In times of darkness and distress as these, these words from Dan Allender are particularly important:
“Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair, failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy.”
I sat through and enjoyed a talk and sermon recently from my RUF Intern, Laura Sharrett, that talked about hope, and talked about how hope and lament are inherently intertwined, especially in a spiritual context. Pray for the things we long for, Laura told us. I long for connection, and I long for life to be easier sometimes, and it’s not shameful to pray for it, and it’s not shameful to even be somewhat bitter that we don’t have what we long for.
But as I previously wrote about complete surrender, surrender in the words of Allender, cannot happen “unless there is a prior, declared war against him.” We suppress lament and push it away because we see it as a sort of conflict against God. But that’s the point of a “relationship with God,” as anyone can tell you in a relationship that conflict is how a relationship grows. You cannot surrender unless you previously fought and went to battle. Lament is how we battle.
Obviously, we cannot lament and pray “woe is me” all the time to attain the hidden hope in lament. Like any gift, food, alcohol, exercise, lament is also a hidden gift in moderation. Too often, Christians and newly converted Christians like myself assume that conflict with God and doubt and questioning are finished once we convert. But that misses the point. A conversion is one experience, yes, but becoming more and more Christian in how we act, whether it be to love your neighbor as yourself and treat people with mercy and hope, to treat people with respect and nonjudgment — that’s a lifelong process.
“Sanctification is a lifetime process of surrendering as more and more intense conflicts with God and others expose and dissolve our urgent preoccupation with the self.” Instead of lament being a rejection against God, it is an optimistic cry that asks God “why,” that “voices a heart of desire and ironic faith in his goodness.” To lament is much better than to suppress lament. Life is not easy or good all the time. Lamenting lets us face life and face God with honesty and with hope.
Life invites us to doubt. It just does. For me, it’s hard to believe in a benevolent God when my teacher and friend just killed themselves. But it happens, and I have rather accepted it is God’s plan for us to wrestle and doubt rather than to deny it. After all, the meaning of Israel is to wrestle with God. Yes, sometimes these pleas and gestures of lament in prayer can move us into the territory of complaining, but lament is not complaining or grumbling. “Grumbling is defensive, hard, and attacks without asking.”
The difference in a lament is that it is “truly asking, seeking, and knocking.” A lament is an adventure to search for meaning rather than deny it, and sometimes it uses pain and anger and anguish to do so. The difference, according to Presbyterian minister, Tim Keller, is that even when we say terrible things and terrible questions to God, the difference is that we are turning to God and not denying him.
Look no further than the Psalms to see utter lament and anguish. In Psalm 42:9 shows the Psalmist asking “God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” Psalm 88:18 almost rejects God in saying that “darkness is my only friend.” But it is in the pain and lament that we become more like God.
“Radical pain is required before we are prone to surrender to his goodness…It is the cry that initiates the search to ask God, What are you doing?” Of course, Allender urges us to be careful continuously, that anger is not always good, but anger that moves us towards confusion is. Being “trapped between our belief in him and our movement away from him opens the heart to redemption.”
So we get confused in our faith, and in our confusion we ask hard questions about faith. And it is in asking those questions that we get new perspective. “If one wants redemption, it will not be in comfort, nor ease…Redemption comes when nothing else will do.” Allender then moves into a section of how God responds to lament. Lament changes the heart, and it is a search, and our hearts are moved and convicted by seemingly meaningless pain. But “the cry of lament is never answered — it is confounded.” Despite our cries of anguish, God rarely ever rationalizes and we don’t know the answers.
At this point, I stop a little bit and then ask what the point is of lament if it doesn’t give us answers, and that’s some of my youthful arrogance showing through again. But the New Testament lament, is one of “anguish, doubt, and search…[that] focuses it on a God of such wrath, and such mercy, and such passion for his glory and our reconciliation.” In Mark 15, Jesus famously says before his death, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Allender then moves into an anecdote, an encounter he had with a Christian couple who were forced to leave their ministry positions after expressing deep hurt in their marriage to their pastor. The husband was distant and angry, and the wife was a know-it-all. “They were troubled, but their commitment to the Lord, each other, and the church was solid.” When Allender asked them why they were forced to leave their ministries, they replied this:
“We no longer fit the standard for Christian service. I guess Christians are not supposed to struggle.”
The current surge in counseling and therapy, for everyone, may be a result of not being able to express the hurt, anger, and lament that is just so inherent in so many of our lives. Counseling’s role is to validate and legitimize pain and struggle, and for the religious, “focus the questions of the heart toward God.”
In a small group Bible study, my friends and I have spent a session reviewing John 13, and in the verse Jesus washes all of his disciples’ feet, which at the time was a demeaning act reserved for slaves. Peter, in John 13:8, tells Jesus “you shall never wash my feet,” in an sentiment of good intention. Because he believed in a God that was high and holy and should not have to demean himself to wash his feet. But the God we believe in is close and near, and can see us at our most vulnerable. Symbolically, we, like Peter, do not allow God to wash our feet in worship and prayer, and that means for us to express the anguish and pain we often would express in a therapists’ office in our private prayer and ministry.
Allender then states that in our culture, the only opportunity to sing of a struggle with God is in the African American and Black church, which he acknowledges is “far more complex than I understand,” and more likely than not far more complex than I could understand, too. “Music in a culture of sorrow is less likely to merely reinforce the status quo or beguile people with the ‘good life’,” he writes. Songs of sorrow show our need for intervention and personal redemption from God.
Cultures formed by suffering and sorrow often have the most hope and beauty in art, literature, music, and poetry. He uses examples of Irish, black South Africans, Holocaust victims, and African Americans, cultures formed in trial and persecution. “There is no reluctance to enter worship with pain, to cry out in lament.” Yes, we know suffering as individuals, but so many of us have not grown up in a culture often filled with sorrow. “If one reads, or listens to art of these cultures, one is led not to despair, but to passionate hope.”
Lament is no weakness. It gives us power and passion to fight against injustice, “the loudest proclamation of hope.” W.E.B. Du Bois once said that “through all of the Sorrow Songs there breaths a hope — a faith in the ultimate justice of things…that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.” Because singing in sorrow makes people sing together, it brings people together, and allows us to “authenticate we are not ultimately alone, even if no one can fully comprehend our pain now.” The knowledge that we are not alone gives us the courage to look past the assumption that everyone else has a strong faith and everyone else has it together, as “those assumptions destroy the integrity of true Christian community.”
A natural and almost immediate coping mechanism that arises in the face of suffering is an indescribable numbness, the voice in us that says “I will not be hurt again.” I’ve felt it before, I still do, and you probably have, too. But this commitment, argues Allender, “is one of the prime strategies of Satan…something profoundly human is lost.” Singing together in our sorrow opens us to connection.
He then goes into an anecdote about when he talked about the rage of Psalm 44 in a radio show, and how a 64-year-old black woman called in and story about the six months of anguish after her grandson’s murder in a gang-related killing. “she prayed the Psalm line by line, day after day,. She fought God.” But then she stumbled upon the final line of the Psalm, which seemed strange after 25 verses of railing against God: “Rise up; come to our help!/ Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” The woman told Allender that “when the Psalmist called God good I had to do the same.” Allender then had to call God good, too, because after all she had lost and experienced, how could he not?
“It seems inconceivable, but to lament together is to hold one another accountable to continue the pursuit of truth until joy dawns. It will.”
So I’m going out to pray and look with sorrow and do it unshamefully, like the Psalms. I know it will “break loose into the freedom of joy.” And I want to do it with you. You come, too.
Originally published at https://www.theodysseyonline.com on March 25, 2019.