask. Before I came to my senses and stopped reading Twitter, I came across a range of answers—from both the political Right and the Left. For some, this mysterious virus is the earth’s way of healing itself by driving the surplus human population to extinction. For others, it’s the great “Boomer Remover,” a kind of karmic retribution for older Americans who, it is claimed, have indulged themselves in excess while the climate crisis accelerates. And then of course there’s the usual suspects among the Christian fundamentalists, who see this novel disease as another in a series of divine scourges to punish the wickedness of American culture. What all these responses have in common—aside from their sheer cruelty—is that they hastily rush to discern some kind of ultimate meaning and purpose in this pandemic, to resolve it, domesticate it.

But what if COVID-19 and the economic catastrophe trailing in its wake, in and of themselves, have no constructive meaning at all, or at least none that we can decipher in the moment? This is surely not to say that God cannot and will not use this crisis to serve his purposes, just that, in the throes of the storm, we shouldn’t presume to know quite how he’ll do it just yet.

Humans generally, but Americans in particular, find unresolved pain completely unbearable. What the biblical writers call lament is not a typical component of our emotional lexicon. Lament doesn’t come naturally to us moderns, but our ancestors knew how to do it. Today, it’s vital that we remember, too, as N.T. Wright has urged in a recent article. But what is lament, anyway? As Wright puts it, “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.” For the biblical writers, the feeling of helplessness in the face of open-ended, unintelligible pain was simply a fact of life in a fallen world, and lament was one expression of an emotionally sophisticated and realistic spirituality, as much as joy or wonder or gratitude or longing. After all, there’s an entire book called Lamentations. And although lament is a diverse phenomenon across the scriptures, all biblical lament shares several defining features:

Lament is inconsolable: When the maniacal Herod butchered all the male children of Bethlehem, Matthew tells us, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” This is unspeakable grief, and there is no answer to it.

Lament is impolite and unrestrained: “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth,” cries Job as he shouts at God, “I will speak the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Evidently, the great figures of Scripture did not consider it blasphemous to confront God in unrestrained rage.

Lament refuses to make suffering intelligible: Again and again throughout his ordeal, Job resists his friends’ (initially) well-meaning attempts to explain his suffering as part of a coherent framework of greater meaning. In this sense, at least, Job insisted that his suffering was truly meaningless.

How do we recover this rich biblical tradition of lament? We’ll have to start by unlearning some of the ways we typically respond to suffering.

How Not to Lament

“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil,” wrote Martin Luther in 1518, but “a theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Part of the problem is that we Americans are addicted to theologies of glory; we want triumph and we feel entitled to victory over the powers of death and evil. We are addicted to theologies that are unrelentingly positive, theologies that immediately seek to discern “the good that God is working” through our suffering without so much as taking a moment to simply “call the thing what it actually is.” American culture—and, alas, American churches—are tenaciously optimistic. We do not dwell with our pain because we are too busy trying to control it, to shrink it down to a manageable size, to find the silver lining in it.

And if there’s one thing we can’t tolerate, it’s uncomfortable silence in the face of pain—ours or somebody else’s. That’s why we fumble so awkwardly to speak to the bereaved. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis recounts how well-meaning comforters compounded the pain of his wife’s death with their cheery consolations:

And poor C. quotes to me, ‘Do not mourn like those who have no hope.’ It astonishes me, the way we are invited to apply to ourselves words so obviously addressed to our betters. What St. Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves. . . . They tell me H. is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this? . . . ‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body?

Lewis, A Grief Observed

Of course, this tendency is as old as time itself. In Job, the most ancient of the biblical books, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar sit with their grieving friend in silence for a week, but that’s all that they can take. They simply can’t stand the inscrutability of it all, and so they fill the empty air with platitudes that are true in a vacuum and yet deeply untrue when spoken to someone in the grip of profound loss—what G.K. Chesterton called “easy speeches that comfort cruel men.”

This is how not to lament.

Let the Gaps Remain Open

And yet there is something distinctly Christian about the practice of genuine lament, because it shouts our pain, it wails, it rages, it fumes, it mourns—and it does all of this directly to God’s face. Which is to say: no matter how deeply buried or hidden, all true lament is done in hope, because it holds our pain before God. With his nation in the clutches of a death-dealing regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected that “Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This pandemic rages during Holy Week. On Friday, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will hang on a cross, and what will we find on his lips? A Psalm of lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” That’s how Psalm 22 begins, but it’s not how it ends. After the rejection, the pain, the affliction of verses 1–21, the psalm closes on a note of triumphant vindication: future generations “shall come and proclaim God’s righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” But from the cross, Jesus doesn’t quote the end, only the beginning.

We want the final lines without the opening lines, but that’s not the way of the cross. We’d prefer to skip over Saturday, those hours of emptiness and sorrow and loss when Jesus is in the ground. We want to go from Good Friday to Easter, but there remains an inescapable void in between. We have no choice but to face the brutal silence of Holy Saturday. He will rise again, but not until tomorrow.

For now, the gap remains open.

Share this article

Ryan Tafilowski

Ryan serves as content manager for the Faith & Work Classroom, DIFW’s online theological learning platform. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and as associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a B.A. in biblical studies from Colorado Christian University, a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history, and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their badly behaved dog, Daphne, in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.