“How long…?”

How deserted lies the city once so full of people!
How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces  has now become a slave.

The opening verse of Lamentations probably strikes us as very apt in the present circumstances. While we cannot apply the national aspect of Judah and Jerusalem at that time to our present national circumstances, we can recognise the sense of emptiness and desolation that is presented here. Even if we live in a society that is beginning to emerge from lockdown, the streets are still very empty, and the sense of loss that many feel is still very real.

In the midst of all of this, there is a tendency for us to want to find answers; to know why it is happening, or what God is doing and saying. That is, I think, natural for us as Christians. I wonder, though, whether it also shows that in many ways we in the West, and in the UK in particular, have a very poor theology of suffering; we have become used to a life where in general things go smoothly enough for the vast majority of us. This situation suddenly makes us take stock of who we are and what our faith means in these circumstances.

The truth is that God may be doing many things and saying many things simultaneously through Covid-19. One of those, which might be the hardest for us to accept, is that there is no immediate answer. In these circumstances, part of what we do is simply to lament.

Lament is an important part of Scripture but one which most evangelicals have difficulty with. We want our worship to be joyful, but we forget that lament, which we might describe as the expression of sorrow within a situation which seems to have no reason or end, is found throughout the Old Testament – especially in the Psalms.

It is significant that there is one whole biblical book called Lamentations. It is an expression of grief which while presenting hope, does so from within a context of sorrow and despair[1].

We also forget that God is a God who experiences sorrow and grief, despite our familiarity with songs about the man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief. Tom Wright, in a recent article, discusses this very helpfully.

Our grief and lamentation at the moment, the very real sense of loss that we have, not just over people we know who have died, but in terms of companionship, freedom, friendship, fellowship, community, is known and experienced by God as well. Within this, perhaps our only cry may be “How long, O Lord?” Even this can be a source of strength and beauty, as U2 showed so well in their song “40”.

Simon Marshall is International Director of European Christian Mission International

[1] More on Lamentations can be found in my brief introduction to the book here.

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