My initiation to lament and being vulnerable has been a rocky process.
I grew up with a father who as a teen ran around with gangs in Southern California but later joined the Marines, like many men in our family had done before him. He wasn’t a stoic person and enjoyed socializing, but there was a part of his background people never knew about and he never really processed—like when he walked by a park at 8 years old and saw a man pointing a shotgun at himself, or when he witnessed his own family member kill others because they hurt one of his. He grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in a rough neighborhood where there was much cultural unrest.
He rarely talked about his actual service experience in the Marine Corps, but instead focused more on his role. But, one day, when he had had too much to drink, he talked about an experience in the Philippines, when an enemy soldier killed one of his partners and closest friends. In that situation, his training kicked in and he shot this enemy who he eventually found out was just a kid. I also learned that he had been in a helicopter crash, had concussions, and had broken his leg while serving. As an adult, all of this was new information to me, and I know for sure that my father never processed any of this with a therapist. Instead, he smooths these aspects of his life over with alcohol, a habit that has only grown worse.
Needless to say, my dad didn’t teach me much about being open with my feelings growing up. I think I recall seeing him choke up once but no actual tears come from his eyes. This is such a common way to handle difficulty in Chicano households that comedian George Lopez titled one of his specials “Why You Crying” because, as everyone knows, if you ain’t bleeding than it’s not worth crying about.
In what many consider his greatest song, “Song Cry” (2001), hip-hop artist Jay-Z discusses the failures of multiple relationships and raps “Thought I can’t let you know it / Pride won’t let me show it / Pretend to be heroic,” reflecting his decision to hide his emotions because he feared showing them was a sign of weakness. This mindset is common to many men, like me, who have grown up hearing that to be vulnerable is to be weak or feminine. In “Song Cry,” Jay-Z shares a lot of subjects that are clearly worth lamenting over but refrains from doing so due to public perception.
Misguided Manhood & Lament
Too many of us have been exposed to the sort of machismo that defines “manhood” in simplistic terms, and with views usually associated with guns, fighting, wildlife, beer, and women. These views are positioned as a core determiner of manhood, and are so toxic they would qualify even our own God as “less manly,” if we observed the life of Christ.
Lament, on the other hand, is avoided because most of us likely associate it with being soft or too “effeminate.” However, when Christ was on earth he was tender, kind, welcoming, gentle, loving, compassionate, and even wept over the suffering and loss around him. There are a lot of versions of “manhood” in our church culture that would disqualify our own Lord from entry into any of their man caves.
Lament is more than venting, it is the “liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble,” according to Soong Chan Rah, author of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. There is a hope buried in lament that God responds to this suffering and crying out to Him, Rah explains. We far too often in American churches skip this process of suffering and head straight to the “but God will fix it so just have faith” part of the Christian life. Or, we tell people who honestly express their individual struggles that they are showing a lack of faith.
Far too often, tears of lament are forced to dry in seconds and the feelings behind them covered up as quickly as they had emerged.
This is not healthy.
In an age when we are more easily informed of injustices and suffering than at any other time in history, there can be a numbing effect on those of us who are faced with such messages day in and day out.
Besides, many of us have our own sufferings to worry about—like, financial stresses, terminal illnesses, deaths of young loved ones, deportations, miscarriages, divorce, and so much more.
Which suffering should I care about most? Mine or theirs? Abortion? Racial injustices? Immigration reform? Unjust housing laws? Migrants being enslaved in Libya? There are so many issues that we can become “comfortably numb” to, as Pink Floyd phrased it.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, in the midst of suffering that is both personal and social, writes Lamentations. The culture around him is worsening, and God tells him he will eventually be exiled along with his people, and die while preaching for them to repent of all the evil in their midst.
There are times one must be brutally honest with God about just how hopeless one feels, yet still call on God to address the situation.
Because of the tremendous suffering he finds himself in, Jeremiah is referred to as “the weeping prophet.” Yet in the midst of this suffering, he avoided a nihilism that saw pain and suffering as meaningless. He ignored triumphant claims that everything was going to be OK because God was in control. He wept over his situation as a deep cry to a God he believed was present and active in this world. Jeremiah’s willingness to honestly assess the situation and confess his awareness of how bad everything was reflected his faith in God—and not the opposite, as some who dismiss lament might suggest.
A majority of Evangelical churches lack a nuanced approach that acknowledges the devastation of a situation while maintaining faith in a God who will make all things right. Glenn Pemberton in Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms states that lament makes up roughly 40 percent of the Psalms but only 13-19 percent of most denominations’ song books. In his examination of Christian contemporary music’s top 100 songs, author Soong Chan Rah notes that only five songs had elements that could be considered slightly lamentable.
Scripture is clear that both private and public lament is needed for the people of God. There are times one must be brutally honest with God about just how hopeless one feels, yet still call on God to address the situation. However, the majority of Scripture leans toward lament being a community project. One only has to read through Lamentations briefly to see how suffering was not unique to a particular group but involved everyone. In the Book of Lamentations people from all groups lament together to the God who comforts the afflicted.
Lament means calling out to a God who loves and cares for us to such a high degree that even if we are not delivered, He gives us the grace and of Himself to endure. This means that your entire body may be wrecked with stress and anxiety and you may doubt all of God’s goodness in your moment, but He is holding onto you even if you let go.
I have found the process of lamenting to be a reminder that God is present and, more importantly, He cares. It is not weak to pour my heart out to Him, as He is the ultimate One who cares. Crying when I feel overwhelmed is not an act of weakness, but sometimes is the most godly thing we can do.
This unhealthy version of manhood that tells us to just “get over it” gets worse over time. It can take an entire lifetime to unlearn the processes that shaped our minds. However, there is hope and we can play a part in changing how we respond to the difficulties presented in our lives.
Although he once rapped that in order to be a hero, he must be emotionless, Jay-z was able to evolve as, he shared in a 2017 New York Times interview. After having an infamous extramarital affair, the rapper released an album last year titled 4:44 that was centered on this situation and full of vulnerability. When discussing 4:44 he had the following to say:
“The strongest thing a man can do is cry. To expose your feelings, to be vulnerable in front of the world. That’s real strength. You know, you feel like you gotta be this guarded person. That’s not real. It’s fake.”
My father has actually begun a therapy program for the first time in his life and while I haven’t spoken much to him recently, I know he has reached out to family members to address some of the hurt that he has caused. The process that he used to view as weakness is being used now to, hopefully, help him learn new ways to cope with the fallen reality we live in.
As believers we know that all truth is God’s truth, whether it comes from Jay-Z, Jeremiah, or even my own father. When we let ourselves actually feel the weight of our suffering as we face it or the reality of evil through injustices, it is not a weak process but rather one of the strongest acts we can do. After hearing that his friend Lazarus was dead and buried, Jesus our Savior publicly wept over his friend while knowing in that moment he would be brought back to life. We, too, have the same hope of the resurrection, that all will be made whole and new, that one God will indeed fix it all.