Recently, friends of mine shared their struggle of having children with our church. It was a raw and honest testimony that told the story of their already 9-year-long journey. It was – among other things – a story of deep hurt and suffering, of desolation and hopelessness and the feeling of having been forgotten. A story that is still in process, still “unfinished” – a story where prayers have not yet been answered, where hopes have not yet come to fulfillment. It moved me – and our church – deeply.
Often when we hear testimonies in church, they start with a desperate and hopeless situation and continue with struggle and doubt. However, most of all I have heard end with some kind of positive outlook. And then God came through, He helped, my prayers were answered, He gave hope, He turned my sorrow into dancing, and so forth. I do not wish to disregard those stories. They are important testimonies of faith and we need to hear them. They should be shared. However, in my experience, we hardly ever encourage the sharing of “unfinished stories” and I wonder if they are not, too, worth hearing.
Stories of suffering are unique – everyone deals with it differently and there is no formula as to what is helpful and what isn’t. Mostly, I think, it’s an up-and-down experience where something might be helpful one day and may feel the exact opposite another day. Further, suffering can have positive outcomes – it can strengthen one’s faith and relationships, it can lead to (much needed) change, can bring clarity to one’s life etc. These positive and hopeful sides of suffering are the ones we often focus on – which is why I do not wish to write on them today.
Because there is also a side of suffering that feels like free falling and drowning at the same time. It squeezes the air out of our lunges and robs us of the power to speak or think clearly, let alone be hopeful. It is a time where hope feels like a burden, an obligation, an unattainable reality so far out of reach that even trying seems too much.
When we read Scripture we are often met with prayers that seem to reflect such suffering and ask the familiar questions: Why, Lord? It would be so easy for you to bring change. Can’t you hear my prayer? Can’t you see my suffering? How much longer must I bear this?
“How long will you forget me, O Lord? Forever?” (Ps. 13:1)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from me?” (Ps. 22:1-2)
“Also when I cry and shout, he shuts out my prayer.” (Lam. 3:8)
“O LORD, how long shall I cry, and you will not hear! Even cry out to you of violence, and you will not save!” (Hab. 1:2)
“But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:13-14)
Usually these Psalms and Lamentations have a point where things change, when God finally intervenes. Not so Psalm 88. It ends with: “You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.” (Ps. 88:18)
I think there is a reason why there are texts like Psalm 88 in the Bible. They are uncomfortable, feel one-sided somehow, but they are no mistake. They are an expression of faith, of doubt, of outrage, of disbelieving hurt and suffering, and ultimately, they are a prayer. A lamentation. A way of communication with God.
For when there is no more consolation in hope, we may find solace in lamentation.
And yet, expressing lamentation feels risky and uncomfortable. It is risky and uncomfortable to have no answers – for those suffering but also for those witnessing it. It is uncomfortable and challenging to not offer hope, to not explain that, surely, this suffering is only for a season and might even have a reason. That God does have a plan, that he will intervene. That He never gives us more than we can carry. That we can never fall deeper than in his hand.
It is natural to try to find answers, try to find a reason, sometimes even (unwittingly) blame the one suffering. Or equate lamentation with doubt. However, by that we limit the often very necessary room for the expression of suffering and lamentations as a natural part of spiritual life.
Jesus himself prayed and lamented in Gethsemane, and later on the cross. Isaiah speaks of the suffering servant as “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.” (Is. 53:3) And the writer of Hebrews tells us that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” (Heb. 5:7)
These verses paint a picture of hopelessness and brokenness. In Gethsemane Jesus asked his disciples to be with him, to pray with him, to comfort him in his ultimate time of trial. In Gethsemane we see a suffering Jesus, who doesn’t offer consolation but seeks it.
Our God is a relational God who is not only found in the happy and uplifting experiences of life. He is also a God who is in the most darkest valleys and the most severe experiences of our suffering. He makes room for the suffering, the lamenting and the broken. These experiences don’t take up a quiet corner in the backroom, but can be found all throughout scripture. They are not rare and isolated experiences, but sit at the very core of what it means to be human and are a most natural part of life and faith, of a life lived by faith.
Therefore, I believe that if we wish to preach a holistic faith, if we wish to truly speak into the life of people, we must also speak of the dark and uncomfortable places. We have to also highlight this side of the walk of faith. Without clichéd, prefabricated answers. And we have to resist the urge to immediately want to jump to the part where hope and salvation comes.
And that’s extremely challenging – because suffering and lamentations are raw and unpredictable forces. They don’t adhere to common church culture, they are not cultivated or polite. They make us feel powerless and entirely dependent on the intervention of God. They are uncomfortable and unsettling. They make us speechless and highlight the distressing truth that even we Christians don’t have all the answers.
And yet, we have to make room for suffering and lamentation.
What might that look like?
The expression of suffering and lamentation requires trust – trust that it won’t make everything awkward. Trust, that you will not somehow be blamed, labeled, gossiped about, ostracized, pitied or fobbed off with cliché “Christian answers”.
In order to make room in our churches for lamentation and suffering, we first need to strive to create a community, to build relationships that allow people to come as they are, to be authentic. Where they feel comfortable enough to show and share not just their victories and visions but also their vulnerabilities, their hurts, their sorrows, doubts and suffering.
Suffering challenges the striving for perfectionism – of being perfect and bulletproof. Our world celebrates those who, after they fall, immediately get up, dust off the dirt and keep on walking with their head held high. Who keep trying. They are set before us as the examples of how to deal with failure. Often, there is no room or grace for those who keep sitting in the dust. Who have no strength to get up. Who have “not enough faith to hope”.
However, by creating a space in church where people can express just that – that they are hope-less, that they are at their wits end, that they feel forsaken and forgotten, that they are questioning everything they know or thought they knew about God– only when there is room for true lamentation, there can also be room (at the right time) for the lending of faith and hope. That is, a space where consolation and words of hope are spoken into the situation, where we stand in side by side with our brother or sister in the face of their trial, where we pray with them or just sit beside them in the dust.
However, when my friends told their story, they said an interesting thing. They said that you cannot sit with someone in the dust without getting a little dirty yourself. Richard Foster expresses a similar sentiment, when he writes on the “Prayer of Suffering”:
If in all the pantheon of prayer there is one form that is totally other-centered, we have now come to it. In the Prayer of Suffering we have left far behind out needs and wants, even our transformation and union with God. […] We stand with people in their sin and sorrow. There can be no sterile, arm’s length purity. Their suffering is a messy business and we must be prepared to step smack in the middle of it. […] We pray in suffering, and as we do, we are changed. […] The language of “they” and “them” is converted into “we” and “us”.
Foster, R. (1992), Prayer, pp. 230, 232.
Anyone who has been in a desperate situation with a loved one knows how very difficult it is to have no answers. How helpless and desperate it makes you feel when you see someone suffer without being able to do something about it. It requires courage and vulnerability to just sit with someone in the proverbial dust without offering answers and possible solutions or explanations. To just be there. To let yourself be touched by their suffering, to let go of the fear of pain, the fear of not having everything under control.
Lamentation and suffering require trust, vulnerability and authenticity on all sides.
Some of the most haunting questions of suffering also include: Am I allowed to feel this way? Am I allowed to be this angry? Aren’t others suffering way more than I do? Or maybe even Am I to blame?
These questions need to find answers. They need to have room in our churches and our relationships, and the only way to do so is if we allow ourselves and others to be authentic and vulnerable. If we show love, grace and compassion to others and to ourselves. If we, besides all the testimonies of hope and joy and victory, also share our experiences of suffering and lamentation, of trial and sorrow and of unanswered questions and doubts.
May we walk, sit and stumble through life together – through all the highs and lows; may we lend each other faith and hope when its desperately needed, may we have the courage to be authentic and vulnerable and may we make room for lamentation as a natural and necessary part of spiritual life.
For when there is no more consolation in hope, we may find solace in lamentation.
Until the day “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Rev. 21:4)