Jesus When the Ending Isn’t Happy

I think that a lot of Christians have the misconception that the divide between the Old Testament and the New Testament goes something like this.

Old Testament:

  • God is angry with people most of the time.
  • God is far away.
  • You better follow the law, or else the far away, angry God is suddenly going to get way too close for comfort.
  • Generally, everybody is miserable.

New Testament:

  • God is pleased with people again (because of Jesus).
  • God is close by, and that makes us feel safe.
  • Believe in Jesus, and you’ll be saved.
  • People who are saved are happy.

My portrayal is over-simplified, but it outlines the general trajectory of how many Christians I’ve encountered think about the Bible. From where I’m standing, that characterization isn’t accurate or fair when it comes to either the Old Testament or the New Testament.  While there are many problems with this approach to the Bible, there’s one troublesome aspect that I want to highlight: the idea that Jesus and happiness necessarily go hand-in-hand.

When Christians believe in Jesus, and yet they still experience debilitating grief, depression, or anxiety, their emotions and experiences can quickly become stigmatized.  After all, according to the common view of the New Testament, salvation = happiness, right? Jesus came to make people happy!

Actually, not really.  If we take a look at how the gospels portray Jesus, they draw upon the lament tradition of the Old Testament.  The lament tradition canonizes raw, gritty expressions of grief, depression, and anxiety–the very emotions that are often stigmatized in our culture.  The way the gospel writers shape their depictions of Jesus shows a comfort with the very emotions and experiences our culture finds so uncomfortable.

There are many examples of the lament tradition’s influence on the Gospels, but I just want to consider a couple of examples from Matthew.  Matthew loves to make references to the Old Testament–in fact, he does so more than any other gospel writer.  One of the ways Matthew makes use of Old Testament tradition is by framing Jesus’ natural life using lament.  

Lament first appears in Matthew just after Jesus’ birth.  After Jesus is born, King Herod, trying to exterminate the threat he believes Jesus presents to his throne, conducts a massacre of Bethlehemite children two years old and younger.  To express the tragedy of this massacre, Matthew quotes a lament from the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Mt. 2:28, NRSV)

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Giotto’s The Massacre of the Innocents, painted in 1305 for the Arena Chapel

This verse quotes Jeremiah 31:15, which is addressing the pain of the Babylon exile.  The geography here is significant.  Ramah was a place just north of Jerusalem where the Judeans were held on their way into exile.  Jeremiah connects an even older tradition to his portrayal of the exile. In Genesis, the matriarch Rachel dies giving birth to her son Benjamin. According to rabbinic midrash, Rachel was then buried in Ramah on the road which the Judeans traveled into exile. Thus, in Jeremiah, Rachel weeps from the grave as she watches her descendants (“children”) tread the lonely and sad road into exile. The lament’s emotional intensity allows Matthew to repurpose it creatively to tell the story of the massacre of the Bethlehem babies.

When Jesus dies on the cross, marking the end of a normal human life, lament appears again.  Jesus’ last words in Matthew come from Psalm 22, a lament psalm:

“And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Mt. 27:46, NRSV)

I have a high Christology–I believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  It’s amazing to me that Jesus, the son of God, could experience the same sense of divine abandonment that I think everyone feel at one time or another.  But I think that’s exactly what’s happening.  Jesus uses the words of the lament tradition to express the sense of betrayal and loss he experiences in the very last moments of his natural life.

Matthew leaves out parts of both of the laments I’ve discussed. The Jeremiah passage goes on to talk about how Rachel’s children will be restored to her.  Psalm 22 goes on to talk about how God eventually does hear the sufferer’s cry.  But Matthew doesn’t feel the need to quote the restoration sections of the laments.  He’s okay with staying real with the emotion in the situations he’s dealing with: The mothers of Bethlehem don’t get their slaughtered children back in this age, and Jesus is simply abandoned and dying.  I think Matthew knows that skipping over the pain in moments like those always does more harm than good.

In birth and death, lament encircles Jesus’ life.  The language of Old Testament lament helps give voice to the deep pain that is central to Jesus’ own story.  Jesus himself is not always a happy person–he both experiences physical and emotional pain personally and allows himself to respond with genuine emotion to others’ pain.  If Christians are to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), that means we don’t need to ignore pain.  In fact, Jesus’ example means God calls us to lament the wrongs and brokenness signaling that creation and our own lives fall far short of God’s dreams.

Why I Study “Sad Stuff”

Before I started my Master of Theological Studies degree, I don’t think I’d read Lamentations.  Now I’m about halfway through a PhD, and I’m about to write a dissertation on it. I don’t think my lack of knowledge about Lamentations was much different from many Christians’.  Many church-going people I talk to have never read Lamentations before (if they even know that it’s in the Bible).  And if they do know about it, they’re likely to say, “Woah, that’s some heavy stuff!” or “That must get depressing to study all the time!” when I tell them that Lamentations is the subject of my dissertation. People are a little surprised that I chose to study Lamentations, because I think I may often come across as a bouncy, happy person (which is generally my internal state of being as well).

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This is pretty close to my emotional baseline.

Honestly, studying Lamentations doesn’t make me despair.  Yes, there is tragic and graphic content within Lamentations–it is definitely not the first book of the Bible that I’ll read to my daughter.  The book talks about women being raped, corpses lying in the street, and mothers cooking and eating their own children. At times, a narrator speaks about God as the cosmic enemy of the people.  Lamentations contains heavy material that we need to engage, both because this pain is the legacy of our faith tradition, and because today women are still raped, bodies are still left in the streets, and families still are malnourished and starving.

But Lamentations makes me hopeful, because its inclusion in the canon of sacred scripture signals to me that I receive my spiritual heritage from people who weren’t afraid of asking God hard questions. I don’t know who wrote Lamentations (it probably wasn’t the author of Jeremiah…more on that some other time), but whoever they were, they mourned and protested about the worst parts of their existence before God.  The words of Lamentations sometimes implicate God, but I believe the writer(s) of Lamentations also trusted God to hold the most broken parts of their hearts and lives.  Lamentations belongs in the Christian canon because the painful, vulnerable protests it contains are faithful and sacred. I feel hopeful when I read Lamentations because it reminds me that in the book I call sacred, nothing is off-limits as a starting point for dialogue with God.

At the end of the day, I think that a big part of the reason I’m a person of faith has to do with Lamentations and other biblical writings with similar themes.  I could not worship a god who is distant from human suffering.  I don’t think it’s humanly possible to know why creation must groan so much (Rom. 8:22), and when people deny that creation is groaning, it offends me far more than when people deny that there is a God.  But one thing I know is that God is always near to suffering.  God’s heart breaks with our own hearts.  I think that’s the insight of Lamentations that always draws me back to it–that even when we’re angry at God or don’t understanding what God is doing, God is there to bear witness and hold all the tears we cry.  The essence of understanding God as Immanuel (“God with us”) to me is the idea that God never, ever stands apart from the worst things we experience.

Lamentations depicts many of those “worst things.” And I keep studying it because I know that among those worst things, God must be there.