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Expressing Your Grief to God -- a study of Lamentations

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

It's encouraged. God can handle it.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Lamentations 3:19-33

We capture the essence of Lamentations in this one study. Even in experiencing the very worst in life, we are to have hope, not despair. God uses punishment and discipline from a place of compassion. We are to endure our discipline and suffering with patience, trusting that God always has our good for its end. Express our grief to God; don't be consumed by it.

For he does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind. (3:33)

Not a Feel-Good Passage This Week

Lamentations is a series of laments (obviously). The author(s) has lost everything in the final destruction of Jerusalem. He has watched his friends and neighbors be carted off or killed. Everything he has known and loved -- including the temple of God -- has been destroyed. And worst of all, he knows that this is all a consequence of sin. It's real, and it's raw.

This book is about coming to grips with and expressing our grief to God.

You might not be in a particularly grief-stricken place right now. I'm glad! But you have been there, you will be there again (someday), and you have friends and relatives who might be experiencing grief right now. The tools given to us in Lamentations will be useful to you -- store them away for when you need them.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

I have three ideas for you -- if not at the beginning of your group time, then as discussion questions for along the way.

Your Most Comforting Song of Worship

This week's passage is the "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" verse. I know how comforting it is to many because it is regularly requested to be sung at a funeral. It is truly a marvelous text:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, There is no shadow of turning with Thee. Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not. As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be. Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness. Morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed Thy hand hath provided. Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me. (Thomas Chisolm)

How about you? When your soul cries out to God, what song text does it use?

[Aside: not everybody has songs in their heart like this. A very interesting exercise -- for a very different day -- would be to investigate why songs come to our minds in times like these.]

The Lesson You Wish You Learned Younger

We all have lessons that we learned just a bit too late. Maybe it was the dangers of smoking. Or that you paid better attention in shop. Or that you had listened a little more closely to that sermon on resolving conflict.

For me, it's stuff from my first stint in seminary. There were a lot of nuggets about dealing with people/staff, finances, and family that I wish I had paid closer attention to. After making a catastrophic mistake, I would sometimes think, "I think someone warned me about this once..." What about you? What lesson do you wish you had taken to heart earlier in life?

When the Punishment Has Gone on Long Enough

If you're a parent, you have fretted about this deep in your soul. If you're in any kind of disciplinary position, you have dealt with this question a lot.

How much punishment is enough punishment?

Many people I know have lost sleep over this one, including me. How do you decide when "enough is enough"?

In Lamentations, the author(s) acknowledges that sin is the cause of their punishment -- that they are getting what they deserve. But the author mourns the human cost, especially the children (who bear a disproportionate burden). When will God say that the punishment is over? Here's a key factor: the author trusts that God will do what is right; when we struggle about the punishment we mete out, it's because we're not sure what's right.

Here's one observation that might be useful to you: God was extremely clear what the punishment would be for breaking the covenant. And then He laid down that punishment exactly as stated (after giving every chance in the world for the people to get their act together).


This Week's Big Idea: The Book of Lamentations

Really, the "Big Idea" is processing and expressing grief, but that's baked into the fabric of this book. Tradition says that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, but some reputable scholars have questioned that (or that only one person wrote the whole thing). Whether or not Jeremiah wrote Lamentations doesn't change the book's meaning or power. The author had experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and was utterly broken by it.

I know not all of you like the Bible Project videos, but I think that a graphical approach to the book makes it much more real. This book is about emotions, not doctrines. (Per se.)

That video explains the structure, the use of acrostics, and the variations in that structure.

The phrase I read a lot with Lamentations is that it teaches us the biblical language of lament. Let's unpack that. We live in a culture that doesn't seem to understand how to deal with anger, grief, or other strong emotions. To cope, people lash out with terrible words or even violence -- things that cause way more harm than good.

But grief -- profound and debilitating sorrow -- is a part of the nature of humanity, how God made us. It is an emotion that reflects the image of God in us. God experiences grief from the destructive consequences of sin, and He endures our grief with us --

  • The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit. (Ps 34:18)

  • How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert. (Ps 78:40)

God doesn't want us to ignore our most raw emotions. He was us to let them help us see the world as He does. The world God created was very good, and people are priceless treasures to God. The suffering that exists in our world -- caused by our own sin -- is truly tragic.

I like the paragraph Bible Project gave about this:

These poems are powerful and raw expressions of confusion, anger, and heartbreak. The poet is unafraid of being brutally honest with God, helping us understand how a true and honest expression of our pain to God is not only good, it is holy—a sign of a covenant partnership and trust in a holy God. Lament is an appropriate response to evil in the world, and it’s something we can learn to practice through meditating on the words of Lamentations.

People should be upset by sin and its consequences. In fact, I believe that Lamentations makes it clear that the appropriate response to suffering and pain is profound sorrow. The verb form of that sorrow is "lament".

My Zondervan Study Bible gave this very nice summary of the themes of Lamentations:

  1. God is sovereign.

  2. Sin shatters the relationship of God and people.

  3. Cherished institutions are not exempt from God's judgment.

  4. Suffering is real.

  5. Hope is found in God alone.

I can't summarize it better than that.

Warning: Current Events Application

Last week, I warned that we could accidentally use current events in the wrong way. This week, you're probably going to use current events the right way. People who have lost everything in Maui. In Ukraine. The unspeakable horror of the nurse in London who killed 7 newborns. Twenty-six dead bodies found in the Greece wildfires that they think were migrants from Turkey -- there is nothing left for the world to take from them.

These things should utterly break our hearts and make us cry out to God for mercy.

Here's my warning: you will get overwhelmed if you go too far down this rabbit hole. Thanks to the internet and social media, we can instantly know about every single individual person's tragedy anywhere in the world and any moment. God alone can bear that. Any time you bring up real-world examples, set a limit for your group. There's way more pain and suffering being endured around the world right now than we (as mortals) could possibly understand or bear.

Counter-Warning: Don't Get Numb to Suffering

People cope with the overwhelming negative news in different ways, much of it destructive (like self-medicating with alcohol). I tend to "shut the news off". Unfortunately, it can leave me numb to all of it. And that's not a healthy response, either. Consider Jesus' response to the condition of the world:

Yet he himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains; but we in turn regarded him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds. (Isa 53:4-5)

Jesus was not numb to our sorrow. He bore it with us. What Lamentations teaches us is that we should not be numb to the suffering around us -- we should cry out in grief for God to have mercy on us and on the people around us.

[Sermon Application Warning!] In last week's sermon, our pastor preached on the importance of small groups in a church. Why? Because God created us to need one another. Well, times of suffering and sorrow are the times we need one another most, right? Let's not allow ourselves to get numb to the needs of our fellow Christians (to say the least).


Part 1: Lament Should Lead to Hope, not Despair (Lamentations 3:19-24)

19 Remember my affliction and my homelessness, the wormwood and the poison. 20 I continually remember them and have become depressed. 21 Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope. 22 Because of the Lord’s faithful love we do not perish, for his mercies never end. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness! 24 I say, “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in him.”

What else do we need to say? We certainly couldn't say this better!

The reference to homelessness is literal and profound. The author didn't just lose his house, he lost his home -- his city, his society, his temple, everything. My point? Whatever grief you have experienced, this guy has been there. We can treat these words with the utmost respect and appreciation.

I think that the CSV slightly mistranslated verse 19. In Hebrew, this word "remember" has the same form in the 2ms imperative (i.e., telling God to remember, as translated here) and the infinitive ("to remember"). In context, it makes so much more sense as an infinitive. Further, both of those pairs of nouns function as what is called a hendiadys (where one of the nouns functions as an adjective). So, this is another way to translate verse 19:

19 To remember my impoverished homelessness is bitter poison.

Again, it doesn't change the meaning at all! God is the intended recipient of these words. It just makes it more smoothly poetic in English.

Let's combine this translation with verse 20:

19 To remember my impoverished homelessness is bitter poison. 20 I continually remember them and have become depressed.

I believe that clarifies the circumstances. Indeed, the author remembers his condition so much that he makes himself depressed. Can you blame him?

Think about the times you've experienced a debilitating grief -- can you get away from it? The word for "depressed" literally means "sink down". I think we are almost certainly talking about what would today be called "clinical depression".

Have you ever been in this kind of a spiral? And how did you break it? This author had hope -- that allowed him to break the spiral before it broke him.

Perhaps you can help your group see this point with a question: what is the difference between grief and despair? Everyone's personal dictionary is slightly different, but here's how I most often see these words used:

  • Grief is a natural response to loss

  • Despair is a feeling of hopelessness

In other words, despair is grief without hope.

That's not the condition of the author. This author still has hope. How? Because God has made certain promises, and the author trusts God.

We talked about this a few weeks ago when we covered Jeremiah 29:

Goodness -- how is that promise working out for the author of this lament? His life seems to be a disaster right now, doesn't it? Well, his relationship with God goes a lot deeper than one verse. (Aside: remember that that promise was made to the exiles in Babylon; if this author is also Jeremiah, he knows exactly what God meant by that promise.) Here are some additional passages the author may have drawn on:

  • The Rock—his work is perfect; all his ways are just. A faithful God, without bias, he is righteous and true. (Deut 32:4)

  • For the word of the Lord is right, and all his work is trustworthy. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the Lord’s unfailing love. (Ps 33:4-5)

But here's a key truth the author would also have known:

  • Know that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps his gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commands. But he directly pays back and destroys those who hate him. He will not hesitate to pay back directly the one who hates him. (Deut 7:9-10)

The key concept in Lamentations 3:22 is "faithful love". This is that word hesed we have talked about so many times. Perhaps my favorite use of the word comes in Micah 7, and I went into absurd detail about that passage when we studied it a few years back:

God will never break His promise. God will never violate His own principles. God will never disown Himself. We can have great faith in that.

Verse 22 might be better translated as:

The Lord's faithful love will never cease; His great compassion will never come to an end.

I prefer that translation because it's more poetic, and it also acknowledged the reality that God's people have been cut off from the land of the living. God's people might be killed, but God's lovingkindness can never be killed.

Where that gets really cool is the implication about life after death -- what good is God's lovingkindness/faithful love if there's no one around to experience it? Oh ho! Even after the people's death, the author believes they still enjoy God's love. (!!)

[Aside on translation: the Hebrew plural can mean number or degree. In other words, "mercies" and "great mercy" are the same word.]

Every day, we can experience God's love and mercy anew (but more on this below). And for this author, his faith in God is greater than his fear within depression.

Can you apply that same faith when you are caught in a spiral of depression?


Aside on the God-Given Rhythm of Life

I used this comic strip recently:

This week's passage has made me double-take on some things I have taken for granted.

"God's mercies are new every morning." Obviously, God's mercy never ends, so what's different about "every morning"? Well, we are. Acknowledging that some people work different schedules, "morning" is the time we wake up from our night's sleep (which may have been very fretful). I always feel differently about whatever problem/ordeal I was struggling with when I fell asleep. (It doesn't always take long for me to work myself back up about it, however.) How about you? Do you feel different when you wake up than when you fell asleep?

We have talked about the importance of yearly cycles to the earth -- the seasons all play crucial roles in sustaining our ecosystem. We have talked about the importance of the seven-day cycle of work/worship to our relationship with God. We have talked about the importance of the daily cycle of work/eat/sleep.

But what if that's not just for our body? We know that our body needs sleep. What if it's not just for our mind? Doctors have long tried to explain the importance of sleep to our brain's proper functioning. What if it's also for our soul? What if a "new day" is a reset for our soul -- a "fresh start" for our soul to accept God's love and mercy?

Just thinking out loud.


Part 2: Discipline Should Lead to Hope, not Despair (Lamentations 3:25-30)

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the person who seeks him. 26 It is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. 27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is still young. 28 Let him sit alone and be silent, for God has disciplined him. 29 Let him put his mouth in the dust—perhaps there is still hope. 30 Let him offer his cheek to the one who would strike him; let him be filled with disgrace.

This reads like a bit of a downer after the soaring trust in God's faithfulness. But let's make sure we understand what's being said.

First, remember that each 3-verse group is a different letter in the acrostic poetry. That means that there is a larger subject break between each 3 verses than we might expect in a poem. Verse 25-27 are their own section; so are verses 28-30. They connect, but they're also distinct.

"Wait quietly" in verse 26 is another hendiadys (the CSV caught this one), but the equivalent idea in modern English is probably more "wait patiently". The word for "patient" means "silent" or "at rest". It's the same word in verse 28, drawing a connection between these two verse groups.

Verses 25 and 26 are absolute and don't require much explanation. And then verse 27 kinda sticks out. What does that have to do with God's goodness and salvation? Well, your leader guide noted that Jeremiah had used the word "yoke" multiple times as a symbol of Babylon's coming dominion. It turns out that the Assyrians and Babylonians also used that phrase "bear the yoke" to describe how they would be the masters of the people they conquered. (This relief is Babylonian.)

Combine that with the next verses, and I think the author is specifically thinking about the people's enslavement/exile to Babylon. And why did God allow that to happen? As discipline and punishment for sin.

So with all of that, here is a clunky restatement of these verses:

When we experience the discipline of God for whatever reason, it is good to endure it patiently and quietly, remembering that God is good to those who seek Him and trust Him. Let us keep our mouth shut when the people around us ridicule us for our pathetic condition, for God is using them to discipline us. Let us learn our lesson well, hoping that God will release us from our punishment in our lifetime.

I think that the "while he is still young" is more literal than we think. At the top, I used it in a general sense ("What lessons do you wish you had learned better when you were young?"), and that is certainly in the range of meaning. But the author knows that the exile to Babylon will last 70 years (which we covered in that Jeremiah 29 lesson) -- only the young have a reasonable chance of returning to the land. "If you're young, endure this discipline quietly and hopefully, and maybe you'll live long enough to come home."

What a hard, hard lesson.

This leads to some great discussion possibilities:

  • Why is it so hard for us to endure discipline quietly?

  • How productive is it for us to gripe about God's discipline?

[Note: that last question assumes that we are aware when God is the one disciplining us. That might require a follow-up question: how do we know when something happening in our life is discipline from God?]


Part 3: Because God's Discipline Is from His Compassion (Lamentations 3:31-33)

31 For the Lord will not reject us forever. 32 Even if he causes suffering, he will show compassion according to the abundance of his faithful love. 33 For he does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind.

And here's the crux of the whole thing:

  • God is not hateful or spiteful.

  • God does not enjoy bringing suffering to people.

  • God wants what is best for the entire human race.

  • God disciplines us for our good.

I believe one of the struggles people have with God's discipline is our past experience with discipline. We have all been around when a teacher or coach or parent took things too far or gave "discipline" for the wrong reason. That taints our ability to believe that discipline can be redemptive.

We had a presentation this week about the difference between the Superior Court and the Juvenile Court, and it reminded me of the age-old judicial debate -- should the purpose of a sentence be primarily rehabilitative or punitive? [Don't open that debate in your group -- that's not the point of this passage.]

With God, it can be both/and. Yes, God will punish sin. But God can use that punishment to bring people to an awareness of their need for salvation. Yes, God will discipline His children when they sin. But God is more than good enough at His job to make that discipline "have teeth" and yet still be redemptive.

The people are being punished [connotation: "punitive"] for their sin, but the author realizes that God is also using this as discipline [connotation: "rehabilitative"]. God does not waste any of our experiences in life. Good or bad.

God does not "enjoy" that part of being God.

[Aside: theology alert. I'm, trying to be very careful about how I describe God here. The word "enjoy" means something very specific to us. God delights in "being God". Every part of "being God" is integral to every other part. But when we say "enjoy" with respect to an action, we mean something like "deriving pleasure". The Hebrew phrase here is "from the heart", which seems to equate to that. God does not derive pleasure from punishing sin. He is guiding us toward a future existence without sin. If God enjoyed punishing sin, He would work to keep sin around forever.]

The author reminds himself (and us) that we can trust God's discipline because His goal is compassion, not affliction.

Does this help you process the experiences you have had in your life? If you need help processing this, perhaps talk through one as a group. It might make more sense to have lunch with a small number of friends and talk this out in a more private setting.


Closing Thoughts: Back to Grief

Make sure to come back to this main idea. Now knowing where this passage goes, what is the purpose of expressing our grief to God?

In one way of describing it, it's so we don't get consumed by it. When people bottle such a strong emotion inside, it can do bad things to them -- often in some kind of physical or emotional "explosion". That's not good or healthy. (And neither is "venting", but that's for another day.)

God loves us and wants what's best for us. God also knows us inside and out. He wants us to bring our strongest fears and hurts to Him. He can handle our rawest talk. (He can handle it better than any person we might choose to talk to.)

We should not ignore our grief. God does not. Let us go to God to help us experience and express our grief in a way that is redemptive, not destructive.


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