January 26, 2017 / Praxis
Erick Sierra reflects upon his journey across the diverse landscape of the Christian church in search for that place where God most fully dwells.
October 23, 2007
I don’t do suffering well. In fact, I despise suffering. My daughter’s tears bring out the worst in me. My first thought is “How do I fix this?” It’s easily translated into pastoral care or clinical counseling. “What should I say?” “How can I help?” I’ve been habituated to respond to suffering with answers.
It’s because I despise suffering and its nasty side-effects that I take a kind of twisted pride in how well my community, my church, and my nation deal with suffering. We seem to be so civil about it. A slight tear brings out the Kleenex, and suffering is wiped clean. (Suffering can be wiped clean, incidentally, in scented Kleenex or Kleenex with aloe.) We’re domesticated sufferers. Our churches acknowledge suffering only as something true faith can mitigate; we deny its reality, and in doing so evade the possibility that we might have to dive into uncivilized grief—grief with tears that cannot be quenched.
And it is with a degree of arrogance that I watch the Nightly News, shaking my head at the very uncivilized displays of communal lament among the “ancient peoples” of the Middle East. Poor souls—they look so miserable as they march through the streets, wailing with fists raised at their impotent deity. If only they would embrace my form of civil suffering—my Kleenex theology. Then they might not subject themselves to awful displays of raw and uncontrolled emotion. Poor, uncivilized souls.
Of course, the secret truth is that I admire them. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s true. I long to lament in a way that releases me to surrender as Jacob was released at Peniel. I long to join the ancient cry that was rarely private: “How long, O Lord?” I long to abandon my sanitized Kleenex theology for a messy one, one that even allows saints already in heaven to lament before God, one that acknowledges the paradox of God Incarnate crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In other words, I long secretly to know the ancient art of crying our prayers before a God who doesn’t offer fast food fixes or purpose driven principles, but who enters my pain in order to know me, and I Him. That sounds like biblical faith. And more and more, I’m convinced it is.
“If I had wanted my pain theologized away, I would have gone to Job’s friends.” So said a very wise, very wounded client of mine early in my clinical counseling internship. She was incapable of such wisdom, or so I thought. I was the wise one—the expert—the one in the cozy leather chair with a hand stroking my beard, looking the part of clinician. Her comment struck me dumb. She needed Jesus, who would leave the comforts of heavenly bliss to engage suffering face to face. Instead, she got a theologian, a medical doctor of the soul, applying theories, making generalizations, testing cures. I had failed her. But she had the courage to speak.
In God’s ironic grace, my failure was the gateway to her renewed journey of hope. She had spoken, and spoken honestly, not only to her counselor, but also to a minister, a spiritual leader, much like the ones responsible for beating hope out of her for so many years. The child of a pastor, she had known only spiritual platitudes and proper ways of interacting. She had known only a gospel of principles for better living. Never challenged to use her voice, never encouraged to speak her doubts, never engaged by people willing to wade in her murky waters, she lived a lonely, isolated life. Referred to counseling by her pastor, her presenting problem was “depression.” Categorized, isolated, marginalized and referred to professionals for help, she had begun to believe the message her church was feeding her: “You’re too messy. When you get better, we’ll invite you back into ministry.” In the months following, she learned to lament and not be ashamed of it. In offering her desires to God in tears, she found new hope released in her soul. She began to see the world in color. However, her journey required a path of validated suffering.
Job needed friends to engage the pain, not interpret the pain. Job needed friends who would join in the chorus of lament, not offer the secret prayer to a life of blessing. Job needed what Henri Nouwen calls “wounded healers” to enter into the pain with him, but he had friends who were “healed wounders.” Blinded by their own comfort, security, and sense of well-being, they arrogantly jabbed at Job, attempting to come up with a rational explanation for the mess at hand. Job lamented before God, not only because he had been subjected to terrible trouble, but because his friends had failed him. “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,” Job cried, “but they’re as undependable as intermittent streams.” In the end, Job is commended for his honesty. His theologically correct buddies are scolded for their insensitivity.
I like how Barry Webb describes the book of Lamentations as ordered messiness.
Biblical lament, much to the relief of the “healed wounder,” is not ultimately chaotic. To the contrary, biblical lament has a beginning and an end. While the middle may be messy, while it may seem to go on and on without relief, lament, properly understood, rests finally in the sovereign hand of God. Eugene Peterson echoes Webb when he describes the form of Lamentations as a series of five acrostics—literary patterns that travel the alphabet slowly, in meticulous detail, from beginning to end (much like Psalm 119). Lament begins at aleph and ends at tau, proceeding with careful detail and extraordinarily honest expression through each letter. Five times in five distinct poems the writer revisits his pain, most often in communal expression, with a brief interlude for private weeping. The writer’s intent is clear: every detail of pain is important. Suffering cannot and should not be wasted on “quick fix alphabet dances” that deny proper expression. Acrostic was used as a memory device, as Peterson points out, emphasizing that every jot and tittle of suffering should be remembered and experienced.
Suffering, as both Webb and Peterson note, is also historical. The roots of pain are in concrete experiences, not abstractions. The Lamentation cry is rooted in a historical event—the terrible judgment of God through the Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Likewise, Christ’s lament embraced Gesthemane’s reality and the inevitability of crucifixion. The martyr’s cry of “How long, O Lord?” not only challenges contemporary, pie-in-the-sky descriptions of heavenly bliss, but adds a final exclamation point to the biblical reality of suffering. Even those who have left the toils of earthly labor look down upon injustice and evil and cry out with ancient words of lament. And once again, their lament is not an abstraction, but a response to real-life, historical suffering. Lament requires reality, and reality invites tears.
Thus, the message of Lamentations is that the denial of lament is the denial of reality. Interestingly, in the world of mental health practice, neurosis is often defined as the denial of reality. Perhaps, providing a context for lament might be a way to alleviate the neurosis of a culture that feeds on un-reality, false reality, and virtual reality. Perhaps, too, this provides a challenge to the church that works hard to keep lament on the margins. The church might be just as guilty of avoiding reality as contemporary culture, choosing fanciful, imaginative perspectives and “attitudes born out of a Kleenex theology instead.
Sadly, the church that denies lament—referring the wounded to “clinical care” only to be returned to the body when they are healed—buries its head in the sand of false reality. That is not to diminish or question the important role of clinical counseling as a ministry among and for Christians. Too often, however, the pastor’s counseling referral is due to his refusal to walk through the timely and messy acrostic of suffering from aleph to tau, and perhaps also to his fear that corporate lament in worship does not produce the kind of growth explosions that unreal methods do. However, the grave danger is this: in denying the opportunity for an embrace of lament, we miss a Christ-formed life of pain-sharing, compassion, incarnation, and Gospel-healing. We miss the opportunity, in other words, to become more like Jesus.
Lament, the Most Hopeful of Things
“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” Saint Paul once wrote. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It’s amazing how we pluck verses like these out and use them as evidence that the day of lament is over and the day of rejoicing has come. Saint Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Philippian church—the same letter in which he laments over his long and continuing earthly pilgrimage and calls suffering “a gift from God along with faith.’ It is the same letter that plainly identifies the reality of his culture as crooked and depraved, and invites the cruciformed Christian to follow the downward path of Christ to humility, suffering, and even death, for the sake of knowing Christ. Saint Paul, in other words, was not at all afraid of suffering. His hope came in the embrace of it.
Lament is ultimately hopeful. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? The person sitting before you is weeping and wailing about his pain, and it is supposed to produce hope? There is, of course, a fine line between complaining and lamenting, but too often we throw out the baby with the bath water. Dan Allender says that one who laments often looks like a grumbler or complainer, but that biblical lament is nothing of the sort. Instead, lament contains in itself the possibility of extraordinary hope, restored desire, and a changed heart.
Lament is, at its core, a search for God. It is not a search for answers. It is not an invitation to fix an ailment. Rather, lament enters the agony with the recognition that it might not go away for days, months, even years. And yet, the lament carries with it the hope that God will eventually show up. Dan Allender puts it this way: “Lament is a search—a declaration—of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor with arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.”
Of course, you won’t know the hope of lament if you don’t risk walking through the valley. But we need not venture into the valley alone. We journey with a host of biblical witnesses, and hopefully, with a community of faith and friends more dependable than Job’s. The biblical model for lament, whether in the Psalms, Lamentations, Job, or from Jesus, Paul, or the saints in heaven, reflects a rugged heart born for a risky, but incredibly rewarding, journey home.
The cry of lament, as Allender writes, is the deepest and most honest cry of the homeless person. Our journey is no different than the saints of Hebrews 11 who, by faith, kept on their sojourn because their hope was in a heavenly city. In other words, we walk in familiar company of men and women who longed deeply for God’s presence in times of trouble, people thrown to the lions and hung on crosses and beaten mercilessly for the sake of the Kingdom. Our hopeful lament is caught up in the universal cry reaching up in to the heavens, even among the saints.
God has given his community permission to lament. In fact, he has given his family permission even to make their complaints known to Him. Psalm 44 and Psalm 80, for instance, bring accusations before God that send chills down the spine:
You have fed us the bread of tears
You have made us drink tears by the bowlful
You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors.
However, we speak with the confidence that our complaints will be heard, contained, validated, listened to, and ultimately bring about a change in our circumstances. Like Jacob, our wrestling leads to surrender, deeper relationship, greater trust, and a heart made soft by its honesty before God. It is a sure indication that we are fully alive human beings, says Barry Webb, open to the full possibilities of God’s wild and risky involvement in our lives.
This wild trust, this openness to surrender, is precisely how God brings about radical transformation in the hearts of sinners. But it is a transformation that takes time, that is often un-remarkable, and that doesn’t change the facts and circumstances of life very quickly. Lament without a quick fix or a happy principle to mitigate it is ugly and un-productive to modern, results-driven, Western Christians. However, the gift to be patient and to engage suffering—not to fix or to make sense of it, but simply to experience it before the face of God honestly—is a gift that stirs the deepest hope, the hope of the saints, the hope of the very unbroken, tear-free world to come.
He Will Wipe Away Every Tear
God is not in the business of quenching hope. His way, however, often is the longer, harder road through rough wilderness terrain. The oft-quoted proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” speaks of the reality of life in the now. Suffering is just plain sickening. I hate to see it. I hate it for myself, and I hate it for my friends. It angers me, and it causes me to jump-start quick cures to get through it. I almost always have a better plan than God’s, but His wisdom wins the day.
I notice a tendency today to skirt past the reality of suffering. We pride ourselves on being a people who can quickly move past our grief—as we experienced in the September 11 attacks—to regain our pride and status as a world superpower. While mourners cry their uncivilized tears on the other side of the globe, we apply our best science toward eradicating the need to lament ever again. And isn’t it ironic? Don’t we do this in our churches, as well? Don’t we position ourselves in ways to eradicate suffering and maximize progress?
Upward mobility has become not only the mantra of a consumer culture, but of churches that believe bigger is better; that pride themselves as healthy rather than broken churches; that sell a gospel of feel better spirituality. Incarnational ministry is a rare thing these days. In fact, we call smaller churches that focus on pastoral care and spiritual formation the dying churches of our day. These churches often contain the walking wounded, the financially destitute, the spiritually needy. You don’t build churches on the backs of these people, but it is precisely these people that Jesus came to and lived among. The comfortable didn’t meet Jesus on dirt roads. Lepers met Jesus. The poor met Jesus. The homeless reached up from their beds of sand to touch the corner of his robe. The gospel is offered to those who are weak and frail enough to cry out for strength outside of themselves.
Isn’t this the hope of lament? Isn’t lament far less scary if we view it as our divinely inspired and ordained way of communicating deep-heart desires to a God who can do something about it? Rather than theologizing lament away, or finding ways to contain it, might we “lean in to it,” as Eugene Peterson remarks, in a way that brings about personal and communal transformation? Might we take the example of the heavenly martyrs who called upon God to act?
In Saint John’s apocalyptic history of the world, the Book of Revelation, God does respond with force and fury to the enemies of his people. The satanic trinity of dragon, beast, and false prophet are, once and for all, thrown into the lake of fire. God’s wilderness-wandering people are vindicated, saved, and prepared for their heavenly betrothal. The weary bride, tainted and tarnished from her long journey through dark valleys of self-indulgence and the rough terrains of persecution is now readied for eternal glory, fitted in her pristine, white wedding dress for her heavenly pursuer and rescuer. Gently wiping away her tears, he speaks words to her that she has longed to hear: “There will be no more weeping or mourning. Isaiah’s prophecies have come to fruition. No more death, no more pain, no more struggle. You’re mine, and I’m yours, eternally. Lament no more.”
The end of the story is a happy one. The gospel is for those who love comedy, tragedy, and a good, true fairytale, as Frederick Buechner loves to say. In Revelation 21, the scene shifts from epic battle to unimaginable glory and ecstasy. The bride is given back her lost Eden, the paradise-city she remembered only in her dreams. C.S. Lewis reminds us that the first Eden has always existed, if only in our memory, urging us to lives of holy desire as we search out our Paradise home. The bride gets all she has ever desired, and much more. Her ancient lament, raised to God not as an angry fist of rebellion but as an impassioned complaint rooted in desire, is heard, received, and acted upon. Her groom has come to the rescue. And now, eternal happiness.
The glory of the gospel is that our lives, our worship, and our relationships need not end in a minor key. The Kingdom hope is the dominant tune, albeit thrown off key by our trials and tribulations. The minor key of lament is an important reminder that we’re not home yet. It is also an invitation to sing songs that reflect our deep hearts and truest struggles, knowing always that our long-suffering Savior will win the day.
So, lament. Join the chorus of ancient voices in their universal cry. Speak honest words to a God who does not fear a complaint born in desire, but actually responds to it. And by all means, live. Pain, as C.S. Lewis says, is God’s megaphone to call us to be awake, and the awakened, passionate life is a lot better than the false realities that our neurotic and fearful world has to offer.
Lean hopefully into lament, and be honest with those who don’t lean with you. The wintry valley of suffering will eventually lead to green pastures, tall, snow-capped mountains, and a sunrise that will break through the darkness to a final chorus of praise.
Chuck DeGroat teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, where he is also the Director of Spiritual Formation. In his role, he introduces future pastors to the ancient rhythms of curam animarum, or the care of souls. In part, this involves developing the prophetic imagination of pastors through the full menu of biblically-sanctioned forms of dialogue—story, poetry, art, music, proposition, parable, among others. Chuck is also a Mental Health Counselor who specializes in sexual and emotional abuse. He is completing a doctoral dissertation on the realities of pastoral life. In his spare time, Chuck enjoys time with his wife of thirteen years, Sara, and their two girls Emma and Maggie. Chuck and Sara love to do interior decorating, and enjoy long, quiet days on the beach with a good book.