Solidarity, Memory, and a Suffering God: Reflections on Wolterstorff’s “Lament for a Son”

I just read Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff and I could not put it down. With many episodes of reflection, I read it cover to cover. In short, this book is really a intimate journal of a father who lost his 25 year old son in a climbing accident. In my class at Fuller Seminary, Grief, Loss, Death, and Dying, I have found this book to me perhaps the most helpful in framing how one might practice solidarity with the bereaved.

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Wolterstorff’s writing, transparency, and ability to speak to “the story behind the story” are on par with those like Henri Nouwen and Dallas Willard, yet this book in particular seemed deeper, richer, and more important than anything I have read in a long time.

Lament for a Son caused me to ask some dark questions. With pain as deep, this consuming, what would advice or counsel even do for those touched by death? What does payer hope to accomplish? What comfort is there really in talk of resurrection, at least initially for those who have lost? What response can I give at all to people who have experienced Wolterstorff’s wound? Those who treated Wolterstorff as a case study caused harm as they failed to realize the uniqueness of his grief (pg. 25). And those who offered theology or compelled Wolterstorff toward peace only cheapened his experience, ringing hollow and dry (pg. 34-35). In this sense, I think all loss is ambiguous because theodicy doesn’t ultimately heal or bring closure.

wolterstorff (1)I did find hope in Wolterstorff’s words of remembering the one lost to death. Henri Nouwen has also taught me similar lessons in his Living Reminder. Furthermore, Wolterstorff’s understanding of a suffering God, I believe, may be one of the most important, yet overlooked elements of Christian theology (pg. 81). As I reflect, I wonder how his words would match those like Jürgen Moltmann and James Cone.

Below are some excepts which I found most meaningful.

On Solidarity

“Death is a great leveler, so our writers have always told us. Of course they are right. But they have neglected to mention the uniqueness of each death—and the solitude of suffering which accompanies that uniqueness. We say, ‘I know how you are feeling.’ But we don’t. (pg. 25)

“But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that…it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognized how painful it is…sit beside me in my mourning bench.

…no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.” (pgs. 34-35)

On Remembering

“We now must learn to live as faithfully and authentically with Eric gone as we had tried to do with Eric present…it means not forgetting him. It means speaking of him. It means remembering him. Remembering: one of the profoundest features of the Christian and Jewish way of being-in-the-world and being-in-history is remembering…we are to hold the past in remembrance and not let it slide away. For in history we find God…” (pg. 28).

“If Eric’s life was a gift, surely then we are to resist amnesia, to renounce oblivion.” (pg. 28)

“One of the mysteries of life is that memory can often bring us closer to each other than can physical presence…when we remember each other with love we evoke each other’s spirit and so enter into a new intimacy, a spiritual union with each other… [In John 16:7] Jesus reveals to his closest friends that only in memory will real intimacy with him be possible, that only in memory will they experience the full meaning of what they have witnessed.” – Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder, 39-41.

On a Suffering God

“For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I know of the pathos of God. I know of God’s response of delight and his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never say before.

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who shares in suffering. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.

It is sad of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his spender and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and life. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.

And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Thought I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world’s wounds.

What does it mean for life, that God suffers? I’m only beginning to lean. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, than perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth’s closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that women which soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him.” (pg. 81-82)

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  • Phyllis Alexis

    God has truly blessed you with his peace that surpasses all understanding. My son died in a tragic car accident 11 years ago at the age of 19 and he burned in the car for 2 hours before the fire dept put the fire out. I am still stuck in deep pain depression and the only way I survive is by truing to forget it happened. Don’t know how or really want to deal with the pain. Any advice?

    • Michael Wiltshire

      Phyllis,

      What a sad and tragic thing to have lost your son. I wholeheartedly believe you when you say that the pain and depression are still with you. You have suffered a great loss. I pray that Christ will continue to join you in that woundedness and I hope that Wolterstorff’s words bring some once of companionship. It is always difficult to give advice to those who have lost because I think the way we grieve is always so personal and unique. In my experience, the pain and sadness is always with us but there is hope in that we can learn to find new meaning in life. I often find the best way to make meaning out of loss is to share our grief in a community. There are certainly times when we just need to be alone. But there are also times when telling our story to others in our family, our friend group, our church, a bereavement group, and so forth, can help us not feel so isolated. This can be difficult because, as you said, I don’t always want to deal with the pain and it’s sometimes easier not to deal with it. But still, I’ve found that telling my story has maybe been the best thing for me.

      You are in my prayers,

      -Michael