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Tears and Talk

For All Who Grieve: Light and Hope in Lamentations

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks… (Lamentations 1:2)

 

We begin today a four week series in which I want to speak especially to all who walk the path of sorrow and loss. Sooner or later that will be all of us.

 

  1. I. Packer says, “Grief is the inward desolation that follows the losing of something or someone we loved – a child, a relative, an actual or anticipated life partner, a pet, a job, one’s home, one’s hopes, one’s health or whatever.” [1] The key words here of course are ‘love’ and ‘loss.’ Grief is the process of adapting to the loss of something or someone that we loved.

 

When a person loses a loved one, we speak of them being bereaved. The word ‘reaved’ means to rob, plunder, or tear away. So the one who is bereaved feels that he/she has been robbed or plundered, like having something or someone who is dearly loved taken away. The person feels they’re being torn in two.

 

All of us will walk through the valley of grief and loss in different times and in different ways. And God has given us an entire book of the Bible that addresses the issue of grief, an entire book of the Bible that shows us how to navigate this valley.

 

The book is called Lamentations. It is not a book that is often preached. I’ve never preached a series on Lamentations. Why not? Especially since this book speaks to something that every one of us will experience. God’s Word in its fullness speaks to every part of our lives. Neglect any part of God’s Word, and we miss the provision that God has made for us there.

 

I began meditating on the book of Lamentations at the end of last year, and during these weeks, Karen and I had the great privilege of meeting with several couples in the church who have experienced the loss of a child, along with three young women who had endured the loss of a brother. These friends’ stories represented many more of you who have experienced the loss of a child, a spouse, a sibling, or a parent.

 

Listening to these friends tell their stories and share their insights was profoundly helpful to me. Much in this series has come from these conversations that we shared together around the book of Lamentations. I have three aims for the series:

1. That we will better understand what it means to grieve and to hope

What does it mean to grieve? People sometimes say, “I don’t think I ever grieved properly.”

Well, what does it look like to grieve properly?

 

What does it mean to hope while you grieve? It’s not that Christians grieve for a little while and then, when we are done with that, we are full of hope. It’s not like that. Christians grieve and hope at the same time.  We grieve as we hope and we hope as we grieve. I want us to see from Lamentations what that looks like.

2. That we will be better equipped to live and serve in a suffering world
We do not come to church to escape from reality. Folks who don’t believe sometimes have this view of the church. We come to face reality together in the presence of God.

 

God speaks to us in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The Scriptures are given to us not only to prepare us for the world to come, where pain and sorrow will be no more, but also to equip us to live in this world, scarred as it is with pain, sorrow, and loss.

 

One writer describes the book of Lamentations as “a house for sorrow and a school for compassion.” Here’s a place where you can learn to have a tender heart. Immersion in this book will soften our hearts towards a suffering world.
3. That we will meet Jesus Christ on the path of sorrow

The path of sorrow is a difficult and painful path. But it is a path that Jesus is familiar with. He was familiar with suffering and sorrow. Any path on which we come to a closer, deeper walk with Christ is a path that will be blessed, even if it is a path of great sorrow and loss.

Historical Background to Lamentations

Lamentations describes, in excruciating detail, the grief and sorrow that resulted from the siege and eventual collapse of Jerusalem in 586 BC. It is called Lamentations because it is the lament of people who survived unspeakable loss, and then had to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and somehow find the strength to carry on.

 

God’s people endured five disasters – one on top of the other.

1. Enemies laid siege to the city.
They just camped outside – no water, no food going in. They said, in effect: “We are just going to sit out here until the people starve.”

2. Then the people starved.

You will find more in this book about the horrors of surviving in a besieged city than you ever wanted to know.

3. Then the city fell.

The walls of the city kept the people safe from their enemies. But when the walls were finally breached, what made these people feel secure was taken away. And then they were completely overrun.

4. Then the city was occupied.

The fall of the city meant the end of the siege, but it also meant the beginning on an occupation in which God’s people found themselves under the heel of a brutal enemy who had smashed their walls and homes. They had become slaves.

5. Then the temple was destroyed.

The place where God had promised his presence was gone. So where was God in all of this? “Even the temple is gone.” Here are people who feel all alone, bereft, bereaved.

 

Many died in these awful days. Many more were taken off into exile – Ezekiel, Daniel, etc. Lamentations is the cry of the few who remained, the survivors, who had to find a way to survive in the ruins of their fallen city, what they once called home.

 

Lamentations is a cry from the depths of pain, sorrow and loss. It is the lament of the survivors. And more than any other book of the Bible, it speaks to those who grieve today.

 

The five chapters of this book are somewhat repetitive. Grief is like that. Grief is not linear. Those who have experienced grief know what it is like to go over and over what has happened again and again.

 

In this series, I want to draw out the main themes of this book: i. Tears and Talk; ii. Guilt and Grievance; iii. Hope and Healing; iv. Prayer and Praise. We begin today with tears and talk.

 

I took this title from a story told by Leslie Allen, who was the professor of Old Testament I studied under in London. He then went on to become Senior Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. While serving in this capacity, he also served for more than a decade as a hospital chaplain.

 

Leslie Allen has written a helpful book [2] in which he uses what he learned (as an Old Testament professor) about Lamentations to shed light on grief, and then uses what he learned (as a hospital chaplain) about grief to shed light on Lamentations.

 

He begins with the story of a young man named Raymond, who was brought to the hospital late one evening as a precaution against suicide. Raymond was a Christian man in his early twenties, committed to church, and actively engaged in youth ministry.

 

But he had gone through a series of tragedies that had overwhelmed him. A few months before, his parents had died, one after the other in a short space of time. Then he learned that his girlfriend had died from an overdose.

 

The chaplain was called for and Leslie says, “When I arrived, I gently woke Raymond out of an exhausted sleep. Bleary eyed, he sat up in bed and said, ‘All I want to do is sleep…’

 

I realized that this was not the occasion for a long pastoral interchange. What short message could I leave about the way forward? I thought for a moment and said, ‘I want to leave three words with you, Raymond: tears, talk and time.’ I added a brief sentence to each word and then told him to go back to sleep and remember those three words when he woke up.” [3]

Tears: Let Them Flow!

 

Tears are the shuddering of the body at the pain of the soul. Tears are a wonderful gift from God. He gave us these ducts for a reason! Tears are a release valve for pain. So let the tears flow! Don’t hold them back. Lamentations is a book soaked in tears. Let me give you some samples…
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks (Lam. 1:2).

 

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me
(Lam. 1:16).

 

My eyes are spent with weeping (Lam. 2:11).
My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of the daughter of my people (Lam. 3:48).

 

My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees (Lam. 3:49).

 

Notice that the references to tears run throughout the book. They are not just in chapter 1 and then they dry up. The tears of grieving people come at unexpected times. You never know when they’re going to come next.

 

One member of our grief group reminded us of the hymn that says, “When sorrows like sea billows roll…” [4] Then she said, “Sorrow comes in waves, often when you don’t expect it. A new wave can be set off by a sight, a sound or a smell.”

 

Another member of our group said, “People often say to me: ‘I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t want to make you cry.’ And I say to them, ‘You’re not going to take me to a place that I don’t already live all the time.’”

 

Sometimes the tears just won’t come. One member of our group said, when she heard of the sudden death of her son in a car accident: “I was in such a state of shock, I couldn’t cry for days.” That was her testimony.

 

You have that in Lamentations too: “He has left me stunned, faint all the day long” (Lam. 1:13). [5] Sometimes the shock of a great loss freezes the senses for a time so that what you expect to feel, or even what you think you should feel, you don’t feel at all.

 

But Lamentations says, “When the tears come, let them flow! Don’t hold them back! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!” (Lam. 2:18). Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord (Lam. 2:19).

 

Leslie Allen comments, “I recall a patient who, having undergone a mastectomy, found it difficult to grieve [she said] because of her Christian faith…  She thought grief was a sign of spiritual weakness and lack of trust.  It had to be stifled [she thought] as dishonoring to God…  Lamentations belies such a stoic view.” [6]

 

He is absolutely right. Here we have in a book of the Bible, something that validates the tears of godly people, faithful people.

Talk: Don’t Hold It Back!

 

The entire book of Lamentations is an expression of grief. It puts grief into words. Lamentations is a sustained outpouring of grief in which painful details of all that has happened, and all that was lost are poured over again and again. That is what grief does. That is what grief is like.

 

Leslie Allen quotes the words of Shakespeare in Macbeth,

 

Give sorrow words: The grief that does not speak,

Whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break. [7]

 

In other words, if there is a grief that won’t speak, it tempts the heart to break.

 

If you read Lamentations, from beginning to end, you will be struck by the repetition. Grief is like that. It is not linear. It circles back over the same ground. Every detail of what has happened is rehearsed.

 

Imagine a priceless vase or ornament is dropped on the floor and smashed to pieces. The woman who loved it kneels down. She picks up the pieces, one by one. She looks at each one in detail, turning it round, as if to remember where it once belonged.

 

The vase was loved and so when it was shattered, every piece was worth picking up, no matter how small. A grieving person will often want to talk about the smallest detail of their loss. It is as if every broken piece is taken up and wept over. When you listen, you may feel that the detail was small, but it is part of something that was supremely valued, part of something dearly loved.

 

God has given us a whole book of the Bible that is a sustained outpouring of grief, in which the loss is put into words and it is expressed over and over again. Surely in this, God is telling us something very important about how to grieve. Tears and talk – let the words flow, and don’t hold them back.

 

One writer cites the story of G. K. Chesterton, whose sister Beatrice died at the age of eight: “Chesterton’s father responded by turning Beatrice’s picture to the wall, getting rid of all her possessions, and forbidding anyone to mention her name.” [8] In other words, he was saying, “We are moving on.”

 

Thankfully, our culture is much more in touch with the importance of speaking about pain and loss. But a grieving person can only speak about their pain and loss if other people are ready to listen. There are two sides to every story.

 

Donald Howard writes on this with great pastoral wisdom:

 

Let the bereaved speak…Statements such as ‘You must often think of the time when you did such and such together…’ are ways of initiating discussion.

 

A typical illustration of this is of a widow whose friends are talking with her when one remembers a humorous story about the husband. He stops himself telling it out of consideration for her and, like everyone else, steers the conversation away from her husband’s life altogether.

 

Had he told the story, she probably would have laughed; perhaps there might have been a tear or two in her eyes, but she would have thought it wonderful that he was still remembered.’[9]

 

Part of our responsibility and part of the way we help those who have lost a loved one is to help keep the memory of them alive. What they wonder is: Does anyone else remember? Does anyone else care?

 

This reminds us of the importance of the ministry of listening in the body of Christ. Lamentations gives us a picture of what it means for God’s people to grieve together. We are called to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

 

There are two sides to weeping with those who weep. The first is that there must be brothers and sisters in Christ who are ready to listen, ready to sit with the one who grieves and identify with their sorrow. But if this is to happen, the one who grieves must be ready to allow some brothers or sisters into their own sorrow.

 

Here is a difficult challenge to those who are grieving a loss: It is very easy to put on a ‘brave front,’ and to say that you don’t want any sadness, to tell others that you only want to focus on the celebration of a loved one’s life, and then to determine that you will only do your weeping on your own. That’s not what we find in Lamentations.

 

God calls your brothers and sisters to weep with you. With whom will you share your weeping? Who will you allow, by the grace of God, to share in your sorrow and loss?

 

The body of Christ is part of God’s provision for you. They are given the privilege and calling to listen, so allow others into your grief, your sorrow, and your loss.

Tears, Talk, and Christ

The Bible tells us that Jesus wept. When Lazarus, who Jesus loved, died, our Lord came to Bethany. When he arrived, Martha came out to meet him, and later her sister Mary. These two women were grieving the death of their dearly-loved brother.

  • “When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33).
  • And he said, “Where have you laid him?” (11:34).
  • They said to him, “Lord, come and see” (11:34).
  • Jesus wept (11:35).

 

Why did he weep? Christ knew that in five minutes he would raise Lazarus from the dead – the resurrection is five minutes away for this brother! He told Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23). But he did not say to Martha, “Don’t grieve.” He did not say that. He is the Resurrection and the Life, but he weeps with Martha and Mary over their loss. Jesus wept!

 

God is always intimately involved in the grief of his people. There is a beautiful verse in the book of Psalms that speaks of God gathering all our tears in a bottle. If you don’t know it, I hope you will note it, so that you will remember it.

 

You have kept count of my tossings;

put my tears in your bottle.

Are they not in your book? (Psalm 56:8).

 

Every tear you have ever shed is completely known to your heavenly Father. Not one of them is ever forgotten by him. The tears of God’s children are precious to God. They are part of why he sent his Son into the world.

 

There are many wonderful statements in the Bible of why Jesus Christ came into the world. In one of them the Messiah says, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to… bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn… that they may be called oaks of righteousness” (Isa. 61:1-3), so that you may be able to stand and not be destroyed in your grief.

 

Our Lord was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). In the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow” (Mat. 26:38 niv). When your soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, your Savior has been there. You have a Savior who knows what it is to weep!

 

You also have a Savior with whom you can talk. There is a great gulf between this world and the next. You cannot talk to your loved one who has died. But if your loved one was in Christ, he or she is with the Savior, and you can talk to the Savior about your loved one who is now in his house. You can tell the Savior how much you miss them and how much you love them. You can bring the pain of your loss to this Savior who is familiar with sorrow and grief.

 

One day Christ will wipe away all tears from your eyes. Literally, the Bible says he will wipe all tears “out of” our eyes (see Rev. 21:4), as if he would take away not only the tears, but the tear-ducts themselves (in the resurrection body), because they would no longer be needed. It is not only the tears that God will take away, but also the sorrow and loss that gave rise to them. Lord, hasten that day!

 

Now that day has not yet come. And until then there will be tears. But there is also the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, who says in this book, “See if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lam. 1:12). He plumbed the depths of sorrow when he suffered on the cross. And no one is more ready or more able to walk with you through the valley of grief, sorrow and loss than Jesus Christ.

 

© Colin S. Smith

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[1] J. I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified, p. 9, Crossway, 2002.

[2] Leslie Allen, “A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations,” Baker Academic, 2011.

[3] Ibid., p.1-2.

[4] Horatio G. Spafford, from the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” 1873.

[5] See also ‘groaning’ (v21) and ‘churns’ (v20).

[6] Leslie Allen, p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

[8] Peter Barnes, The Loss of A Child, p. 17, Banner of Truth Magazine #292, 1988.

[9] Donald Howard, Christians Grieve Too, p. 25, Banner of Truth, 1991.