Psychology and Biblical Studies


SBL Annual Meeting Papers, November 2010

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Good God?!? Lamentations As A Model
For Mourning The Loss Of The Good God

Tiffany Houck-Loomis
Union Theological Seminary


There is no denying that evil happens all over the world.  Some of us have been the victims of horrible evil, some the perpetrators and some would like to believe they have remained untouched by either.  Regardless of whether or not one has undergone personal or communal trauma or devastating loss, all long to find some way to explain the reality of evil in our world, and more importantly, the seeming silence of God in the face of atrocious pain.  The desire to find someone to blame, to project out onto an objectified enemy is one way humankind makes sense of atrocious evil.1  In the process of finding an enemy to blame, be it one’s own self, some hostile other or God, one begins to find a framework within which to make sense of the inexplicable loss and trauma.  By using Melanie Klein’s Object Relations Theory to exegete Lamentations, I will demonstrate how this ancient text provides a psychological roadmap by which we can begin to reconcile our internal love and aggression.  This reconciliation allows us to begin to make sense of our lives amidst the reality of the loss and trauma as our communities serve as a symbolic representation of our lost love object enabling ego integration.

A Brief Introduction to Melanie Klein’s Object Relations Theory

Klein suggests that as an infant develops she does so in the context of a primal connection with her mother or mothering one, and in particular with the infant’s first object, the breast (or bottle). The infant experiences the mother as breast and relates to this object with love and aggression in a process of projecting and introjecting her own unique instinctual and psychological makeup.  As the infant experiences the breast, and her own instinctual package, she splits off and projects onto the breast the aggressive instincts felt within as harmful or bad in an attempt to protect the good inside.  In this projection, the breast then becomes a persecutory part object.  The breast is split, as is the ego of the infant, and carries the bad (as the bad-breast) and the good (as the good-breast) felt within the child until the child is ready to experience the mother as a whole object, which encompasses the bad and good that have come from the infant.  When the ego becomes more organized and able to see the parent as a whole object and able to introject the good and the bad a devastating and yet necessary loss is experienced, the loss of the fantasized good love-object experienced only as a part-object until this point.2 In fear that the object the infant sought to annihilate may in turn annihilate her, she seeks to restore and repair that which in her fantasy she harmed.  As the infant’s reparation is accepted and handled by the mothering one, she can then introject the bad and the good into her own ego as it continues to develop.  Thus, the persecutory anxiety felt as the infant experiences the bad object (external and internal) and the depressive anxiety that comes as she realizes the good and bad are part of the same object actually enable the ego of the infant to integrate, grow, and strengthen.3

With the ability to introject both the bad and good, which were previously split and projected upon the mother as the love-object, the ego is able to mature and develop and is not threatened. However, in the absence of a caring love object, such maturation is stunted.4

I believe this is where we find the community within Lamentations and where the poetry of Lamentations can help those who have suffered or are suffering devastating loss and trauma as the poetry shows us how to articulate a most primal and devastating loss, the loss of our good God.  It not only enables us to articulate this loss, but as people embody the poetic liturgy of the text they will be able to accept the good and bad within themselves and within each person and will then be able to move toward a position of integration, maturation and hope.  The author of Lamentations wrestles with the desire to internalize the whole object, the good breast/bad breast God, but in the face of such utter devastation hurls insults, blames God, yells at God to pay attention, and then seeks to make reparation for any harm done by claiming God’s goodness and steadfast love.  Lamentations serves as a poetic experience for those of us who are experiencing or have experienced unspeakable horror to step into, to embody our own anxieties, fears, questions, and anger.  As Lamentations seeks to internalize the whole love object, the God who is both good and nurturing and the God who allows and perhaps even seems to condone evil and violence, as perhaps a mirror of our own inner selves, the poetry both gives the space for us to wrestle with the same process and affirms our need to do so. 


Lamentations and the Loss of the Good God

Within chapter 1 of Lamentations we see the internal struggle of the author, Zion trying to speak objectively about the destruction and to place appropriate blame on her enemy.  Clearly there is a struggle to verbalize who is the actual enemy.  There is a fluctuation between claiming the enemy as Zion’s captors (reported in vs. 2, 5, 7, 9, 10), Zion herself (v. 18) and YHWH (vs.14 &15).  And we find a striking conclusion in v. 20 as the author pleads for God to look and see that the enemy has come upon Zion and is surrounded in what seems to be deep internal conflict.  As the author pleads to God, his bowels ferment and his heart/mind turns into his inner parts, he perhaps literally becomes sick to his stomach and ashamed at his inclination to blame God (vs. 12-17) and to call God’s attention to the fact that God has allowed such horror to happen.  I would suggest this gives us an insight into not only this particular community’s response to trauma, but to the universal experience of trauma and the desperation to hold on to our internalized image of a protector as we project all evil outward.  The moment the author seeks to blame God, he reviles himself in an effort to make reparation for his hate against God.

In contrast to chapter 1, chapter 2 fully engages in blaming and confronting God for God’s unjust punishment.  Though touching briefly on the idea that Zion could have brought on God’s anger (v. 14), the author does not remain there.  In an effort to awaken God to God’s relentless fury the author pleads with his people (vs. 19 & 21) to cry out to God.  The ability to blame God and still hold on to the hope that God will in fact rescue shows an individual who is moving through what Klein would call the depressive position as he is beginning reconcile with the notion that the good love object is both good and bad, allowing the author to begin the process of integrating his own good and bad through the act of making reparation to the damaged love object. 

Throughout the beginning of chapter 3 the author does not name God up front, as the perpetrator.  We could assume that the perpetrator is God if we read from chapter 2 into chapter 3 having left off with the day of the Lord’s wrath.  But I believe the absence of God’s name in the first half of chapter 3 gives us a clue to the psychological progression of Zion.  It is fairly clear that the author in chapter 3 is talking about God given the references to being led into darkness (v.2) and prayers being shut out (v. 44), but the author refuses to name God, perhaps in fear that his anger and aggression has damaged his love object.5

In v. 24 the author is seen assuaging his own fear, “The Lord is my portion I say to myself, therefore, I will wait for him.”  The author is convincing himself that his good love object is still in tact and has not been annihilated either by external or internal persecutors.  The reason this is vital for the author is that if he were to allow himself to fully blame God he would risk completely annihilating his love object.  The danger in annihilating his love object is that ultimately this annihilation is an annihilation of his own self, his ego that identifies only with the good love-object and was yet to identify with the bad.6

In v. 38 we first catch a glimpse of the ego beginning to reconcile the good breast/bad breast parts of God into one whole object.  “Do not evil and good come out of the mouth of the most high?” From this verse and continuing there is a shift in voice.  At the center of the theological message of Lamentations is the confession that God is both the giver of good and the giver of evil (v. 38).  God is both the one who causes grief and the one who has compassion (v. 32).  As Klein explains, introjection of the good breast is the first step in building the infant’s inner world.7  Klein believed part-objects, objects the developing ego projects onto, were psychologically carrying with them meanings of dependence, love and even hatred.  In this way, the child perceives the part-object as having a personality that stems both from the child’s relational experience with the object (child to mother, or in the case of Lamentations, Israelite to YHWH God) and the child’s own projections onto the object, projections of his own feelings both negative and positive.8  As stated before, the child therefore introjects the good aspects of the mother and internalizes them and projects out the negative aspects – the aspects the child renders as harmful, cruel, or life threatening.9  In stating the acceptance of both the good and the bad from God, the author has developed beyond only internalizing part-objects and begins to articulate the need to internalize the whole object, which allows for integration within the ego. 

In beginning to reconcile the lost love object, recognizing the love object is both good and bad, the author turns his voice to God again.  For a brief few verses the author encourages Zion to turn to God and examine their ways, only to realize that in fact, God will not forgive.  However the voice finally directs his complaint to God in the intimate 1st-person, “You.”  Perhaps in Zion’s ability to recognize and articulate that both good and bad come from God, Zion was able to blame God without the fear of damaging her love object.  In seeing God as a whole object and beginning to recognize that while she had sinned her sins did not in fact deserve the extreme punishment and pain she was enduring, she was able to begin constructing a new world view.  The world view did not depend solely on a good God, one that did not need to find blame only internally or only externally, but one that was informed and slowly reconciling with the complexity of her God and her own self, both good and bad.

According to Klein when the individual’s good objects are felt to be destroyed, as could be argued in the case of the community of Israelites post Babylonian invasion, it is vital that the care-giver (perhaps God in the case of Lamentations) reappears to allow the child to trust in his own love and reparative powers, essentially to trust in himself again.10 “The non-appearance of his mother or the lack of her love can leave him at the mercy of his depressive and persecutory fears.”11  I believe what we read in these short 14 verses in chapter 3 are a desperate attempt on the part of this author to conjure God’s presence in a time of utter abandonment.  The author vows to be silent and simply wait.  But the absence of God in the midst of such horrible pain leaves him at the mercy of his persecutory fears.12  Not only has the community been utterly destroyed but having blamed God and hurled insults he now fears he has annihilated his God.

As Zion sits in the rubble, and continues to be pilfered by the surrounding Edomites she is literally starving to death in Chapter 4.  Chapters 4 and 5 seem to move away from integration and back toward disintegration.  One reason could be that the authors of chapters 4 and 5 represent voices amidst the exile, in a location socially and politically where the community had no container, no familiar environment to work out how to integrate the new realization of the bad and good residing in the whole love object.13  Alternately, the progression towards disintegration is perhaps due to the silence of God at the moment the author and community sought to make reparation.

Chapter 5, v. 20 reads, “Why will you forget us forever?  Why will you abandon us the length of our days?” With the use of the imperfect tense in connection with the interrogative in v. 20, the community seeks to know if it is true that since God has indeed forgotten them will God continue to forget them and abandon them forever?  The community is longing for their loved object to be present during their atrocious pain and during her struggle to reconcile the reality of the events with her belief in her good God, but in the absence of God, ultimately they are left to their own persecutory fears.  Zion wants to come back, wants to believe, but she recognizes her inability to do so without the presence of God and Lamentations does not resolve this crisis. Will the good God return providing Zion the necessary container to internalize the whole object – good breast and bad breast God? 

The book leaves us wondering.  There is no resolution. The disillusionment, the absence of God, the silence is so palpable.  In order for her to return, God must turn her back.  The last verse of this book is filled with desperation.  With the use of the infinitive absolute the author emphasizes the desperation felt, “For if you indeed reject us, your anger against us is exceeding forever!” (v. 22)  It is too much!  The author confesses the incomprehensibility of God’s silence, what God has allowed to happen to her nation, her people, and her land.  And God does not return.  God remains silent.  The community left in the rubble is forced to reconcile with the destruction of their world, and the dissolution of their worldview.  They are left psychologically as well as physically vulnerable.  They, unlike those who have already gone into exile, are forced to live, at first watching good mothers eat their children, and then watching their young men stagger under the yoke of slavery once again – yet this time in their own homeland.  The community that remains is the community left with the almost impossible task of reconciling their good breast/bad breast God in the wake of God’s absence, in the midst of the grave loss of their idealized good God.

In Lamentations we read about a community in the midst of a life and ego threatening moment:  the moment in which they must move beyond the paranoid-schizoid developmental position, the position where they previously split the bad part-object from their construction of God in order to project out or annihilate the bad and preserve and protect the good within themselves.14  We are watching a community wrestling with whether or not they will be able to reconcile the whole object, see their love-object – God, as a whole object that is both good and bad, that is both nurturing and silent, that both protects and yet allows evil to remain and in turn, accept and integrate their own good and bad.  The refusal to end this book with any answer, any resolution, gives us the permission to join this psychological struggle.

Toward A Theology of a Whole God and the Community
as the Embodied Love-Object

We all long for an answer from God when we see and experience evil, loss and death.  We need God to come back and be with us in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the crisis of recognizing the object that was projected and sought out to annihilate is in fact part of the idealized love-object and even a part of our own selves.  Trauma can lead to transformation, but it could also lead to absolute disintegration if we are left to our own persecutory fears and anxiety.

In a tangible way, the community that has come before us and is with us must embody the love-object whose absence is deafening.  If, in community, we can begin to embody the love-object, we can help one another reconcile the good breast/bad breast God as the whole love-object without being left to our own fears and anxieties.  I am suggesting that God’s silence leaves the Israelites left among the rubble in a particularly vulnerable place.  The survivors, the one’s left in Jerusalem struggle to make sense of the atrocity in which they find themselves.  In struggling to make sense, as I have shown, Zion has resorted to blaming herself, blaming her enemy, and blaming God.  In finding an enemy in which to place blame Zion resolves a spiritual and ego crises.  The incomprehensible has become a reality – God’s chosen people, promised in covenant and protection, have been demolished, God has forsaken God’s covenant, Zion is left wandering the streets blind as her world has literally come crashing down and her worldview has crumbled before her eyes.  I do not believe that such destruction was at the hands of God or even the intention of God, but rather the need to say so, to internalize the guilt or blame God comes from the naïve assumption that one can actually be protected from atrocious evil, or one can prevent imminent destruction because of one’s religious or faith perspective.  The belief that the bad is only internal or only external stems from extreme splitting which results in the inability to integrate the whole object – both bad and good.15 

I am not talking about the good God as the part-object who saves, protects and makes promises and the bad God as the part-object who heaps undue punishment, lashes out in anger, abuses and rejects.  I am suggesting, as Klein articulates, that in normal development one realizes that the persecutory anxiety of an externalized evil associated with the bad breast is in actuality aggression coming from the death instinct at work within every growing individual which has been projected onto the infant’s love object.16  Thus the individual’s work is to move toward integration as she introjects the whole love object, her whole self back, and the mothering one’s task, is to be present, offer reparation and love through this integral process.

The ability to reconcile the good breast/bad breast God allows one to develop a more honest relationship with the divine.  Perhaps God is not the one who heaps out evil, but it is true that atrocious evil, inexplicable loss, unfathomable pain exists on a personal, communal and global level and God seems to allow this truth to continue.  In this way God is not good to all of us all of the time.  Just as we are not good all of the time.  We have both the life and death instincts at work in us and denying either one of them will lead to madness, dissociation and splitting.  The problem comes when we project our aggression out and call it evil in others or even evil in God.  Until we can claim the evil we have projected out as our own evil we will continue to see God only as one who should give us good all of the time rather than a God who enables us to become fully integrated human beings. 

The ability to reconcile good breast/bad breast God allows one to move through life and the atrocious evils, though still present, will not destroy one’s view of God or one’s internal ego for she has been able to reconcile the good and bad and internalize the whole object – recognizing in herself the ability to nurture and sustain and the inability to always do so.  Once this is possible, we no longer need an enemy in order to resolve our spiritual crises.  We have a theology that has been able to mourn the loss of a good God and has internalized the whole object rather than just a part-object.  We do not need an enemy to blame, the part object we earlier fractured off in order to maintain the good breast God, but instead can recognize evil just as it is – unacceptable but realistic and at some level present in us all.  Therefore Lamentations provides the framework within which we can begin to work out this theology, mourning the loss of a good God and reconciling the whole object - the good breast/bad breast God as we reconcile our own love and aggression.  Lamentations gives us language to scream and cry and confess our disappointment in God and disappointment in ourselves, and our anger at God’s silence.  What we can learn from Lamentations is that if we can embody these questions, these rages, these disappointments for one another in community perhaps we can hold one another, perhaps we can be the embodied God for one another in the midst of God’s silence.  Rather than isolating ourselves and casting blame upon one another, perhaps we can be the love object for one another in the midst of our crisis, in the midst of the need for the love object to return so that we are not left to our persecutory fears and anxieties. 

We are left with the hard work of mourning this loss, the loss of the good God.  We mourn the loss of a good God not because God is not good but because what we previously believed to be wholly other is actually part of the same object to which we looked to for protection and in whom we split off and projected onto our own aggression. In reconciling our whole self we can begin to forgive others and be present for others because we have begun to forgive ourselves as we mourn the loss of our idealized love object.


1 Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946 – 1963 (New York: Free Press, 1975), 61-64.

2 Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945 (New York: The Free Press, 1975), 264.

3 Klein, Envy & Gratitude, 144.

4 Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation, 311.

5 Along with Hillers (124 – 125) and Alan Cooper in his article entitled “The Message of Lamentations” (17 -18) I contend that the language is used to exemplify God as the bad shepherd who leads into darkness and danger instead of into light by quiet pastures.

6 Klein 265.

7 Hanna Segal, Klein (London: The Harvester Press Ltd, 1979), 49.

8 Segal 50.

9 Segal 50.

10 Segal 81.

11 Segal 82.

12 Segal 83.

13 I tend to agree with Westermann that Lamentations is a redaction of both pre-exilic oral material and oral material compiled and gradually written down during and after the exile, in contrast to Dilbert Hillers who believes there is one author of Lamentations, representing the voice of Zion as individual and collective (Dilbert Hillers, Lamentations The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 14-15.), and in contrast to Kathleen M. O’Connor (Lamentations & The Tears of the World (New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 17) who argues there are two authors in the first two chapters, primarily indicated in the 3rd-person to 1st –person grammatical switch throughout the chapters.

14 Segal 114 – 124.

15 Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation, 268.

16 Klein, 204-207.