Empathetic Lament in Divided Times
It is no insight to note that we live in fiercely divided times. Too often, civil discourse devolves into factiousness and Christian unity turns into diatribes. Too often, irenic, nuanced, gracious, compassionate engagement is replaced by divisive, bad faith, arrogant debate. Across mediums, we never stop seeing it.
While much ink has been spilled on why we find ourselves in such division, one significant factor is the loss of empathy we have for others. We often perceive the person who holds an opposing viewpoint as an enemy to defeat, rather than a fellow image-bearer to embrace. As a result, we all could benefit, desperately, from practices––especially liturgical practices––that shape us into people of empathy and compassion.
For Christians, including Reformed Christians rooted in liturgical traditions, a belief in the formative power of regular practices is long-held. For example, the Reformed doctrine of total depravity recognizes our constant need for repentance and confession. While Christians are born again and receive a new nature by faith in the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we still war against our flesh. The regular liturgical practice of confession and repentance, both corporate and individual, ensures we take seriously the sin that persists among us and within us.
Still, I wonder, how seriously do we consider liturgical practices that address both our sin (corporate and individual) and also the effects of sin on all creation––the effects of sin that impact our neighborhoods, cities, nation, and the world? More precisely, I wonder how often we use lament as a regular practice.
While prayers of confession and repentance address sin, prayers of lament address the effects of sin. These prayers give us room to grieve, cry, and make intentional space for longing for the day when we, and all the creation, no longer groan as a result of this world’s bondage.
There are many who have beautifully articulated how prayers of lament are essential in the life of the church. They note that these deeply biblical prayers aid us in handling suffering well, lead us in mourning with those who mourn and fix our eyes on the One in whom we find our hope beyond suffering. My aim is not to persuade toward the use of lament, but rather to suggest another beneficial consequence of regular lament.
Lament & Public Discourse
In addition to developing our ability to address suffering well, prayers of lament can also make us more empathetic and compassionate in our public discourse. Discourse naturally changes when a person chooses to step into the pain, grief, and experience of another, especially someone who may be considered a rival or opponent.
In my experience, congregations that regularly practice corporate lament become increasingly in tune with the brokenness of this world. They often become some of the most intentional in regards to reflecting God’s perfect Kingdom to those in need of hope. In this way, I strongly believe that the practice of corporate lament is an underutilized tool for witnessing the hope of the Kingdom of God, including in the public square.
Empathetic lament creates space for us to step outside our comfort zones and into compassion. Consider some of the most contentious issues of the day. For example, white Americans might not understand the experience of Black Americans who feel the sting of ongoing racism, but can they not lament with them over those experiences? Pro-life advocates might disagree with pro-choice rhetoric and argumentation about the morality of abortion, but can they not lament with the many women who feel like abortion is their only viable option? One might not align with the LGBTQ+ community, but is it not also possible to lament the marginalization and violence experienced by their LGBTQ+ neighbors? One might have politicized concerns about the crisis at our borders, but can they not also lament the circumstances that drive so many migrants to risk so much? One might advocate for police reform, but can they not also lament the ways police officers are regularly put in harm's way due to pervasive violence?
Now, at this point, some might say, “Sure, I care about racism, women, LGBTQ+ neighbors, immigrants, and police officers, but… ”
If “but” is our immediate instinct, I wonder if we might pause to consider whether or not we’ve experienced sincere lament.
Have our hearts yet been broken?
Have tears yet fallen?
Has there been repentance for arrogance concerning our lack of compassion?
Have we cried out to God for the plight, burdens, and suffering of those with whom we disagree?
Empathetic lament forms us to resist leading with the “but” and instead lead with compassion. It leads us to grieve the experiences of others, even if we personally do not understand their plight. And if lament is shaping us in this way, I believe it will also shape our posture toward others, our discourse with our opposition, and our rhetoric about contentious issues.
What does this look like practically? For pastors and leaders, building intentional times for public lament can 1) teach people how to come before God with suffering and 2) encourage Christians to pay attention to the suffering around them.
In the church I pastor, we set aside time each week for corporate lament. As we say (after our time of confession and repentance), “we recognize that sin has not only impacted us individually, but it has also impacted the world in which we live. And so we bring to the Lord the cares and concerns of our city, nation, and the world…” I hope setting aside this time in our service results in our ability to consistently address the hardships weighing on the minds of our congregants, community, or beyond.
When mass shootings, violence against minority groups (racial, LGBTQ, immigrants, etc.), or violence in the neighborhood occurs, we have intentional space in our service to lament together. When there are upticks in depression and suicidal ideation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when domestic abuse statistics increase, when our nation's political discourse devolves into hatred and even violence, we have space to lament.
Finally, just as confession and repentance should not be relegated to Sunday worship, neither should empathetic lament. What might happen if we lament––really lament––the burdens and cares of those around us: those we interact with online, those with whom we disagree or with whom we don’t identify?
Given that too often arrogance, callousness, and divisiveness are the norm in so much of our public discourse, we all need practices that war against such tendencies. And through a posture of lament, we can trust that the Spirit of God will make us a people of compassion and empathy through that lament––compassion and empathy that reflects our Savior.
I often think about Jesus in John 11. In that chapter, we see Jesus arriving at the tomb of his deceased friend Lazarus. When he arrives, he finds Lazarus’ sisters are distraught. We are told, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled…” and as a result, “Jesus wept” (v. 33-35).
What is that posture? Why is Jesus, the one who knows he can raise his friend from the dead, weeping over this death? He is weeping because “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…” (Hebrews 4:15). We have a Savior who laments with us by empathizing with us––weeping with us. He gave himself space to lament.
I hope and pray that we would seriously consider our need to grow in empathetic lament and, consequently, become a people who show the world a different way to live––to live as a gracious and compassionate people in deeply divided times.