Of late, there’s been a confused clanking in my brain.
Perhaps, I can dismantle it in pieces to see what we’ve got.
1. Things are rotten sometimes. We dwell, as poet Mary Karr graphically insists, in “a universe full of loud pigs and shot things you have to take whiffs of while walking around.”
2. The rottenness of it all can grind you down.
3. Christians though, have entrusted themselves to a Father they are sure is benevolent.
4. So then, what are we supposed to do when we bump into nastiness and harm that doesn’t bear the faintest resemblance to benevolence? Because we Christians are most susceptible to what Kelly Kapic, channeling Puritan John Owen, has taught me to call “hard thoughts about God.”
CS Lewis, in a concussed state in the wake of his wife’s death, experienced her absence, as have many before and after him, “like the sky, spread over everything.” And shivering and stunned before that cold and omnipresent absence, he pinpointed the Christian crises which emerges when loss clubs us, sorrow spears us, or trouble traumatizes us. It’s a crises of confusion over whether God’s actually benevolent after all.
Here’s Lewis’ sorrow-tinted crystallization of the issue at hand when it comes to any of what Joni Eareckson Tada called “the splashovers from hell” that drench our lives:
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'
What To Do When “Hard Thoughts” Come
And the knotty ball of yarn in my noggin over these things pertains to these sorts of questions:
When the “hard thoughts of God” come, what should one do?
What should our tact be when we or the world around us which thanks to the inter-webs and incessant “news” (quotations intended”) has collisions with disastrousness?
Whether the dehumanizing horrors of racist disdain or the dismay of a depleting cancer that is chewing you up on the inside, the question looms. If it’s abuse of someone dear or the ripping from your life of someone near, still the question lingers in the air like stale cigar smoke.
When it comes to personally reckoning with such realities, these days I hear a lot about the power and even the required necessity of lament. Like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, there’s an appropriateness to wailing the un-wellness around us, and in us.
Lament gets a lot of press in certain circles these days as a tact, posture, or tool for the wayfaring people of God. We need more corporate lament for the world’s distressing injuries, say thoughtful commentators.
And a host of younger Christians I know, find tremendous resonance in this message. They are comfortable with and welcome the permission, and even insistence, that they not quickly dismiss the sadness on our planet with a glossy coat of sugar. Lament brings solidarity with the suffering, and it brings our suffering before a Savior with scarred palms where nails once penetrated.
The older Christians I know would find this emphasis a bit off, determined as they are and have been taught to be, to praise God, EVEN if their teeth be gritted and the pain their knees makes them shriek. They know the caveat “with thanksgiving” that’s attached to praying the worrisome and wearying things. And they were told not to gripe.
Like the silly tweet I saw of a daughter who wrote her grandfather, “baby was born, weighed in at 7lbs. 4 oz. Delivery was hard.” Grandfather responds (presumably, it was a funny tweet), “You know what was hard, World War 2!”
The Greatest Generation doesn’t complain. And the most ardent saints I know don’t either. They are determined to praise God no matter what happens. And lament sounds a lot like complaining. Wailing before God don’t seem too different to some than griping about God.
And I am trying to reconcile these differing tacts in my mind. As I ponder, I’m not sure the two are actually so much at odds.
The praise propped up by painful dismay and the very dismay we weep, wail, spit, cuss, or confusedly argue out before God (i.e. lament), aren’t coming from all that different a place. Both are tremendous acts of trust. Each is a profound act of confidence. And honest ones at that.
The befuddlement comes in seeking to discern the difference between weeping before the Lord and whining against Him, between groaning to God and griping at or about him. Of course the prepositions matter considerably. They reveal our posture, after all.
The one, you’ve noticed if you ever prayed the Psalms, “groaning to God” or “weeping before the Lord” is more common than pale orange at a UT game: “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:2) And by precept, seems to be encouraged.
But the other, (“griping at God”) can get you killed in the desert. Paul hearkens back to the extreme murmuring and complaining of the wandering people of God in 1 Corinthians 10 (referring to Numbers 16), “And do not grumble, as some of them did---and were killed by the destroying angel.”
We are expressly forbidden from grumbling and complaining....and yet our prayerbook, the Psalms is full of complaints, and what could only be categorized as complaint....”Why do you stand so far off in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) Or to be exact, “I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble.” (Psalm 142:2)
So what gives? I am pondering that.
I have received a little help from Dan Allender in “The Hidden Hope in Lament” which you might appreciate. I sure have:
“To lament—that is to cry out to God with our doubts, our incriminations of him and others, to bring a complaint against him—is the context for surrender. Surrender—the turning of our heart over to him, asking for mercy, and receiving his terms for restoration—is impossible without battle. To put it simply, it is inconceivable to surrender to God unless there is a prior, declared war against him.
To lament together also holds forth a vision of what might occur. I spoke about the subject of lament on a live, call-in radio show. I spoke about the rage of Psalm 44 and how it opens the heart to question in ways that most Christians refuse to enter. A 64-year-old black woman called in and told the story of the six months that followed her grandson’s murder in a gang-related killing. She spoke about how she prayed the Psalm line by line, day after day. She fought God. She tried to turn her back on him. But day by day her anger rose higher and higher until she came to the last verse of the Psalm: “Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (verse 26). She said: “How can he rail against God for that long and still come back and say: ‘Because of your unfailing love’? When the Psalmist called God good I had to do the same.” I wept with her. How could I not? She is a vision of what is possible, very possible for any who passionately seek God. Her loss is more than I have ever experienced, but she calls God good. And so do I. How? After what I have suffered? It seems inconceivable, but to lament together is to hold one another accountable to continue the pursuit of truth until joy dawns. It will.
It is crucial to comprehend a lament is as far from complaining or grumbling as a search is from aimless wandering. A grumbler has already reached a conclusion, shut down all desire, and postures with questions that are barely concealed accusations.
For example, the husband who says: “You never have time for me. You can talk with your friends till all hours of the night, but I ask you to sit with me and you’re too busy. Do you want this marriage to work or not?” His words may at first sound like lament, but it is not. His grumbling is defensive, hard, and attacks without asking.” Dan Allender
Lament softens us, complaint hardens.
Lament drives us toward God with sorrow, anger, confusion, and despair to seek to understand His rule and care over and for us and his world.
And trusts God enough to highlight the dizzying gaps and painful discrepancies between what seems like it ought to be the case and what is actually happening instead.
Complaints are a way of rejecting God’s governance, of standing in judgment as his critic, refusing to take our positions as confused, but seeking pupils from our Wise and Benevolent Instructor.
It’s a worthwhile endeavor to learn not only to praise, but also to lament and groan before God, and how to increase in our capacity to surrender to his desire to spend us in whatever way he wishes...a surrender which smothers soul-staining murmuring. And we’ll likely find, in ways even more potent than a tender-hearted friend’s empathetic engagement with what is wearing us out, that God’s listening convinces us, eventually, that we are heard AND loved.
Turning the Back on or the Face Toward
In all, perhaps a good diagnostic query is “does our groaning lead us to turn our backs on God? Or our faces toward Him? (Jer. 32:33)
There’s no solid help to be had if we insist on moving away from Him in a close-hearted huff. But, there’s all the healing and hopeful aid we crave as we turn our faces, tear-soaked as they may be, to the One for whom we were made. We might just discover his tears mingling with ours, and a fresh acquaintanceship with daily-delivered mercies that will keep us from crumpling when affliction seeks to wad us up and discard us like a used candy-bar wrapper.
And those who’ve come to be heard by Christ as they unwind the knotty troubles of their world and heart before him in lament, resonate with the psalmist’s impulse, “because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.” While lament and grumbling are mortal enemies. It turns out that lament and praise are rather good friends dwelling at different points on the path to Him who assures, as Julian of Norwich understood, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com