Chapter 3

The Cries of Lament

Chapter Three: The Cries of Lament

Nearly everyone has questions. Those of us who are Christians, and even some who are not, may have dozens of spiritual questions after a loved one’s suicide. Where was God in the midst of all this? Why didn’t God prevent the suicide? Is my loved one lost eternally? And does God still care about me?

The first thing we need to recognize is that these kinds of questions are okay. Part of the grieving process is to lean into all our pain and emotion enclosed in our questions and to bring everything to God. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4). He’s telling us that it’s important to grieve, to mourn deeply. Grieving gets outside what’s going on inside. In biblical times and among Jewish communities still today, grief is public and visible, with designated periods and rituals of grief.

Grief involves the whole person, in practices that are expressed physically, emotionally and mentally. We might grieve through playing music or writing poetry, or washing our loved one’s car every week. We may visit their gravesite or places that were important to them, like favorite parks or restaurants. We may cook and eat a familiar meal in their memory, even as we mourn their absence from the table.

Scripture gives us models for grieving in the book of Psalms, in what we call the psalms of lament. Grief is by its nature a somewhat nebulous, formless kind of thing. We feel like we’re in a fog, that we’re going in circles. But the psalms of lament have a particular structure. They were Israel’s way of structuring their grief. These days, we’d call it “processing.” The psalms of lament are a way of ordering our grief and working through our pain to make sense of it.

The psalms of lament begin with a cry to God. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord” (Psalm 130:1). They express our pain and the raw emotions of our grief. And they direct them to God, which is the right place to direct our grief, because he can bear the crushing weight and is the one we need to go to most.

In our lament, we cry out to God: O Lord, this world is not the way it is supposed to be. We are so broken, so devastated by this loss. How could this happen to us? How could it come to this, that our loved one despaired of life? Why is this world so painful?

We petition God for his help. “Do not be far from me. You are my strength;, come quickly to my aid!” (Psalm 22:19). “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief” (Psalm 31:9). We are honest about our devastation, how this calamity has crushed us and our families, and our desire for rescue.

There is no timetable for grief; we each move through it at our own unique pace. But at some point, we may come to a transition. Halfway through a psalm of lament, there’s often a pivot, even when questions remain unanswered. “But I trust in you, Lord” (Psalm 31:14). “But surely, God is my help” (Psalm 54:4). Despite all the pain of the world, I will put my trust in God. Even in the midst of this horrible loss to suicide, yet I will put my hope in him. Directing our pain to God reminds us of who he is, that he is the one who hears us, who has shepherded us through the past ordeal.

And then the psalms resolve with a statement of confidence and hope that God has heard our cry and will act on our behalf. “Praise be to the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege. In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’

Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help” (Psalm 31:21–22).

Yes, we will continue to ask “why?” questions throughout our lament. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why did he do this? Why didn’t she seek help?

While the “why?” questions are normal and expected, they are often rabbit trails. When bad things happen, we automatically ask why, as if finding out the answers will give us comfort and peace. We might assume that the problem of suffering is an intellectual one, and that finding answers to the why question will clear things up. I don’t find they actually do. In some cases, a specific answer to a why question just compounds guilt and blame. Why did he die of cancer? Well, maybe he had a bad diet and didn’t exercise enough. Or maybe he lived in a toxic, carcinogenic environment or was genetically predisposed to cancer. What then? Finding answers to the why questions doesn’t necessarily bring us comfort or hope.

Why questions are ultimately unanswerable. Or they can be answered quite simply, even if much is left to mystery. Why this suffering? Why this death? The simple answer: It’s a fallen world. The world is broken. Bad things happen that God never intended. People die. If we really want answers to the why questions, that’s where they take us.

I find it instructive that the New Testament writers don’t really probe the why questions. They don’t pose intellectual questions regarding the origins of the problem of suffering and evil. The authors took for granted that they were living in a broken world where sickness and death were normative. They understood that everybody suffers. Everybody dies. Nobody has to ask why this happens—it just does.

The far more significant question, from a Christian standpoint, is not “Why?” but “What is God doing about it?” This is N. T. Wright’s approach in his book Evil and the Justice of God. (3) He says that the Bible ultimately does not answer the why questions. Far more important in Scripture seems to be God’s answer to the question “What has God done about evil, death and suffering?” And the answer there is that God has decisively acted in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus’s death and resurrection, God has triumphed over the power of death. He has disarmed the powers and principalities. God is redeeming all creation. He is making all things new. He is creating a new heaven and a new earth. He is wiping away every tear (see Revelation 21:4–5).

After my father’s suicide, I wrestled with the why questions to the point of utter exhaustion. And I concluded that God’s answer to the problems of suffering, evil, and death is not some abstract philosophical response, but decisive action. Slowing down and integrating God’s intervention helped to break trauma’s power over me. Though I was unable to act in the face of suicide, Jesus had already acted on my behalf. Powerfully. Death has lost its traumatic sting. Death itself will one day die. That is the heart of the Christian faith—not merely that we are going to heaven when we die, but we will one day be raised to new life. As a traditional Easter liturgy puts it, “By dying he destroyed our death; by rising he restored our life.”

All of us who grieve will ask the why questions. But let’s be wary of dwelling there indefinitely. Take time to quietly rest in the fullness of what God has done, and is doing in Christ. “Be still,” as Scripture has said, and allow yourself to physically, emotionally, and intellectually experience that he is God (Psalm 46:10).


(3) N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).