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).
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.