+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When things are going well – when “life is good” – it’s not hard to come up with the language we need to describe the way we look at the world or the way we feel about God. The words of wisdom and praise that we’ve looked at over the past two weeks, epitomized by Psalm 1 and Psalm 113, come easily to our lips, and we find little difficulty lifting our voices to rejoice in the God who has created us to enjoy a world of beauty and joy and abundant life. We can talk with some confidence about how the righteous are blessed and the wicked are cursed, about how great God is and how God is worthy to be praised.
When things fall apart, however, we often find it hard to speak. In part, that’s because the experience of trauma and pain and sadness deadens our minds. Even if we have something to say, it often takes more energy than we can muster to bring those words to the surface. There’s more to it than that, though, and it has something to do with a problem that I identified last week. We have a problem talking about suffering. We have a problem, in large part, because we’ve bought into a whole pack of half-truths that have left us paralyzed when the tough times come. Everything happens for a reason. God never gives us more than we can handle. He or she is in a better place. This must have been God’s will. I call these half-truths because each of them comes out of a place of sincere wrangling with the character and nature of God, and because in some circumstances they might be comforting to people. Perhaps you’ve found solace in one of these expressions during a time of trouble. If you’re anything like me, however, these well-meaning words have brought more harm than help when I’ve faced the reality of suffering and pain.
In the fall semester of my senior year of seminary, I was just getting up from my seat to enjoy a break in class, when I received a phone call from my father that shook me to the core. My cousin, Kenny, had been out jogging along the road near his house, training for his next weekend of duty with the US Army Reserve, when he unexpectedly collapsed and died on the spot. He was 21 years old and in peak physical condition, and yet in the blink of an eye he was gone. Katie and I packed our things and made the drive home to Michigan for his funeral service, which was going to be held on the following Monday morning. At the service, as I sat in the front row with the rest of my family, I was hoping to hear something – anything – that spoke to the unimaginable grief that we were experiencing, and I suspect that others may have heard what they needed, but I didn’t. Instead, the pastor’s sermon was filled with well-worn clichés about how it was Kenny’s time to go, about how God needed Kenny in heaven to play goalie, about how God’s will was unsearchable and unknowable. Maybe I’m just nit-picky. Maybe I was alone in being incensed at what I was hearing. But I don’t think so. I think I was dissatisfied with a message that failed to reckon with the pain, the anguish, the incomprehensibility of it all. I was missing the language of lament.
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3, NRSV)
Last week, I mentioned that the Hebrew name of this collection of songs that sits in the middle of our Bible is Sefer Tehillim, or “the Book of Praises”, and that this communicates a profound truth about the collection as a whole. Alongside that truth is a fact that you might find surprising, and that fact is this: at least one-third of the Psalms have been identified as psalms of lament, intended to express feelings of despair and longing, of anguish and pain. One-third of the psalms contain the words of individuals and communities struggling to understand the circumstances in which they find themselves, and crying out for deliverance from the God who has promised to be with them and see them through. Often, the language is stark: in various psalms the psalmist asserts his innocence, accuses God of being responsible for the pain and suffering that he is experiencing, and demands that God make things right today, if not yesterday. This is raw, honest, deep human emotion. These are words that take the promises of God seriously and don’t shy away from calling God to hold up God’s end of the deal.
We do ourselves a disservice, I think, when we tell ourselves that this kind of language isn’t appropriate for the believer. We have this idea that we are supposed to passively accept what happens to us, that God has a plan for all of us, and that if we can’t understand it we’re just supposed to grin and bear it. If that’s how we’re supposed to approach times of suffering – if that’s what Scripture is supposed to teach us about the relationship between God and the believer – then I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with stuff like this:
O LORD God who delivers me!
By day I cry out
and at night I pray before you.
Listen to my prayer!
Pay attention to my cry for help!
For my life is filled with troubles
and I am ready to enter Sheol.
They treat me like those who descend into the grave.
I am like a helpless man,
adrift among the dead,
like corpses lying in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
and who are cut off from your power.
You place me in the lowest regions of the pit,
in the dark places, in the watery depths.
Your anger bears down on me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah)
You cause those who know me to keep their distance;
you make me an appalling sight to them.
I am trapped and cannot get free.
My eyes grow weak because of oppression.
I call out to you, O LORD, all day long;
I spread out my hands in prayer to you.
Do you accomplish amazing things for the dead?
Do the departed spirits rise up and give you thanks? (Selah)
Is your loyal love proclaimed in the grave,
or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?
Are your amazing deeds experienced in the dark region,
or your deliverance in the land of oblivion?
As for me, I cry out to you, O LORD;
in the morning my prayer confronts you.
O LORD, why do you reject me,
and pay no attention to me?
I am oppressed and have been on the verge of death since my youth.
I have been subjected to your horrors and am numb with pain.
Your anger overwhelms me;
your terrors destroy me.
They surround me like water all day long;
they join forces and encircle me.
You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance;
those who know me leave me alone in the darkness. (Psalm 88, NET)
God invites us to call out in our time of need, not with platitudes or half-truths, but with everything that we have and all that we are. That includes our questions and our doubts, our fears and our concerns, our anguish and our pain. It may be that we can look back on our experiences and discern the hand of God. It may be that we can look back and see, alongside the tragedy and the grief, something that has made us stronger. But in the moment, in the midst of the pain, we are not weak or faithless if we shout or scream or wail. If anything, in moments like that we are truly ourselves: people of God who trust that God can bear our pain and, in time, transform it.
Brothers and sisters, today we hear the unbridled language of lament. If you find yourself in a situation of pain or anguish, may these words free you to bring your whole selves before God and to know that God hears all of our prayers, draws us to Godself in the midst of our grief, and promises to bring us through the pain into a new day, a day in which the language of lament becomes the language of trust and hope. Amen.