Sometimes life in this broken world is overwhelming. If we didn’t find it so from time to time, there would be something wrong. We were made for a world that was wholly different than the one we live in. When this world fails us, God is pointing us to Himself and the world that will come again. It’s not that we endure ‘here’ until we arrive ‘there;’ but suffering in this world will help us learn to live ‘here’ in light of what is coming.
It is an unparalleled tragedy to live in this ‘valley of the shadow of death’ as if this was all there is. In all of life, God is pointing us to something greater; to Himself. However, there is a very real danger that we’ll miss seeing God; that our circumstances won’t move us toward Him in love, but away from Him. Our response to our suffering will have significant impact on the effectiveness of the work God seeks to do.
We Might Miss Seeing Him: By Giving All Our Attention to the Circumstances
The things that come at us in this world—loss, disappointment, physical pain, rejection, intentional cruelty—can at times be so overwhelming that we fail to look beyond them. We might be tempted to believe we can’t look beyond them or even that there is nothing beyond them; that our suffering is all there is and ever will be.
We Might Miss Seeing Him: By Fleeing the Sorrow and Longing
It takes great courage to face the painful circumstances we experience in this world. We are tempted to steel our hearts from the ache and stoically soldier on. Perhaps we are afraid; afraid that if we turn towards it we will be pulled into it’s vortex with no way of escape. So we get busy. Or we hide away. Or we attempt to anaesthetize ourselves with drugs or alcohol or vocational success or recreation or possessions or …
We Might Miss Seeing Him: Because of Flawed Theology
Sometimes the lies are easier to believe than the truth. “My suffering is unique; no one understands.” “I deserve to suffer more than others.” “God is not powerful enough to change this.” “God doesn’t care about my suffering.” “I am without hope.”
Where Does My Help Come From?
So exactly how do we navigate the valley of the shadow of death with God in full view so that the trials and suffering of this world aren’t moving us away from God, but rather, toward Him? Thankfully, our gracious God wants us to know. One of the ways He shows us is by letting us inside the stories of fellow travellers who have also struggled. In His account of history, we have the privilege of hearing the heart cry of men like Job, Elijah, David, Paul, and even His Son. There is great comfort in knowing that others have journeyed this road before us. There is even greater comfort in the revelation of God’s intimate interest in their (and our) suffering.
So often, our responses to suffering are an attempt to move us away from it, and in the process we move away from God. Anger. Busyness. God-replacements that we hope will numb the pain. Over and over again in the Scripture, we encounter people who struggled and moved toward God instead of away. So many of the psalms take us into the inner battles of men who wrestled with the circumstances of life. They were confused and angry, but they didn’t let their emotions keep them from seeking God. They sought—and God met them, patiently reorienting their perspective until they understood the truth and were able to see God’s goodness even in deep trials (i.e. Psalm 3).
Job had an ash heap (Job 2:8), Elijah had a broom tree (1 Kings 19:5), David had a cave (Psalm 57 and 142), and Jesus had a garden (Matthew 26 and Hebrews 5:7-8). When life was overwhelming, they got quiet. They stopped and waited for God. And God met them, cared for them, answered the cry of their hearts.
For some He revealed Himself to them in new ways; others He comforted. He didn’t give them all they asked for because sometimes ‘no’ is the right answer, but He was there to walk with them through the pain.
Here’s the key. Wait. We don’t know how long Job was in the ash heap or Asaph was in God’s sanctuary (Psalm 73) before God was able to change their perspective on the suffering of this world. It can be a slow process, but these, and many other stories like them, are telling us about the kind of God He is. He meets people where they are. He doesn’t condemn them for being there but He doesn’t leave them there either. He speaks truth to replace the lies. And the whole process is powerfully infused with love that then grows in the hearts of those with whom He meets. Not only is the relationship comforting; it’s transformative.
Let Others Join You in the Ash Heap
Independence is our banner and it is our curse. Culturally we are proud of our ability to ‘go it alone,’ but God doesn’t mean for life in Him to work that way. I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say, “It won’t.” In the Garden of Eden, God created Eve ‘because it was not good for the man to be alone.’ God Himself exists in relationship and as His image bearers, we are given two commands that summarize the purpose of our existence: be in loving relationship with God and with each other. God is most glorified when we are learning to live in loving relationship with Him and with others.
It’s risky business to share your ash heap with others. Inevitably, you will encounter some counselors like Job’s. However, there is a greater risk than this. When we shut others out, we reject the ministry God has ordained (2 Corinthians 1). We might be safe from potential hurts but we are also cut off from the ministry of comfort He seeks to provide.
Sing Your Lament Until You Don’t Need To: When You Can, Sing Praises
Gifts of grace come to all of us. But we must be ready to see and willing to receive these gifts. It will require a kind of sacrifice, the sacrifice of believing that, however painful our losses, life can still be good (see Jerry Sittser in A Grace Disguised, p. 79).
God is calling us to humble ourselves under His mighty hand. In that place, we remember that He is God and we are not; that He is good and all He does is good (Psalm 119:68). And He calls us to draw near to Him, to wait on Him and promises to respond by drawing near to us. There, in His tender care, He shows us that lament and praise, like sorrow and rejoicing can coexist; that even though life is hard, when our hearts are near to His there may be a lament, but there can also be a song of praise.
Join the Conversation
What does it look like, sound like, and feel like in your life to lament like the Psalmists?
How can we invite other to lament like Jesus?