Theological Suffering

Introduction

For the next two posts in the ongoing A Theological View of Suffering series, I wanted to talk about the idea of lament, something which is a very biblical concept, but one which we ignore too often in our churches and in our individual spiritual lives (the following material was substantially informed by an excellent book, Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting With God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.)

One of my favorite quotations comes from the Scottish theologian Ian Maclaren who said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I like that quotation, not only because it encourages us to always be mindful of the way we treat other people, but also because it emphasizes that this life is full of struggles and problems—all of us have hard battles that we have to fight. And if you aren’t fighting one right now, you probably have in the past or you will in the future. We live in a broken world, and as a result, heartache and suffering is a part of our existence.

So really, it isn’t a question of whether or not we will suffer (we will), nor when we will suffer (we don’t have much control over that), but rather: how should we respond when tough times come?

As a believer, as a person of faith, how do you respond, when you learn that a loved one has inoperable cancer?

  • when your marriage falls apart?
  • when you lose your job?
  • when your child is diagnosed with an incurable disease?
  • when your mother or father or husband or wife dies?

As a Christian, what is the appropriate response when things like this happen? How do we respond to the emotions that arise? Are we supposed to turn off those emotions like some sort of faucet? Pretend they’re not there? When we come to worship with our Christian family, are we supposed to put on a brave face and act like everything’s okay and smile and say, “Everything’s great!” when everything most certainly is not?

Or, is there a biblically-approved way to take those feelings—feelings of frustration, disappointment, confusion, anger—before God (who, by the way, knows what we’re feeling anyway)?

I want to spend a couple of posts talking about the idea of lament. In a general sense, lament is a “passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” In the context of faith, lament means being honest with God, and taking our feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger over the problems we face and laying those feelings at His feet.

This practice of lament is very biblical, but unfortunately, seems to have fallen out of favor in the modern church. I think it is important that we reclaim the language of lament so that we can be more honest in our faith with one another and with God.

Lament as a Biblical Language

I want to begin by noticing how common lament is in the Bible. In a sense, it really is a biblical language: it is a specific type of communication that people in Scripture use to bring their problems before God.

We can see lament in several places in the Old Testament, like Jeremiah or Lamentations or Habakkuk, but lament is especially common in the Book of Psalms, and I want us to look at a few of the Psalms in order to get an idea about lament.

(1) Sometimes, the authors of the Psalms lament because of sickness or grief or danger: 

For example, Psalm 6, which is a song of David:

O LORD, rebuke me not in Your anger, nor discipline me in Your wrath.

Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.

My soul also is greatly troubled.

But You, O LORD—how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of Your steadfast love.

For in death there is no remembrance of You; in Sheol who will give You praise?

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;

I drench my couch with my weeping.

My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.

The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer.

All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

Here we see that David is in great distress; he asks how long God will wait before He intervenes and saves him from his poor condition. At the end, David is confident that the Lord has heard his cry and that He will come to his rescue.

(2) Other times, the Psalmists will complain that they cannot feel God’s presence in their lives.

Psalm 13 is a psalm of David:

How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me.

Here we have some strong language from David: “God, how long will you forget me?! How long will you ignore me? Will you always allow my enemy to triumph over me?” But at the end, we again see that David trusts in God’s steadfast love; he knows that God has dealt kindly with him in the past, and is confident that He will do so again.

(3) And then there are psalms where the authors accuse God of breaking his promises.

For example, Psalm 44 (this one is longer, but I think really makes the point well). The language might make us a little uncomfortable, because the author is very blunt with God:

O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us,

what deeds You performed in their days, in the days of old:

You with Your own hand drove out the nations, but them You planted;

You afflicted the peoples, but them You set free;

for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them,

but Your right hand and your arm, and the light of Your face, for You delighted in them.

You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!

Through You we push down our foes; through Your name we tread down those who rise up against us.

For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.

But You have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.

In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to Your name forever. Selah

But You have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.

You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.

You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.

You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

You have made us the taunt of our neighborsthe derision and scorn of those around us.

You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.

All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face

at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten You, and we have not been false to Your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;

yet You have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.

If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,

would not God discover this? For He knows the secrets of the heart.

Yet for Your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide Your face? Why do You forget our affliction and oppression?

For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.

Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of Your steadfast love!

Here the psalmist starts by talking about the great things God has done in Israel’s past, and how it is in God that they place their trust, but then there is a sudden and sharp turn in v. 9: “But God, you have rejected and disgraced us!” And it goes on for the rest of the psalm talking about all the ways that it seems God has turned his back on them:

  • “You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.”
  • “You have sold Your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.”
  • “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.”
  • “You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.”

And all of this has happened despite the fact that, according to the psalmist, the people have been faithful to the covenant! They have upheld their part of the bargain, but they accuse God of not doing His part! And the psalm closes as he begs and pleads with God to remember His people and come to their aid.

This blunt, abrasive language is the language of lament, and most likely, it is not the sort of language you hear very often in prayers and songs at worship. In the next post, I want to look at the disappearance of lament from our spiritual dialect, and the need to bring it back into our lives.