My teenage son recently joined the ranks of those who can be given the moniker “Brace Face”—the world of orthodontia. This is a painful process, and not just for our pocketbooks. A few weeks ago, he got rubber bands put on for the first time, which are meant to hold his mouth together and could only be an act of pure torture and glee on the part of the sadistic orthodontist. As the pain set in, my eldest became a bear. He was angry that he couldn’t eat crunchy things; he was angry that he needed braces in the first place; he was angry that he was in such pain. Mind you, this is the same kid who, when sick with the stomach flu at age 4, pounded on the toilet seat with frustration, yelling, “Why is there sickness in the world?” Upon first glance, it doesn’t seem as if he’s great at handling pain and suffering.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, however, might have done the same thing as my son if he had had modern plumbing. Because Jeremiah knew how to lament. In fact, you could say he wrote the book on lamenting. A “lament” is a passionate expression of pain and sorrow, a deep grieving and mourning because of the way things are in this broken world. In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” was mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, a broken city and a broken people.
He wrote in Lamentations 3:8, “Even when I call out and cry for help, [God] shuts out my prayer.” I understand his cry and his deep emotion. I know what it is to be in pain; I understand how it feels when it seems God is shutting out my prayers. I’ve suffered from chronic joint pain for the last seven years, and there are nights I lie awake echoing King David in Psalm 13, “How long, Lord? How long? Are you even listening to my cries?”
On the outset, it might seem that what my son and I are doing is whining and complaining. And I’m not saying we haven’t erred too far to that side some days. But Jeremiah helps us to understand that there is a proper Christian way to lament, one that allows us to grieve appropriately and thus lead us to our Savior.
Lamenting is a raw, uncomfortable admittance of our need for Christ. When we convince ourselves that we can handle it all, we are acting like we are God, fully capable of taking care of ourselves. In lamenting, we relearn our humanity. Whether it is physical or emotional, pain is a signal that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. And lamenting is how we grieve as those who have hope. Hope in the living God, whose Son suffered with us and bore the pain of the cross and who promised to “wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4).
In the middle of Jeremiah’s lament, we see glimmers of hope and God’s grace: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (Lamentations 3:21-24). And a few verses later, “For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (verses 31,32). “My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief, until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees” (verse 49,50).
The Lord does look down from heaven. In fact, he came down from heaven to live among us. In fact (beautifully reminiscent of Jeremiah’s lament six centuries earlier), Jesus himself lamented over that same city of Jerusalem, not long before he took his journey and our sins to the cross. Let that sink in for a minute.
It is easy to become bitter and angry when we are faced with the struggles of this broken world. It is easy to start focusing on that pain and murmur against God. Because sometimes God miraculously heals people from things like chronic pain . . . and sometimes he chooses not to. Sometimes we need to endure braces or cancer or Lyme disease or mental illness. Our lament is a prayer to our God, who sees our pain and knows our struggles and who has promised that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Through a proper lament, we can cry out to our Lord and come to him regularly. We can lift one another up and support each other as members of the body of Christ. And we can long for the day when we will be called to eternal glory, where there is no more mourning or lamenting. Until then, if braces bring my son closer to God as well as straightening his teeth, I’ll call that a win-win.