What is the difference between offering comfort in times of grief and lobbing it at someone like an ill-aimed softball?
What is the difference between reasoned encouragement that penetrates the soul and glib phrases that skate off our skin?
What is the difference between sustained hope and clinging to a narrative that makes us feel better because it claims to answer the unanswerable?
Throughout the twists and turns of my life, I have learned that many things don’t go the way you had hoped they would— unexpected tragedies happen that forever disrupt your neatly organized categories-of-life boxes. People die, trusted friends betray you, jobs are lost, loved ones disappear, friends get diseases, friends struggle for years with mental illness, people succumb to addiction, people lose their faith, a terrorist attack murders teenagers.
Early in my twenties, I had to learn the hard way that some tragedies will never be understood or explained in a way that satisfies your deeply grieving soul. Many questions cannot and will not be answered.
I am writing this in Oxford, as all of stunned England mourns the terrorist attack in Manchester and braces for another since the terrorist threat level has been moved to 10. Separate from that terrible situation, I am personally grieving the loss of someone I loved.
On Wednesday in a chapel service I attended, the vicar preached from Lamentations. Jeremiah does not hold back his agony over the fall of Jerusalem and his own misery in his role of prophet. On a sunny day, when life seems to be blessed and joyful, Jeremiah’s raw and agonized cries can feel overdone and almost embarrassing in their vulnerability and extremism.
But in dark days, they are the perfect words that invite us to engage with God at our deepest and most guttural levels.
“He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead…Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding,he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help…”
Because of the depth of Jeremiah’s anguish, it is fairly surprising what happens next:
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall... 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.“
According to Jeremiah, hope is not the thin blanket of Facebook-comment comfort or grasping after answers that will never come. It is found only in the unshakeable trust that God’s love is such that we will not be consumed—in the quagmire of despair, death, hopelessness, fear—during the terrible realities life throws our way.
But sometimes the pain is so raw that you cannot move into that part of the verse…you only feel the roaring of the bitterness and the gall. Can you, however, just move one word over to the “Yet?”
“Yet” is the pivot point connecting pain and hope. It is the place we can sit when we are reeling from the shock, when our souls are baring themselves to God in an outpouring of anger and bitterness. Perhaps we are not ready to wholeheartedly stand with Jeremiah in his full assertion of the hope found in God:
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
We would only need to move one word forward to get there, but we don’t feel ready for that right now. But that is okay, because the place where we are hovering keeps us connected to that active hope, to the all-consuming so we-won’t-be-consumed love of God: