Suffering and Faith, Part 2

The truth about suffering: Because God can handle our tough questions, we can be honest about our pain. 

Someone has estimated that there are over 186,000 sentences in the Bible. That includes a LOT of questions. And the question that is asked more than any other in the Bible is this:

“How long, O Lord?” 

This is a question forged in the fire of suffering. It is usually voiced as a cry for justice and deliverance, a cry for God to do something. 

  • How long, O Lord, before you act to rescue your people?
  • How long, O Lord, will you go on ignoring me?
  • How long, O Lord, can you turn your face away from me?

Such questions might strike you as being a bit sacrilegious or irreverent, but they’re not. Far from it. This might come as a surprise, but these questions come directly from the pages of the Bible. And I believe these questions are included in the Bible to give us the proper language for taking our cries of sorrow before the Lord.

These “how long?” statements prove that God can handle our tough questions.

The biblical language for this sort of thing is “lament.” The Bible is actually filled with lament. We have an entire book in our Bible called “Lamentations.” Biblical scholars classify approximately 40% of the Psalms as “lament Psalms,” which are distinct from praises, psalms of thanksgiving or psalms for other occasions. Basically, two out of every five songs in the Bible’s hymnal are lament Psalms. Compare that with the contemporary hymnal Songs of Faith and Praise, the most commonly used hymnal in my tradition. An estimated 13% of the songs in Songs of Faith and Praise could be called “lament songs” — and even then, most of them are pretty loosely understood this way. (Statistics from Glenn Pemberton’s excellent book, Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms.)

You’re far more likely to hear lament on a country radio station than in a church today.

God helps us walk through suffering by giving us the gift of biblical lament. Someone has said that lament is the sound of tears turned heavenward. These would be the “How long, O Lord?” passages, the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” passages.

Lament is language for the valley. Remember David’s words from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” We all walk that valley during certain seasons of our lives. And the Bible is filled with this kind of lament language, language that gives voice to our experiences in the lowest parts of life’s valleys.

If 40% of the Bible’s hymnal is made up of Lament Psalms, don’t you think lament should be a regular part of our worship assemblies? Maybe this is why we have such a hard time when we suffer. It might be that — unlike ancient Israel — we simply don’t allow for the expression of grief and suffering in our worship assemblies.

The Bible is filled with lament because life is filled with valleys. Back to my original post, this is where the reality of our experience finds resonance within the truth of God’s Word. If the Bible never talked about life’s valleys, we would have reason enough to question it’s truthfulness. But instead, we find a Word from God that is literally filled with lament, a Bible that speaks openly about our valley experiences.

The most frequently asked question in the Scriptures is, “How long, O Lord?”, a question of lament that emerges from the lowest, darkest point of the valley. 

We see that Jesus himself cries out in the language of lament when He declares from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a direct quote from Psalm 22, a Psalm that begins with an acknowledgement of the darkness of the valley but concludes with a stunning vision of life on the other side of the valley, a vision of a people yet unborn hearing of the Lord’s righteousness. And this is what Jesus quotes from the cross! He isn’t referring to “verse 1” of the Psalm — first-century Jews wouldn’t have even known what we were talking about if we spoke of the Bible as “chapters” and “verses.” No, Jesus is referencing the entire Psalm when he makes this statement from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is simultaneously an expression of both lament and hope.

In this way, Psalm 22 demonstrates the two elements of biblical lament:

  • Lament honestly describes our grief and pain.
  • Lament earnestly trusts in God for deliverance.

Biblical lament is honest about pain, honest about the way we are hurting. But with biblical lament, there is also a constant turning back to trust in the Lord. Lament is not just stomping your foot and throwing a temper tantrum, although if you need to do this from time to time, God can handle it. No, true lament — as an expression of worship — is being honest before the Lord while continuing to trust in him. This is the lesson of Psalm 22: In our grief, even when we feel that God has forsaken us, he is there.

When we are honest about our pain, we can begin to be gracious with ourselves. This means acknowledging that it’s okay not to be okay sometimes. I hear people say things when they’re hurting, things like, “I have to be strong for my family.” And I respond, “Says who?” I reject this notion that we have to somehow shove aside our true feelings all for the sake of “being strong” for others. If that’s the case, we need a new definition of “being strong.” What we really mean by “being strong” is this: “don’t show your loved ones how much you’re really hurting.” But we’re not doing anyone any favors by doing this.

One of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones is to let them see your humanity. To let them see you when you’re hurting. When you’re honest about your pain, you model for them the faithful way to deal with trying circumstances. Maybe it’s saying something like, “This really hurts and I’m struggling mightily, but I’m continuing to trust in Him.” That’s a much better gift than putting on a show of artificial “strength.” And honestly…their faith is contingent upon how strong they believe He is, not how strong they believe you to be anyway.

We can be honest about our pain because God can handle it.

This entry was posted in Books, Church, Devotional, Disappointment, Faith, Scripture, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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