We saw last week that grief is the inward desolation that follows losing something or someone we love. This is a road that all of us will travel, and God has given us an entire book of the Bible that teaches us how to navigate the valley of sorrow and loss.
Please open your Bibles at the book of Lamentations.
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.”
Lamentations is a book soaked in tears
We began this series last week on this subject of loss and sorrow by looking at tears and talk. All Scripture is given by the inspiration of God. That means that the tears of Jeremiah, who penned this book, came from the Spirit of God moving from within him. So, the tears of this book come directly from the throne of God. No Christian should ever be ashamed of his or her tears. Someone in the congregation wrote to me this week:
After last week’s sermon I received feedback from a life group leader as received from someone in their life group. The lady comment that, “Look, I’ve never had a sermon that had me physically in tears. Pastor Ben’s sermon this morning was really nice”. This is a lady that never cried due to a hardened heart. To God all the glory for this path of healing in the valley.
Lamentations validates our tears. It reminds us that God gave us tear ducts for a reason.
Lamentations puts sorrow and grief into words
The whole book is a sustained expression of grief. It pours out in the presence of God, the feelings of God’s people, as they try to make a life in the ruins of the once great city of God.
We saw that we have a Saviour who is known as the Man of Sorrows to whom we can come, and with whom we can talk, and He is acquainted with grief.
Now today, I want to focus on a second pair of themes that run throughout the book of Lamentations – guilt and grievance.
God has given us, in the Bible, two books that deal with grief and loss. One of these is Lamentations. The other is the book of Job. God gave us these two books for a reason and there are important differences between them.
- Guilt plays absolutely no part whatsoever in the book of Job
Job was a righteous man. The Bible says he was blameless and upright.
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” Job 1:1
But when Job suffered, his friends didn’t believe that. They felt sure that this could not be the case. The friends were convinced that God brings blessing to the good and that he brings trouble to the wicked: “Look at what has happened to you, Job. Bad things don’t happen to good people. Come clean and confess! Some secret sin must lie at the root of your suffering. Why don’t you own up to whatever it is?”
But Job would not relent. “I am in the right,” he said (Job 9:15, 20). In fact, he insisted, “I am blameless” (Job 9:20, 21). At the end of the story, God stands with Job, and not with his friends. God says to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends,
“My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” Job 42:7
When we hear that we immediately say, “Oh yes, the Pharisees did that”. But it wasn’t the Pharisees. It was the disciples of Jesus who showed this harshness towards a man who was blind from birth:
“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him’”John 9:2-3
That’s what happened with Job. When he suffered, the glory of God was revealed to him: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” Job 42:5
The glory of God was also revealed in him and through him. Down through the generations, God has used his testimony for the comfort and for the strengthening of millions.
- Guilt is written all over the book of Lamentations
“The LORD is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (Lamentations 1:18)
“Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious” (Lamentations 1:20)
“Deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions” (Lamentations 1:22)
“We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven” (Lamentations 3:42)
“This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (Lamentations 4:13)
“The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter of Zion, is accomplished” (Lamentations 4:22)
These confessions of guilt run all through the book. Lamentations is like the thief on the cross who said, “we are getting what our deeds deserve”. (Luke 23:4)
Guilt plays no part in the book of Job, but it is written all over the book of Lamentations. So Job and Lamentations stand as the ‘bookends’ on the spectrum of guilt in grief and loss. In Job, guilt plays no part at all. In Lamentations, guilt cries out in every chapter.
Most of us, when we go through grief and loss, will experience something in between the story of Job and the story of Lamentations. Grief usually comes with some guilt attached: What should I have done that I did not do? What did I do that I should not have done?
Grief invariably has its “what if’s” and its “if only’s”. If only I had done this. If only I had not done that. If only I had called the doctor sooner. If only I had visited my loved one when I could. If only we had not planned that trip. If only we had not argued as we did.
A bereaved person will often find that things said or done years ago come back to mind, even though they had been long forgotten – harsh words you spoke and now wish you had never said, foolish things you did long ago that that now bring a fresh sense of guilt.
J. I. Packer says, “Old guilts and neglects come back to mind, and thoughts of what we could and should have done differently and better come hammering at our hearts like battering rams.” This is part of the experience of grief.
Sometimes there are issues related to the death of a loved one. A loyal spouse keeps watch for days by a bedside, steps out of the room for a few hours, and cannot forgive him or herself for not being there at the end.
And then, on top of the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘if only’, there is the awful feeling of unfinished business, especially if a loss has come suddenly or unexpectedly. “We never got to say goodbye.” Grief usually comes with guilt attached.
Now there is an important distinction between true guilt and false guilt. False guilt comes when we take responsibility for something that was not our calling or is not under our control. True guilt comes when we shirk responsibility for something that is the call or command of God.
The answer to false guilt is truth. The answer to true guilt is grace. And how wonderful it is that our Lord Jesus Christ is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In other words, everything that is needed to deal with guilt is found in Jesus Christ.
But sometimes it isn’t easy to tell the difference between true guilt and false guilt, and here’s what often happens. A grieving person feels a weight of guilt. It runs deep and it isn’t easy for her to speak about this. But when she does, she is told, “This is false guilt. You weren’t actually responsible for this. It’s not your fault.”
That doesn’t help. Even if the guilt is without foundation, it is very real to the bereaved person. So it doesn’t help to say to the person on whom the weight rests, “There’s nothing for you to be guilty about.” Saying this doesn’t normally remove the weight.
When a person is struggling with what I may think is false guilt, I have found it more helpful to say something like this: “Let’s put the discussion of whether this guilt is true or false aside. The point is that what you are experiencing is real. Your conscience is burdened, because you believe there is something you should have done and didn’t, or something you did and shouldn’t have. If this were true guilt, what would you do with it? You would confess it to God and put it under the blood of Christ. So, let’s do that now.”
Christ offered Himself not only so that your sins would be forgiven. The blood of Christ was shed so that your conscience could be cleansed (Hebrews 9:14, 10:22). So bring your “what if’s” and your “if only’s” to God. Confession is a wonderful gift, when you know that grace is waiting for you on the other side.
If your conscience is burdened, here’s what you can do: Bring what you experience as guilt to God. That’s what we have here in Lamentations. The guilt in Lamentations is real, and it is brought before God and confessed.
If your conscience is burdened, here is what you can do: Write out what weighs on your conscience and bring it to God: “Here is what I should have done and did not do. Here is what I should not have done, but did do.”
Tell God what you did – confess it, repent of it, place it under the blood of Christ, and let your conscience be clean, so that you can once again experience the peace of God. You can do this on your own. You can do this with the help of a friend, or you could ask one of the pastors to help you. Don’t live with a burden of guilt hanging round your neck.
Grief comes with guilt attached, and grief comes with grievance attached. The two are clearly connected. Guilt relates to what you did or didn’t do. Grievance relates to what other people did or didn’t do, and sometimes to what God did or did not do. That’s the world of grievance. There are three kinds of grievance in Lamentations:
- There is grievance against the leaders who failed the people
“This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (Lamentations 4:13)
- There is grievance against the enemies who attacked the people
“Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many” (Lamentations 1:22)
- But most of all, the grievance in Lamentations is directed toward God
Seventeen times in the first five verses of Lamentations chapter two we find a grievance over something that God has done (or that God has failed to do).
“How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud! He has cast down from heaven to earth the splendour of Israel; He has not remembered His footstool in the day of His anger. The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob; in His wrath He has broken down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah;
He has brought down to the ground in dishonour the kingdom and its rulers. He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; He has withdrawn from them His right hand in the face of the enemy; He has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around. He has bent His bow like an enemy, with His righthand set like a foe; and He has killed all who were delightful in our eyes in the tent of the daughter of Zion; He has poured out his fury like fire. The Lord has become like an enemy; He has swallowed up Israel; He has swallowed up all its palaces; He has laid in ruins its strongholds, and He has multiplied in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation.” (Lamentations 2:1-5)
If this doesn’t convince you, look at chapter three, where you find the same thing. There are twelve complaints against God in the first sixteen verses! Almost every verse begins with the word ‘He’ followed by some grievance about what God has done.
Grief comes with grievance attached. The firstwords Martha spoke to Jesus when she was grieving the death of her brother were: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). There’s grievance in there! And when Mary finally came out to meet Jesus, she said exactly the same thing (John 11:32, see also 11:37). Grievance is dominant in both their words. “Where in the world was Jesus when my brother died? He loves my brother! So, how did this happen?”
We all heard someone saying, “It’s hard to believe that God loves you when he takes away someone you love”. Grief invariably brings out grievance, and sometimes grievance against God, especially with Christian believers like we find in Lamentations and in such godly women as Mary and Martha.
The grievance in Lamentations was not an expression of unbelief. In a very profound way, it is an expression of faith. These people were not secularists who believed that what they suffered happened by random chance. They knew that God is sovereign in all things, including the disaster that had befallen them.
Behind the work of their enemies, these believing people saw the hand of God. These are people who believe that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. But if you believe that the Lord takes away, you may not find it easy to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Most of us as not as righteous as Job. If you should find yourself saying, “God has taken away and I have a problem with that,” what are you to do with that? The book of Lamentations shows that you are not alone.
There is no better place to pour out your grievance than in the presence of God. Don’t complain about God behind His back! Tell Him your grievance face-to-face. This is modelled for us in Lamentations and repeatedly in the Psalms.
Eugene Peterson writes about a friend who, overwhelmed by personal, marital, and vocational troubles, began going for “scream weekends.” Peterson is referring to primal scream therapy in which sufferers are encouraged to vent accumulated anger, resentment and pain by screaming. He describes what happens as being “like thunder and lightning in a summer storm.” You have “this great cataclysm and then the clouds break.” The birds sing and a wonderful feeling of well-being ensues. Peterson says, “There is catharsis. But there is no healing…” The friend went to these scream weekends on a number of occasions and reported that the results were wonderful, though they only lasted for between two and seven days. Peterson writes, “I said to him at one point, ‘Why don’t you shut yourself up in a room with Lamentations and Isaiah 53 for a weekend?’ He looked at me uncomprehendingly. But I said to him ‘It would, though, have been far healthier…’”
Why would it have been healthier? One reason is that the cry of Lamentations is a cry to God, and that means it is heard! It’s not just a scream out into thin air. And what is heard in Lamentations is better than a scream. It is pouring out the source of what has grieved the soul, line-by-line and verse-by-verse, and it would last more than seven days.
There will be some here today who have a great deal of screaming going on in your soul. You are filled with grievance, and if you would truly bring it to God as these suffers did in Lamentations, you would get it out, and do it in the presence of God, and that would be the beginning of your healing.
Guilt, Grievance, and Christ
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the LORD inflicted on the day of his fierce anger”Lamentations 1:12
In the middle of all this grief and sorrow, there is a voice that says, “Look at me.” Christians have long seen this verse as a prophecy of the cross of Christ. I want you to hear these words from the lips of the crucified Saviour today: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”
To people who are struggling with guilt and grievance, Scripture says, “Look through your guilt. Look beyond your grievance. Look to the cross. Who hanged there? The One who hanged there is the Son God! Why did He hang there? He hanged there for you!”
“It’s hard to believe God loves you when He takes away someone you love.” Yes, but look through your grievance to the cross, where the Son of God suffered and gave himself for you. It’s hard to believe that God does not love you, when you are looking at the cross.