Lament: The Language of Pain
Today, this is my song. It gives me words to pour out my heartache before God. We learned yesterday that our friends lost their young son to a terrible disease. My heart aches for them, for I know that pain intimately. I taste again the bittersweet relief that my daughter was no longer trapped inside her body with the angry grief that her body was born so broken and her life so hard.
I protest this wretched disease that made their precious child’s life too short and too difficult.
I protest the painful separation of death as they bury their child this weekend.
I cry for them, for us, for all who have buried a loved-one.
I ask God why.
Does this make you uncomfortable? It makes me uncomfortable.
Have you bought into the line that if we have enough “faith” we will always feel happy? (As if the moaning psalmists didn’t have faith).
Do you respond to disaster and tragedy by stuffing your real emotions deep down? By labeling suffering and tragedy as part of God’s curse on the earth, God’s judgment, God’s warning, ultimately for our own good, or ultimately OK in the end?
I’ve tried this. It is a wretched existence. It is fake. And it doesn’t fool God.
I’m currently reading “The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith” by Christopher J. H. Wright. I plan to write a full review when I finish the book, but today, as I grieve with my friends, I want to share what he writes about the lost language of lament.
Dr. Wright writes in chapter 2,
“When we run out of explanations or reject the ones we try, what are we to do? We lament and protest. We shout that it simply isn’t fair. We cry out to God in anger. We tell him we cannot understand and demand to know why he did not prevent it.
Is it wrong to do this? Is it something that real believers shouldn’t do, just like ‘real men don’t cry’? Is it sinful to be angry with God? Again I turn to my Bible and find that the answer simply has to be No. Or at least, I find that God allows a great deal of anger to be expressed even if, at times, he corrects it where it threatens to lead a person into sin or rebellion (as in the case of Jeremiah, 15:19-21).
…Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled for us in abundance.
Why do we struggle to give voice to our lament, or protest, of suffering, pain, and injustice today?
About a year ago, I read and reviewed the book “Lament for a Son” by Nicholas Wolterstorff. It’s a journal of Nicholas’s mourning over the death of his son in a mountain-climbing accident, within the context of enduring love for God. Both he and Dr. Wright believe that we have lost the language in lament in today’s church, partially because we have come to believe that a belief in sovereignty makes it wrong to complain to God.
“Wolterstorff attributes some of this Christian reticence to Calvin’s teaching on the importance of patience under suffering since it ultimately comes from God for our own good. Calvin’s points have validity within a holistic biblical theology of God’s providence, but they do not seem to allow for the equally valid biblical profusion of lament and protest.” (Wright, citing “If God Is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?” by Wolterstorff, published in The Calvin Theological Journal, 2001)
Woltserstorff expresses his lament so beautifully.
“Therefore, I join the psalmist in lament. I voice my suffering, naming it and owning it. I cry out. I cry out for deliverance: ‘Deliver me, O God, from this suffering. Restore me and make me whole.’ …To lament is to risk living with one’s deepest questions unanswered.” (emphasis mine)
Dr. Wright points out how sufferers in the Bible chose to respond to pain and tragedy, in stark contrast to our responses of denial today.
Our suffering friends in the Bible didn’t choose that way. They simply cry out in pain and protest against God – precisely because they know God. Their protest is born out of the jarring contrast between what they know and what they see. It is because they know God that they are so angry and upset.
And Dr. Wright not only believes that a faithful person will voice their lament, but he believes we must in order to honestly and truly worship God.
You have to pour out your true feelings before God, feelings that include anger, disbelief, incomprehension, and the sheet pain of too many contractions. Only then can I come back to praise God with integrity. Praise does not eliminate or override all such emotions. Rather, it is the safe framework of total acknowledgment of God and utter dependence on him within which they can be given their full expression.
I greatly appreciate this. How foolish to imagine that I can hide my pain from God. Or from anyone, actually. It festers into bitterness if stuffed inside, then bleeds out the cracks and crevices of life, eating away at our relationships with God and our families like acid.
God invites us to pour it all out before him. We are made in God’s image, therefore we see what is unjust and we cry out against it.
I am not waiting for an answer, but I will not spare God the question. For am I not also made in God’s image? Has God not planted a pale reflection of his own infinite compassion and mercy in the tiny finite cage of my heart too? If there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, are they not also tears in heaven over thousands swept to their death?
I find it telling that as David poured out his anger, fear, and protest at injustice, he almost always moves into a stage in which he reminds himself of God’s character and promises, especially to end injustice and suffering on some future day. And that’s where he ends his prayers and poems. (In the book, Dr. Wright sites Psalm 73 as a great example of this.) Notice that David does not erase the lament at the beginning. He leaves it there for us to see and enter into with him. I believe we have these as a model for how to express our lament before God.
…I express all this protest within the framework of a faith that has hope and a future built into it. I cannot claim to understand this great biblical hope terribly well either, but I draw enormous comfort from the earthiness of the Bible’s vision of the ultimate destiny of creation.
The psalmists were certain that God would do something, but they were consumed with longing that he should do it, sooner rather than later.
So I will not hide my sorrow. I will not soft-pedal evil by saying it isn’t so bad because God will redeem it one day. Evil is utterly evil. I shake with emotion as I pray for my friends. I sob in the shower over the evil of pain and death.
But I remember God. I remember Jesus’s tears at the grief of the friends and family of Lazarus. God promises that He sees evil and that he will one day destroy it.
And I plead, “How long, O Lord?”