Complain to God. Go ahead. Not only does the Bible allow it, it encourages it. Skeptical? Read on.
2 Corinthians 4:7-15
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
This is the second part of a two-part topical series called “Resurrection & Lament”
Resurrection and Lament? What’s the connection?
1 Corinthians 15:54-55
54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
Then, death loses its sting. Now, it still stings.
Death stings. And all the ways death works into our lives. It isn’t just when we die. It’s the slow decay of dying, and our efforts to work against it over and over again. Our loved ones die and leave us, or they stay and become disinterested. We bear our children in pain, and sometimes lose them in pain that makes the pain of labor pale by comparison.
We live in the land of lost jobs, joyless work, broken dreams, broken relationships, broken promises, broken bodies, broken lives. We bear crushing responsibilities and heaviness of heart that stops us dead in our tracks. We are taken by depression, cancer, diabetes, MS, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, aids, lupus, paralysis, and a hopeless myriad of other ailments and tragedies that haunt the homes of the human race.
Suffering wakes us up to a world that hurts. Like suddenly waking in the middle of a forest so cold and so dark it could just as well be the middle of the winter and the middle of the night. We have some vague recollection of how we got here but have no clue as to how to get out. What do we do? What should we do?
When my son Aedan was 4 years old, I took him with on a VBS mission trip to an Indian Reservation. In the first 45 minutes with the kids there, Aedan took a pool ball to the knuckles, a fist to the back, and was pummeled by a boy on a bicycle – all of this by unapologetic children. Later in the day he ran through knee-high thistle in a pair of shorts. The day was a painful realization for Aedan that the world he lived in could hurt so much.
Aedan responded to his pain in the way we ought to respond to ours: he wept.
Michael Card, in his book Sacred Sorrow, says that the God-designed path through and out of the impossibly dark forest of suffering, sin, and death is the dimly lit path of lament.
I think we must be convinced of this. We don’t believe it. Lament is a capitulation of faith at worst. At best it is just awkward. The emotions associated with lament are inconvenient and embarrassing. Even in the church, we can look down upon those who grieve and complain in ways that make us uncomfortable. We want them to pull it together…to have more faith.
We labor to convince our kids they cannot give voice to their every complaint, and we, as adults, follow suit, concluding in the end that most things are just not worth crying about.
But the Bible, on the other hand, is so ripe with lament as to encourage us to weep all the more, for the consequences of sin are far more costly than we ever could have imagined.
We find in the pages of scripture the laments of Job, Jeremiah, David, Ezra, Solomon, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and Jesus, who pronounced a blessing on those who mourn. This Biblical Chorus of Lament is given voice in the Psalms, one-third of which are psalms of lament. The Bible seems to suggest by its broad representation of lament that it is okay to say we hate the pain.
I. Lament as an Act of Faith: It’s okay to say we hate the pain.
We could see this in any number of passages ripe with lament, but this morning I want us to look more closely at this passage from 2 Corinthians.
As context, Paul says in chapter 1:
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
Paul says he was crushed beyond his ability to endure.
In verse 8 of chapter 4, Paul says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” How could Paul be so overwhelmed beyond his ability to endure and yet not be driven to despair?
The answer is given to us in verses 13 and 14: “It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.”
In these verses, Paul speaks of a specific kind of faith, the same sort of faith the psalmist had. Which psalmist? Probably the one that penned the psalm from which he quoted, “I believed in God, so I spoke.” Spoke what?
This is a quotation. The context from which it came is implied. We’ll know better what Paul was saying if we know where the quotation comes from. We do know where it comes from. Psalm 116, verse 10:
“I believed in you, so I said, I am deeply troubled, LORD.”
I believed in God, so I said to God, I hurt.
Paul makes this connection so as to convince us that the same faith that believes God raised Jesus from the dead and believes that we too will be raised, is the faith that enables us to give voice to our pain while we’re dying.
the Bible would have us believe that complaining to God is not so much a display of faltering faith as it is a bold and God-honoring act of faith – one that demonstrates the belief that God is as real to us as the pain that we are in, and that he is tender enough and strong enough to hold onto us even when our rage is misdirected – even when we’re angry at him.
This means our honesty with God honors God. Lament is an act of faith.
Michael Card says we must relearn the lost language of lament in order to find our way through the forest of suffering which is this world. So this morning I want us to consider what the Bible has to say about why, what, and how we lament, and then finally, examine the fruit of lament.
II. Why, What, & How We Lament: (Re)Learning the Lost Language
The Bible seems to give us at least three general reasons why we lament in this life: sin, suffering, and death. And the first of these is the cause of the others. So let’s consider first the lament of sin. To do so we’ll listen to the words of the Old Testament’s weeping prophet, Jeremiah, in Jeremiah chapters 8 and 9.
Jeremiah lived at a time in which his people, the nation of Israel, had been conquered and humiliated by the large empire of the Babylonians. This had happened as a direct result of Israel’s refusal to obey the words of the Lord. They had sinned, and this exile was the consequence of that sin. It is in this context we read the words of Jeremiah in chapter 8, verse 21:
“Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. ?22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? ?Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”
1 Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! ?I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”
So Jeremiah cries. But while he cries, we see that, despite the widespread devastation, Jeremiah still had to convince his people to lament their sins to the LORD. He says in verse 17
This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them. 18 Let them come quickly and wail over us ?till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids. 19 The sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How ruined we are! How great is our shame! 20 “Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD: Open your ears to the words of his mouth. Teach your daughters how to wail; teach one another a lament.”
We read in Lamentations 2, Jeremiah saying, “Cry aloud before the Lord, O beautiful Jerusalem! Let your tears flow like a river. Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord.”
Jeremiah had to persuade God’s people to lament in his day. But are we any more willing to lament as they were?
Michael Card says that, “There exists within American Christianity a numb denial of our need for lament… So the language of lament sounds stranger and stranger to our ears. It is heard less and less in our churches, and when it is voiced, rarely are our sins genuinely lamented. [But it is only] through lament [that] we regain both a sense of awareness and a language to express the hopeless depth of our sin.”
And Jeremiah would have us believe that we should lament not only for our sins, but also for the sins of others. And there’s plenty of that to grieve over these days.
But there is one other important thing we can learn about the lament of sin from the prophet Jeremiah; it is that God-ward grief over sin is always expectant of the Lord’s loving-kindness. It is not a dead-end. It is lament in anticipation of the Lord’s forgiveness.
Listen to his words in Lamentations 3: “My tears flow endlessly; they will not stop until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees… The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.”
Jeremiah foresaw that because of the coming Messiah there would be no sin that needs to be lamented forever. The presence of God is found in the confession of our sins.
There is another reason we lament found often in the pages of scripture, and that is the lament of suffering.
In the book of Job, we are introduced to a man who was said to have been blameless before God, yet who suffered extraordinarily. While his suffering could not have been possible without the sin of Adam and Eve, his suffering was not a direct result of sin in his own life. He did not “have it coming.”
Yet in the matter of a few days Job lost his wealth, his health, his children, and the loyalty of his wife and friends. The book then records his complaints to God, his conversation with his friends, and in the end, his conversation with God.
Listen to his words from chapters 6 and 7: “For the Almighty has struck me down with his arrows. Their poison infects my spirit. God’s terrors are lined up against me. Don’t I have a right to complain? Is not all human life a struggle? I cannot keep from speaking. I must express my anguish. My bitter soul must complain.”
Suffering of this sort seems to call forth some of mankind’s boldest laments. Consider Job’s from chapters 10 and 13: “I am disgusted with my life. Let me complain freely. My bitter soul must complain… As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself… God might kill me, but I have no other hope. I am going to argue my case with him.”
In all sorts of suffering, but in physical suffering in particular, we are made acutely aware of our own mortality. Job says, in chapter 14; “How frail is humanity! How short is life, how full of trouble! We blossom like a flower and then wither. Like a passing shadow, we quickly disappear.”
Which brings us to the third and most final lament in scripture, and that is the lament of death.
For this I’d like us to look at Jesus, gathering with others at the grave of his good friend Lazarus, who’d been dead for several days. Look with me at John chapter 11:33-36.
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
This passage suggests Jesus wept with such passion that many of those who saw him were deeply convinced of his deep affection for this man who died. Yet keep in mind that this is moments before Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. There’s no reason to believe that Jesus himself did not know he was about to do this. So Jesus wept knowing full well what was about to happen.
This is important because the promised resurrection is sometimes wrongly applied AS reason NOT to grieve at the death a loved one who’s died in the Lord.
I remember just out of high school, a friend of mine and my sister suddenly died of complications from cancer, a cancer that by all accounts was being contained. It took us by surprise, and my sister, a few years younger than me, took it harder than I did. I remember sitting with her in her bedroom while she cried. I remember reading from first Thessalonians four and telling her plainly that she shouldn’t cry.
Jesus weeping at the grave of a friend he’s about to raise to life should put to rest such suggestions. Furthermore, Thessalonians Four does not tell us to refrain from grieving, but rather to grieve in a way that is different from those who have no hope. As Christians, we are not to be denied the natural out-workings of grief. Celebrate their lives. Anticipate resurrection. But by all means, grieve.
It could be said that Jesus demonstrated lament for all three causes of grief: he wept for the death of Lazarus; he wept for Jerusalem because of her sin; and he wept in the garden and from the cross for the pain and suffering he bore in his body. Isaiah said he was a “man of sorrows; acquainted with grief.”
Moreover, when Jesus cried from the cross, he quoted the first line of the Psalms most devastating psalm of lament: Psalm 22, the first two verses of which say, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.”
Which brings us to the what of lament, or exactly what it is that we’re trying to say when we lament. When we lament we express a great many things. But though there are many things we may feel or say, the whole of it, in our lives and in the scriptures, can be summed up in one of two questions: “WHY, GOD?” and “WHERE ARE YOU, GOD?”
David exclaims in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?” Job, in chapter 23, from the darkness of his affliction, says of God, “He is not there…he is hidden.” And in chapter 13, he says, “Why do you hide your face from me?”
And this is what we cry too when something in our lives seems to contradict our understanding of God as wise and good. Michael Card points out that “disease and death will always seem inconsistent with God’s loving-kindness.” And in this case, our lament to God is an appeal of faith, in the belief that God must notice the incongruence between our pain and his love.
Too often the one who gives voice to this problem, or whose broken body or broken life puts this problem on display, is quarantined from the community, or at best, nudged into the periphery. The suffering one makes us uncomfortable.
C.S. Lewis, when he was grieving the death of his wife, spoke of this social exile in A Grief Observed. He says, “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.” Job spoke of this in chapter 19: “My relatives stay far away, and my friends have turned against me. My family is gone, and my close friends have forgotten me.” David echoes this again in the Psalms, in Psalm 33:11: “I am despised by my neighbors – even my friends are afraid to come near me. When they see me on the street, they run the other way.”
And finally, Jesus himself dealt with this, as prophesied in Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and forsaken of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom men hide their faces.”
We are tempted, especially in our day, to see grief as a sign of weakness. We are tempted to take offense at, or quickly seek to correct the one who claims to follow God and yet dares to question God with these bold inquiries of WHY and WHERE ARE YOU.
But the peculiar community of faith, which we are called by God to be, is not to be like this. We are told in Romans 12:15 to “weep with those who weep” and in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens.” Where the world might seek to remove itself from the embarrassing presence of suffering, we are invited by the spirit of God to enter into suffering, and cry tears with the ones who suffer.
Which leads us to the “How” of lament, specifically, that we are meant to lament TOGETHER.
It’s been mentioned already that one-third to a half of all the psalms are psalms of lament. Why that matters here is because, for hundreds of years, the psalms were Israel’s communal songbook. It’s what they sang when they worshiped together. And with the coming of Christ it became the Church’s songbook as well. What this means, is that these laments are intended to be sung together. The people of God are to be a people who lament together.
This is hard to do. It is especially hard to do well. The best example of how not to do this is found again in the book of Job.
Job’s friends come to Job, after receiving word of his loss, to share in his grief. And at first they do something well. They sit with Job in silence for seven days. This became an ancient Jewish custom called sit shiva, which means, literally, to “sit seven.”
At the end of these seven days, Job begins to speak “in the bitterness of his heart,” and Job’s friends are scandalized by the brazen honesty with which he addresses God.
They try to temper Job’s discontent and to discredit his accusations. They do all they can to correct his theology and silence his complaints. And Job is forced to defend himself and his sorrow to his friends. At the end of the book, it’s Job’s friends whom God reprimands, and of Job God says, “He has spoken rightly of me.”
Michael Card says he observes in the book of Job five cycles of lament, in each of which Job’s complaints to God are interrupted by Job’s friends and their defense of God, so that Job is repeatedly distracted from complaining to God and coerced into conversing about God with his friends. Card goes on to point out that, each time Job’s lament is derailed, Job is given to despair.
Card goes so far as to say that lament is the polar opposite of despair. Lament keeps Job, and us, “in the ring” with God, as it were; keeps our gaze God-ward, even if God can’t be seen.
Job teaches us that when speaking of God, it is better to use the pronoun “You” than the pronoun “He.” It is better to complain to God than to have a conversation about God.
Job says to his friends in chapter 13: “As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself. As for you… if only you could be silent! That’s the wisest thing you could do.”
Christians are called to be better friends than Job’s. When the afflicted one asks “Why?” we are to understand it is not a question that is asked of us, so it is not a question that is ours to answer. We are to see another’s grief not as an opportunity to give advice, or to correct theology, or to make a lesson of their pain, but as an invitation to enter into their pain as Christ entered into ours; and if their gaze is not God-ward, to point them to God, inviting them to complain TO God, and then, as much as we are able, to complain to God WITH them.
We cannot afford to “brush over” or collectively try to hide our brokenness. We must instead take what opportunity is ours to enter into the pain of those who hurt – to “bear one another’s burdens; to weep with those who weep” – and so share in the suffering of Christ IN SUCH A WAY so as to truly put him on bright display in a dark and hurting world.
I believe that if we learn to lament together well, our corporate tears will boldly and incessantly remind the world that something is terribly wrong, and we are in desperate need of one greater than ourselves to put our world to rights.
We live now in an age and location that C.S. Lewis calls the Shadowlands: this pitch-black forest where many will build little campfires and live forever in denial and in the dark. But “lament is the polar opposite of denial.” And together we can walk the dimly lit pathway of lament, by which we grieve the darkness of the forest, find our way out of the forest, and weep along the way into the brightness of God.
Which brings us finally to the end result, or the fruit, of lament: God found and a story to tell.
III. The Fruit of Lament: God Found & A Story to Tell
Daddy’s Face, Daddy’s Chest, and An Empty Grave
The first lesson we learn in the world as infants is the lesson we learn in lament: our crying invokes a response. When we lament in God’s direction, though he may seem to take his time, God always responds to the cries of his people.
Again, from Card’s A Sacred Sorrow: “The ultimate answer to all laments is not to be found in the specifics of what is lamented for. The true answer for a lament of disease is not ultimately a cure. The real solution for a lament of financial distress is never simply money. The answer is always found in the Presence of God. It is rarely what we ask for, but it is always what we ultimately need.”
We can be like Job, who sought God for an answer and got God for an audience. Job wanted to comprehend his suffering and what he got was a companion in his suffering. Through lament, Job found God in the darkness of his pain in such intimacy that at the end of the book he would say to God, “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.”
We can be like my boy Eli, when he was only three months old and sleeping on top of the covers between his mom and me. He would often wake abruptly in the middle of the night, screaming with his infant voice and flailing his arms around in the darkness over his head. All I had to do was lean my face into the space near Eli’s writhing little body, and when Eli’s fist would brush up against my cheek, his crying would stop and his body would be calmed. He would know his daddy was there, with him in the dark.
In our lament, we are like a little boy in the lap of our Abba God, lovingly invited and given full permission to say whatever we need to say and as loudly as we need to say it; to cry hard and give full voice to our complaints, as toxic as they may be; to beat our clenched fists hard into his chest (because Daddy can take it) until, exhausted, we collapse into the embrace of the one who’s cried with us and been with us all along, held and loved back into the peace we thought was forever gone.
We can be like Lazarus, dead in the grave for days because of the love of the one who could’ve saved him but let him die, so that through resurrection, he would have a story SO stunning that he could say, not that he was merely healed from sickness, but that he was RAISED FROM THE DEAD by the one who called him friend.
Lament is the path by which we pass through the darkness of the death that is ours to die and into the healing embrace of our Father, who raises the dead and gives his resurrected ones new life and a story to tell.
In the second chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet is given a scroll on which is written, “funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom.” He is then told to eat the scroll, and is surprised to find the bitter words taste like honey in his mouth.
We, too, may be surprised by the sweetness of lament.
Science has shown that the tears produced by crying expel harmful toxins from our body; hormones associated with high blood pressure, heart problems, and stress. But the best part of lamenting together is the belly laugh that so often follows our times of weeping with someone else. When together we discover that God really is near to the broken hearted; that he doesn’t break bruised reeds; that there really is comfort for those who mourn.
Along the way we find that lament is one of the most direct paths to the true praise we know we have lost. For in lamenting God’s absence, we come to recognize his presence; in lamenting the pain of death, we come to the hope of resurrection. Lament in the hands of Jesus becomes more than the path to worship; it is the path of worship, and by it, the Lord is praised.
May the Lord be so praised.