”The Importance of Lament in our Suffering
(Moving from Job to Jesus)
As we conclude our study of lament this morning, I found that I could not have the privilige of sharing with you without addressing what I find to be perhaps one of the most damaging
misunderstandings that we have internalized. For just a moment I’d like us to go back to those first few words that God speaks to Adam in Genesis 3:11. I continue to find this verse an invaluable barometor in my own life for discernment. At this point in the story of the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have turned their attention from God and listened to the serpent, they’ve made themselves an audience for the Accuser, and, as is always the case when we listen to the Accuser, they found themselves ashamed. Adam is hiding in his shame and God’s first question to Adam hiding in his nakedness, which, of course, he always was, in Genesis 3:11 is “Who told you that…?” It is an valuable question. Who told you that you should be ashamed? Who told you that you were not God’s beloved? Who told you that you didn’t belong at God’s table? Who told you that you couldn’t because you just don’t have the education, because you’re too young, too old, because you are a woman, because you were divorced, because you are gay, because you’re theology is just not right? As you can see, contemplating this question and it’s implications can be another message in itself, but what we can be sure of is that “who ever told you that”, it was not God. And I think it can again be a valid way of addressing this tragic misunderstanding of scripture that has so permeated our consciousness and culture that folks who have never steped foot inside a church and who have never cracked open a Bible can frequently quote and find themselves believing Job 1:21:
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”
And we ask the question that God presented Adam in Genesis 3:11, “Who told us that?” Who is speaking here in Job 1:21? ___, that’s right, Job. These are not the words, message, or truth of God. This is Job speaking. I’d suggest that this is Job speaking at his worst, from his worst, Not his faith. I know that, like most of us, when we’re really honest about it, that when I’ve been depressed, oppressed, traumatized by loss, and grief, and illness, that I have said some things about how I felt about my trials and life in general, and even some choice words for God, that I don’t even want remembered or repeated, let alone taken as Truth, because I, like Job in this verse, was speaking from my experience. I was not speaking the Truth of God or about God. This is where Job is at. This is where Job was speaking from. Yet this Untruth about God has saturated our hearts, minds, and culture at large. I’ve found in my studies that this Untruth about God has been propagated by some of the greatest, though fallible, theological minds of our time, including R.C. Sproul and yet I’m suggesting that no matter how deeply it has become ingrained in us and in our world that remains Untrue.
The Lord does Not take away.
When we deeply internalize this misunderstanding of Scripture, it leads us to refusing to take our rightful place as heirs of God’s Kingdom, because with this belief, you just never know what God is going to do. I mean how many times would you continue to trust me to pull out a chair for you to sit in if I routinely pull it away as you sit and you end up on the floor? This belief turns us into the consistently fooled and foiled Charlie Brown and turns God into the consistently pranking Lucy who routinely pulls away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it! When we believe this lie, we mistake the lies of the Accuser for a Truth about God. When our subconscious default is to blame God for our suffering, we end up, like Charlie Brown, flat on our backs, finally looking up, and feeling like a blockhead, which, of course was always the plan of the Accuser. One of just a few things that I want most for us to leave here with today is this: we do Not serve a “Gotcha!-God”.
God is certainly mysterious. I’d suggest that God is mysterious mostly because of Her unyielding and offensive grace, because most of us, in our humanity remain so deeply rooted in the idea of retribution rather than reconciliation. The foundation our God offers us of lives of unconditional love and radical forgiveness is inviting and compelling and completely mysterious and offensive because, as we’re reminded repeatedly in the Scriptures that this love, forgiveness, and grace includes absolutely EVERY and All parts of ourselves And absolutely EVERYONE and ALL of those around us in our world – which is, of course, Outrageous and why we’re all here at all.
So, yes, of course, God is mysterious, for as the Scriptures say, “His ways are not our ways”, and yet God is also predictable and knowable. When we want to know what God is like, we look, Not to Job, but to Jesus, the Only begotten Son of God, in the flesh. The Scriptures and God evidenced in our own lives give us clear descriptions, examples, mandates, and promises for just what God is like and what God will do.
I believe it was a character in the movie, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that was out a few years ago whose go-to, lean-on truth was, “If it’s not a happy ending, it can’t be the end of the story.” Isn’t that great? In the same way, you and I can be sure that if it’s not good, it’s Not God. We can pull out our Genesis 3:11 tool of discernment and ask, “Who told us that?” Let’s look quickly at just a few verses out of the countless verses that we could look at describing God’s character and interactions with us. The book of James, chapter 1, verse 5 describes our “God, who gives generously without finding fault…” James 1:13 tells us that “When tempted no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, NOR does God tempt anyone.” And in James 1:17 we are assured that “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights who does Not change like shifting shadows.” The Message Bible’s version says simply, “He is not fickle.” We will never have peace, let alone victory if we believe that God is behind our suffering. If we think God is robbing us we won’t even resist. Again, this is why we look to Jesus whom Job forshadows prophetically, but we do not look to Job, a drowning man for our Lifeline.
If I can get even just a couple “Amens”, I’ll consider it permission to move on. Thank you. Thank God.
We find in our Scriptures a rich history full of examples and complete permission and role modeling of lament. Jesus wept. Job wept. Jeremiah wept. And the least of what David did was weep. The “imprecatory psalms” or curses of David are riddled with anger and rage and had they been spoken in today’s vocabulary, I’m convinced that they would have been dotted with expletives that would offend the ears of some of us and have us showing David the door. And David was, “a man after God’s own heart.” The very same mouth that spoke, “The Lord is my shepherd…” also spat out curses like, “Break their teeth! Make their wives widows! Make their children beggars on the street!” Here is a man after God’s own heart Not because of the sweetness of his poetry, but because he voiced absolutely everything to God – the fear, the grief, the doubt, the anger, and fury, and rage. (And yes, when we see David stumble and fall in such grand fashion, it is always preceded by not having done this.)
Eugene Peterson, the man who gave us versions of the Scriptures in The Message Bible, that many of us are fond of, says this: “At least one reason why people are uncomfortable with tears and the sight of suffering is that it is a blasphamous assault on our precariously maintained American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness. It is a lot easier to keep the American faith if we don’t have to look into the face of suffering, if we don’t have to listen to laments, if we don’t have to deal with tears. They, and most often we, want to avoid evidence that things are not right with the world as it is – without Jesus, without love, without faith, without sacrifice.” We’ll note Peterson’s distinction here: “the American spirituality of the pursuit of happiness.” As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of Jesus, we are not called to happiness, but to joy. We are not called to success, but to victory. We are not called to ” 5 easy spiritual steps to prosperity”, but to faithfulness even through our suffering. This is, of course, the very antithesis of empire, the American empire or any other, that depends on our silence, depends on our withholding our lament for the empire to survive at all.
People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that our prayers of complaint, and protest, and sorrow, and doubt ARE prayers of faith! These prayers represent the last refusal to let go of God. This being true, Voicing our lament expresses one of the most intimate moments of faith, NOT a lack of it or a denial of it. Only lament uncovers this kind of faith.
In Job 7:11, Job boldly says, “I will Not keep silent. I will Not speak with restraint. I will complain in the bitterness of my soul. I will give VOICE to the anguish of my soul.” And this, too, is worship, it is WORTH-Ship, because in speaking our lament before God, we affirm that God is Worthy enough, Big enough for everything we could ever bring.
I’d suggest that the most important reason to Voice our lament is because without lament, you and I are robbed of our true identity before God. Our best hope of finding our way back to true worship is through lament. Theologian Walter Bruggeman explains, “that nothing is out of bounds, nothing is precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. Everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God.”
Everything belongs, everything brought to speech, everything addressed to God.
When we understand and practice this, it brings us into a deeper presence of Christ that we can discover no other way. Job’s already close relationship with God is stretched and becomes even deeper and more personal through the process of wrestling with God through his lament. In fact, it seems, in the lament born of Job’s suffering, things get more personal than they’ve been since the garden of Eden. One of the many resources and authors I’ve studied in preparing this message, Michael Card, made what I thought was an absolutely outrageous statement. He said, “In the desperate intimacy that can only be articulated through lament, Job addresses God by an incredible New name, “You”. Now, if you’re like me or I’m guessing maybe Glenn (a congregation member), those kind of nuggets are just really exciting. I couldn’t believe it just because this wonderful songwriter and author said it of course, so I pulled out my old Strong’s Concordance. I consulted another concordance online and yes, I went through every single line of the Old Testament prior to Job with the word “you” in it and you know what? The man is right! Not Moses or Abraham or Elijah, no one until Job gets So personal with the Almighty God to dane to use a simple very personal pronoun like “You”. So through our voicing lament it gets personal like no other time. It brings us to a deeper intimacy with God. In contrast, to deny our lament is to isolate ourselves and deny that intimacy with God.
Lament keeps the door open.
Secondly, expressing and giving voice to our lament in our suffering is vital because it brings us together as the community and the body of Christ that we are called to be. When we fail to voice our lament we cut ourselves off from each other. If you and I are to know each other in a deep way, we must not only share our hurts, anger, and disappointments with each other, we must also lament them TOGETHER BEFORE OUR GOD who is moved by our tears. *ONLY then does our sharing become truly Redemptive in character.
The degree to which we are willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the level of our commitment and love for them. If we are not interested in another person’s hurts, we’re not really interested in them, and we’re not willing to suffer to know them or to be known by them.
As Christians, as Anabaptists, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we care deeply about our calling to care for the least and last, but our failure to lament also hampers us in being able to fully know and reach out to the poor, whom Jesus told us were to be our central concern. After all, how did Jesus come to know us except by entering into the poverty of our world as a “Man of Sorrows”?
How can we speak to the suffering and the poor if we do not learn the language of lament? Until we learn to honestly embrace our hopelessness and theirs, * there will be no true gospel to be heard. **Until we learn to lament, we really have nothing to say to most of the world. If we are to authentically connect with our own heart and soul; if we are to connect with each other, and to know true intimacy with God, we Must come to understand that our worship is Not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If that were true, then according to our modern American understanding of worship, the poor have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While we see Jesus consistently pronouncing blessings on the poor and those who mourn, we far too often pronounce the curse of making our own lament and the lament of others unwelcome. Those who “labor and are heavy laden” too often can find no place in our too comfortable, too programed church services to lay their burdens down.
But Job clings desperatly to God, who encourages us to offer Him everything, to give voice to every joy and sorrow, every protest, doubt and complaint.
All our broken hearts; all our contrite spirits.
I think that maybe we’ve confused lament with despair. I’d suggest that lament and despair are polar opposites.
*Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of our belief in God.
*Despair is the ultimate and total denial that God can even help, that God even exists.
Lament is our means of crossing over from sorrow and the anger of retributive justice to the mercy of God’s loving-kindness. If we are Ever to move away from hating our enemies toward eventually loving them, as Jesus commands, we Must cross this bridge. We must submit to this process until God is finished with the process of perfecting our hearts. Until then, it’s useless to stand in God’s Presence and each other’s company and mouth pretended words of forgiveness and love.
In essence, voicing lament is crucial in our suffering because it allows and grows in us authentic intimacy in our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with each other.
In every example of lament in the Scriptures, in the laments of Job, David, Jeremiah, and even in Jesus, we witness a transition from despair to hope, from complaint to praise. Somewhere, somehow an invisible line is crossed and the focus of the lament is turned from self to God. In the course of the lament, frequently in our exhausting ourselves against God, something shifts, our memory is jogged and we call to mind, as did Job and David and Jesus, the faithfulness of God and we cross the line from sorrowful self-centered “I”, “me”, and “mine” to praise.
This morning we’d like to create together the space and opportunity to share this process. As Tony and the musicians come forward, I invite you to bring to mind whatEver sorrows, doubts, grief, complaint, and even anger that may be on your heart this morning. After Tony shares a song with us and the musicians continue to play quietly, we will have an opportunity to voice with a sound (sometimes all I can say is “mmm,mmmm,mmmm” or maybe “my God”) or only a word or two naming the laments that we want to bring before the Lord, and not take back home with us, that way we may have arrived here with this morning. And then, following that biblical example of crossing the line from sorrowful self-centered lament to remembering the faithfulness of our God, Tony will repeat some of our laments back to us and as a congregation bound together by our common experience of suffering and our common hope found in Jesus, we will affirm that God IS faithful, that God IS still our answer as we sing back, after each lament, the old “Amen” chorus that I think many of grew up with. Do y’all remember that? Just 5 enthusiastic “A-mens” in a row. “A-men, A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men”. Lemme give us an example just so we’re real clear before we move into this time. So, if during our time of voicing our lament, one of our members offers up, “Israel and Palestine conflict”. During our time of affirmation and praise, Tony will offer back, “Israel and Palestine conflict” and we, the congregation will affirm in enthusiastic song together, “A-men, a-men, a-men, a-men, a-men” and we’ll continue in that fashion till we get a little bit clearer, a little bit lighter, a bit more assured that God remains faithful, despite what we see with our physical eyes.
(**This message and my life are deeply indebted to the heart, wisdom,
and teaching of Sue Boykin, Charlette Franklin, Rebecca Trotter (you should totally check out her blog at “The Upside Down World”),
Brennan Manning, and especially Michael Card’s excellent writing on the subject.**)
*Just a note to readers of the blog, I’ve posted this as a few have requested me to; but typically, especially with classes beginning in just a matter of weeks and my own experience as a blog reader sometimes feeling overwhelmed by voluminous posts, I will only be posting once weekly, probably on Mondays. As always thanks by stopping by. I so appreciate it.