The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: A Theological View of Suffering (page 1 of 2)

Sacred Moments, Holy Ground

In Exodus 3 we encounter the famous story of God appearing to Moses for the purpose of recruiting him to liberate the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the way that God appears to Moses: in the form of a fiery bush that is not consumed by the flames that engulf it. As Moses draws near, God tells him to remove his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground. What made the ground holy? It was not that there was something inherently special about the bush. As a shepherd, Moses spent a lot of time leading his flock in the wilderness, and I think it’s possible that he had been by this same spot before, and had maybe even seen the same bush.

There was nothing particularly holy about it at those other times, but it was different now: it was a sacred moment…it was holy ground.

God’s presence made it that way.

We have had a rough time at our house for the last several weeks. Over the last several months, Kinsley’s seizures have gotten more difficult to control, which has led us to trying additional seizure medications and a special diet (you can read more about Kinsley’s story here and here). These efforts have not led to long-term improvement, and at the same time, Kinsley has been more withdrawn: she is often lethargic, sleeps a lot, and plays and interacts with us less. It is difficult to discern if this is caused by the many medications she is on, her seizures, some other factor, or some combination of all of the above.

Even more recently, Kinsley, who has always been a champ at taking her medicine, has become very stubborn about doing so: she will hold it in her mouth for a long time, sometimes eventually swallowing it, and at other times spitting it out. Obviously she does not get any benefit from seizure medicine that she refuses to take, so this aggravates the problem.

Last night as I was getting her ready for bed, I broke down. Kinsley again spit out one of her doses and I got incredibly frustrated and spoke to her in an exasperated tone. She just looked at me, with her beautiful, innocent, loving eyes. Immediately, my emotions changed, and I told her how truly and deeply sorry I was that she has to deal with all of the stuff and difficulties that she does, more than any little girl should ever have to.

And my nonverbal little princess, who has hardly communicated at all over the last several days, looked at me, put her hand on my chest, laid her head against me to snuggle, and reached out and held onto my arm.

What a powerful message she communicated! Even now, I can hardly write about it without becoming overwhelmed by emotion.

There we were, sitting on the floor by her bed, a place I have been countless times. But it was different now: it was a sacred moment…it was holy ground.

God’s presence made it that way: in His grace, God reached out to me and used my infirmed daughter as an instrument of healing.

P.S. We are going to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock tomorrow to consult with a neurosurgeon about a procedure that could potentially help with Kinsley’s seizures. We would greatly appreciate your prayers as we continue to look for ways to help our little girl.

Hurting With God: Faith and Lament, Part 2

Theological Suffering

The Disappearance of Lament

In addition to the examples we looked at in the last post, there are many, many more that we could look at just in the Book of Psalms. In fact, there are more lament psalms in the Book of Psalms than any other type!

  • Psalms of Lament: 60 out of 150 (40%)
  • Psalms of Praise: 41 out of 150 (27.3%)
  • Psalms of Thanksgiving and Trust: 27 out of 150 (18%)
  • Miscellaneous Psalms (teaching, wisdom, worship, etc.): 22 out of 150 (14.7%)*

We know that the Book of Psalms functioned much like a songbook for worship in both the lives of the Israelites and also the early church; with 40% of their songs containing lament, clearly lament was an acceptable part of their worship and their lives!

What about us? Are we as comfortable with the language of lament as our spiritual ancestors?

A research assistant at Abilene Christian University did a project where he examined some modern hymnals (song books), divided the songs into different categories, and compared them to the Book of Psalms. One of the books he examined was Songs of Faith and Praise, which is the hymnal we use at the congregation where I work, and is a popular hymnal in Churches of Christ.

Of the 885 songs in Songs of Faith and Praise: 

  • Songs of Thanksgiving and Trust: 392 out of 885 (44%)
  • Songs Praise: 264 out of 885 (30%)
  • Miscellaneous Songs (songs on worship, invitation songs, patriotic, about Christ): 197 out of 885 (22%)
  • Songs of Lament: 32 out of 885 (<4%)

Compared to the Book of Psalms, 40% of which is comprised of lament psalms, Songs of Faith and Praise includes lament songs 1/10 as often! I know this is not the most scientific study, but I still think it shows a general truth, which is that we have largely lost the biblical language of lament. Something which is a huge part of the Book of Psalms, and thus a major part of the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament and the early church has largely been removed from the way we speak to each other and to God.

If you think about it, really the only time where we lament together is in the aftermath of a death, but even then in our modern funerals we’ve gotten to where we hardly leave room for lament. Instead, we try to have upbeat “memorial services” where we tell funny stories about the departed, and we expect that after a few weeks people ought to “get over” their grief and get on with their lives. We live in a culture that does everything it can to avoid death, suffering, or discomfort, and a lot of times, that’s how it is in the church as well.

There is no room for lament in our lives.

Now some people might think that this is a good thing: “Well, sure there are a lot of these laments in Psalms and Jeremiah, Habakkuk, etc., but those are in the Old Testament! We live under the new covenant; as Christians, we shouldn’t say things like this because we have victory through Jesus! We should be able to face any trial with a smile on our face!”

Historically though, we know that the early church valued the Book of Psalms as much as the Jews did. New Testament writers refer to the book of Psalms over 400 times, and as already mentioned, the Book of Psalms served as the hymnbook of the early church. The Psalms were very important to the early Christians.

Furthermore, Jesus, our example in all things, shows the characteristics of lament in his life. When His friend Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps, despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead! If it was okay for Jesus to show emotion and be upset when He was troubled, it’s certainly okay for us as well.

When Jesus approaches Jerusalem before the Triumphal Entry, He laments over it because He knows it will be destroyed. Soon after that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, contemplating His coming arrest and crucifixion, Jesus cries out to God and says, in effect, “Father, if there is any way You can save Me from the horror of what’s coming, please do so!” That is lament.

On the cross, in the midst of his torment, Jesus famously cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is a direct quote from Psalm 22, which is one of the lament Psalms.

In addition to the value of the psalms in the early church, we can see clearly that lament was a part of the life of Jesus. Lament is not just an Old Testament phenomenon, it is a biblical phenomenon. It’s a part of faith.

Bringing Lament Back Into Our Lives

And we can see that it’s a part of faith by looking at the laments themselves. In the laments we read together, there is a pattern which arises and this is generally true in the laments:

  1. They are addressed to God recognizing that He is the One who is in control.
  2. They involve a complaint; something is wrong in the life of the one who is lamenting.
  3. They contain a request: the lamenter wants God to do something about the complaint.
  4. Usually, the laments close with confidence and praise: having turned their request over to God, the lamenter is confident that God is in control, and praises Him for His watchful care.

Seeing these different parts of lament shows that laments are different from just whining and complaining: lament is not about pouting because we don’t get our way. Instead, lament is what occurs when deep faith confronts deep suffering: we suffer, and in our faith, we turn to the Only One who can do anything about our suffering, the God who is in charge and who cares for us.

This faith language which we have lost is something that we need to reclaim.

Think about it this way: you can tell how close your relationship with another person is based on how honest you can be with that person. With that in mind, how honest can you be with God? I think that we’ve gotten the impression that somehow it is wrong or irreverent when bad things happen to ask God questions or to express our frustration or even anger with Him. And because of that, when times get tough, people either walk away from their faith, or they just bury their emotions and pretend that everything is okay.

But God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows when we questions. He knows when we are frustrated. He knows when we are angry with Him. And He can handle that. And rather than us trying to swallow these feelings and pretend they don’t exist, God wants us to bring that to Him. 1 Peter 5.7 tells us to cast all of our anxieties on God, because He cares for us.

And Scripture shows us how to do that. Through the language of lament, we can see how we can cry out to God in our suffering in ways that are honest, but in ways that are still faithful.

Conclusion

Is the church meant to be a place of support and healing where we can be honest with one another about what is going on in our lives and honest with God? Or is it a place of white-washing and mask-wearing, where we put on a brave face and pretend everything is okay even when it most definitely is not?

In these last two posts, we have looked at lament:

We’ve seen how it is a biblical practice, a language of faith that we see throughout Scripture, and especially in the Psalms. We’ve noted the disturbing way in which lament has largely disappeared from the songs we sing, from our culture at large, and even from funerals sometimes. And hopefully, we’ve seen that lament is something we need to reclaim and bring back as a part of our lives of faith. Lament emphasizes that God is in control, that He is the One who can do something about our suffering, and that as a result, it only makes sense that we bring it to Him.

I want to close with three suggestions for how lament can aid us when we go through difficult times in life. When the tough times come, I urge you:

  1. Be open with your brothers and sisters in Christ about what is going on and how you feel. If we are serious about being the family of God, then that means we are here for one another, and we need to support one another.
  2. Read through the Psalms. We just looked at a few examples, but 40% of the book is lament. There is a wide array of language which is used to cover a wide array of problems; see how people of faith voiced their suffering to God.
  3. And most importantly, be honest with God about your suffering. Maybe using some of that same lament language from Psalms, take your suffering and lay it at His feet. He is the one who can handle it and do something about it.

*As I mentioned in the last post, these thoughts (and also the statistics) are greatly informed by Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting With God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.

Hurting With God: Faith and Lament, Part 1

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.

Strife and Contention: A Message from Habakkuk

Strife and Contention

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?

Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.

For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”

(Habakkuk 1.2-4, ESV)

Tucked away near the end of the Old Testament is the Book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk appears as a prophet who speaks to God for the people, rather than a prophet who speaks for God to the people. Habakkuk voices his lament—his call of frustration and despair—to God, on behalf of his people.

We don’t know much about Habakkuk. We know he lived and worked during the reign of the wicked King Jehoiakim in the last days of the kingdom of Judah. Judah had prospered during the reign of the righteous King Josiah, but Josiah was killed in battle, and his son Jehoiakim did not follow in his footsteps.

Instead, Jehoiakim was one of the most godless, selfish, and tyrannical kings ever to rule over Judah. We can actually learn quite a bit about Jehoiakim’s reign from the Book of Jeremiah, as Jeremiah also prophesied in Judah at this time. From that book, we know that Jehoiakim’s reign was characterized by violence and injustice (Jeremiah 22.13-17). People were not treated fairly and the wealthy took advantage of those who were less fortunate. We also know that Jehoiakim was antagonistic toward God’s prophets who tried to direct him to a better path. Jehoiakim ordered the death of the prophet Uriah (Jeremiah 20.20-24) and refused to listen to the warnings of Jeremiah, even burning one of his scrolls (Jeremiah 36).

The Book of Habakkuk dates to approximately 610-605 B.C. Around this time, Nebuchadnezzar had defeated the combined forces of Egypt and Assyria at the Battle of Carchemesh and asserted Babylon as the dominant world power. The threat of Babylon lay like a shadow over the land of Palestine.

And it is in this context that the prophet Habakkuk speaks out. In agony, Habakkuk looked around at a struggling and imperfect world filled with heartbreak and suffering and violence and injustice and he cried out, “Don’t you care, Lord? Why do You let this go on?”

Yahweh was the God who made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants and who taught them what justice and righteousness was, and it is to Him who Habakkuk cries out because of the injustice and unrighteousness he saw surrounding him. As he struggled to make sense of it all, he lamented to God.

• • •

With a little reflection, I think we can see how Habakkuk’s ancient questions are also modern questions which are very relevant to us.

The stories on the news unsettle us. They remind us not of how far we have come, but of how far we still have to go. They remind us of a great racial divide that exists in our country between black and white.

The stories are not the same, but they have similarities: black men dying at the hands of white police officers following some sort of run-in with the law. Sometimes those officers are not indicted for their actions, and unhappy citizens take to the streets and protests and riots occur. We have heard the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. We have seen the footage of protests in places like New York City and South Carolina, and riots in Ferguson and Baltimore.

I claim neither the knowledge of the facts of these specific cases nor the sufficient wisdom to know whose fault it was in each case, or where or how much blame should be placed. It is hard for me to know if justice has been served or not.

It is a delicate situation:

  • I don’t want to condemn police officers. Law enforcement officials fulfill a vital role in our society, and the vast majority of them selflessly do a good job. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that we clearly have some officers who exercise very poor judgment with tragic results.
  • I don’t want to excuse the behavior of those who, when confronted by an officer, resist arrest or run away or attempt to fight back. Neither do I believe, though, that such behavior should merit an immediate death sentence.
  • I don’t want to excuse violent protests and rioting in the streets. Neither do I want to suggest that there is nothing to protest and be upset about.

Regardless of whether or not justice was served in these individual cases, I do know that injustice exists in our country. I know that African Americans are incarcerated in this country at a much higher rate than Caucasians. I know that African Americans are more likely to experience poverty, and that there is a high correlation between poverty and crime. Thus, African Americans are also more likely to be involved in and to be victims of violent crime than are their white counterparts. That is unjust.

Further, I know that many black people have no trust in this nation’s justice system, nor in the officers who are supposed to uphold the laws of this country and protect its citizens. The statistics suggest that there is some reason to be concerned about this, and yet, I also know that there are many white people who refuse to even consider that there might be some validity to these concerns and conclusions.

And I know that in many environments, whether on talk shows, or social media, or in churches, or amongst friends, we are unable to even discuss these issues in a productive fashion because the divide is so great.

And in the midst of it all, I don’t know what to do other than to cry out to God, with language similar to Habakkuk’s…

Violence abounds in our society, in our world. It seems that destruction and violence are ever before us. When we cry “Violence!”, God, why do you not save?

The very systems we put in place to uphold order and limit violence seem to fail us. At times, it seems that the law is, in fact, paralyzed, and that justice never goes forth. Instead, justice is perverted.

• • •

God responds to Habbakuk. He doesn’t rebuke Habakkuk for his questions or frustrations. God is bigger than our emotions or our questions; He desires that we bring these before Him.

But God does respond (Habakkuk 1.5-11). Indeed, God is aware of all that is going on. He has seen the injustice and oppression, and He is going to act: He will use the Babylonians to punish Judah for their wickedness.

This revelation prompts additional lament from Habakkuk, who doesn’t understand why God would punish evil Judah with the even-more-evil Babylonians (Habakkuk 1.12-2.1). Those who were to be punished were more righteous than the ones who were to do the punishing!

God assures Habakkuk that He is in control of these events, and that the Babylonians will also be punished in time (Habakkuk 2.2-20).

The Book of Habakkuk concludes with a prayer of Habakkuk’s confident trust in God (Habakkuk 3.1-19). He has unburdened his heart and turned his doubts and fears over to God, he has heard God’s response, and now he expresses confidence that God will act, and bring about what is best.

• • •

While there are no easy answers, the Book of Habakkuk helps us to think more clearly about the problems and injustices in our own society.

(1) As we look around and see these heartbreaking tragedies and we are reminded of the inequities of our society, we cannot claim specific knowledge for why God allows these things to continue. But Habakkuk reminds us that God sees these things, and that He is sovereign over them. As people of faith, we trust in that sovereignty. We know that God is in control of the world, and that He works in all situations—even terrible ones—to bring about His good purposes.

(2) Also, Habakkuk and the other Old Testament prophets remind us to consider our own place in society: If destruction and violence are all around us, to what degree do we allow those things to continue? If the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth, to what degree are we responsible for that paralysis and injustice? In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” If the evidence suggests that an entire subset of our population is suffering injustice and we, in our privilege, refuse to work to address the problem or even acknowledge that there is a problem, we become complicit in it.

(3) And finally, Habakkuk reminds us of the appropriateness of lament. It is right for us to be distressed, and to bring that distress before God. In His sovereignty, He is the one who can do something about it. And while we lament, we yearn for a day when justice will roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and when God shall wipe every tear from our eyes.

The Suffering Heart

Suffering Heart

All people suffer,
It’s a universal condition.
Suffering hurts; it exposes our vulnerabilities.
We can be wounded by circumstances.

In the face of suffering,
It is tempting to harden our hearts:
Make your heart like steel! Impervious to damage!
Unable to be so wounded again.
That’s what some people do.

Or, suffering can soften your heart.
It can open your eyes to the sufferings of others,
Make you feel their pain more keenly,
Seek out those who are similarly wounded
And lament with them, for them, on their behalf.

The Man of Sorrows sought out others who suffered
To comfort them.
If I am to follow Him, I should expect that my ever-softening heart
Will leave me in tears—often,
For there is much in the world worth crying about.
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