Suffering is an art form for the Christian, a skill that needs to be learned over a lifetime. Of course, no one wants to learn this skill. Our Lord was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. His cross-suffering was both the more extreme form of torment and the redemption of the cosmos. Hence, we can know that suffering has meaning. Jesus cried out, "My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). Heaven and earth stood silent, as we were given the greatest lament of all. Jesus prayed on that Cross, teaching us how to pray and live as well. He was praying from one of the sixty Psalms of lament, Psalm 22, written by David.
I am learning the art of lament through caring for my once-brilliant wife, Rebecca, who has a rare and cruel form of dementia. It has taken away her mind and her voice. It will take away everything. She is often inconsolable, even as we await her departure from this world of tears and her arrival in tearless heaven.
We have not learned the art of suffering well
America does not know how to suffer well with others. Sadly, this is so for some pastors and church leaders. We want to look on the bright side, be positive, and move on with life. We are geniuses at distraction and diversion. Countless activities beckon us on our phones, our computers, and on our other screens. We don't have time for proper sadness. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “Since we cannot cure our ills, we'd rather be distracted from thinking about them. But Christ sought no distraction on his Cross. He lamented and He did not sin in so doing.”
Lament, which is a biblical language of life and prayer, is neglected even in the church. But lament is a tonic to our fallen world and our fallen state. Lament is the painful and sometimes angry heart cry before the face of God. We are desperate that He do something to help us or to comfort us in our losses. The Psalm cries, "How long, Oh Lord?" (Psalm 13:1).
Learning to lament as Christian leaders
Christian leaders can practice and teach the art of lament. First, we should learn the language of lament by returning to the Bible's teachings. Consider Psalms 13, 22, 39, 88 and 90 to start. Read and reread them. Pray through them. The Psalms teach us how to bring every emotion before God, including deep sorrow and anger. Psalms 39 and 88 are the only two Psalms that do not resolve into praise or thanksgiving. Yet, they, too, are God's word to us. When the profundity of lament digs into the soul, church teachers will want to teach these healing truths as an antidote to healing wounds lightly with clichés and outright falsehoods.
Psalm 90 is, perhaps, the most theologically and existentially developed of the lament Psalms. It is for me, and I have preached from it many times. It is the only Psalm of Moses, “the man of God.” Its themes are universal and personal.
God is our creator and our home.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:1-2).
But we pass away quickly.
“You turn people back to dust,
saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.” (Psalm 90:3-6).
The ferocity of God’s holiness threatens us and our years are filled with trouble.
“Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
If only we knew the power of your anger!” (Psalm 90:10-11).
We know that through the work of Jesus Christ, God’s anger has been turned away and that we are forgiven. But we can still cry with Moses for deliverance from this fallen and wounded world which awaits its full redemption.
“Relent, LORD! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:13-14).
Moses ends his lament with a request.
“May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
establish the work of our hands for us—
yes, establish the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17).
So much more can be said of Moses’ lament, but note its structure. Moses’ recognizes and prays through the greatness of God, our dust-like mortality in contrast, our sin and our anguish in our fallen world. Nevertheless, he pleads with God for a meaningful life in the midst of the dust and ashes.
Lamenting alongside others
Second, besides teaching on lament, we can learn to lament well with our parishioners. Lament does not gloss over grievous wounds as if they were not serious. Courage is needed to enter into the suffering of others, but this is what compassion is. In Lament for a Son, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff writes about the death of his twenty-five-year-old through a mountain climbing accident. He counsels those who want to grieve well with others to never say “it really is not so bad.”
To deny this pain would be to devalue the life that was lost, and that life is irreplaceable. Kate Bowler is a young professor and mother with stage 4 cancer. In Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies that I have Loved, she cautions us to not console the severely suffering with the words "at least..." She quips, “what could be worse? "At least it's not stage 5 cancer"? No, the aches and acids of sorrow need to be acknowledged and respected for what they are. Being there and being silent is better than troubling the air with words that do not heal. I often ask give me the ability given to his Son, the Messiah.
“The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” (Isaiah 50:4).
When Christian leaders learn the language of lament, teach it to others, and lament well with those suffering in their midst, God will be pleased and many will be loved in a new and proper way.
Lord, give us an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. Amen.
How do you continue to find God as dementia pulls your loved one into the darkness? Philosopher Douglas Groothuis offers a window into his experience of caring for his wife as a rare form of dementia ravages her once-brilliant mind. Mixing personal narrative with spiritual insight, he captures moments of lament as well as theological reflection and poignant pictures of their life together.