Laments on Pain and Suffering
Amidst a "Positivity"-Driven Culture
O LORD, the God who saves me,
day and night I cry out before You.
May my prayer come before You;
turn Your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of trouble
and my life draws near the grave...
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom You remember no more,
who are cut off from Your care...
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief...
But I cry to You for help, O LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before You.
Why, O LORD, do You reject me
and hide Your face from me?
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered Your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
Your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.
~from Psalm 88
Like grief, we get angry when something we love is under attack. Anger can be a protective response. If parents didn’t get angry when someone was deliberately hurting their children, you’d have to wonder if they really cared. Anger shows we care and want things to be different.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes,
or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed";
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
Our willingness to expose our pain is the means God gives us to help identify and respond to evil and injustice. For creation is not as it ought to be. The lament is a cry of protest schooled by our faith in a God who would have us serve the world by exposing its false comforts and deceptions.
From such a perspective one of the profoundest forms of faithlessness is the unwillingness to acknowledge our inexplicable suffering and pain...
[Lament] leads us to the dangerous acknowledgement of how life really is. [It leads us] to think unthinkable thoughts and utter unutterable words.
Perhaps worst, [the psalms of lament] leads us away from the comfortable religious claims of ‘modernity’ in which everything is managed and controlled.
[We believe] that enough power and knowledge can tame the terror and eliminate the darkness. But our honest experience, both personal and public, attests to the resilience of the darkness.
- Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine,
and the Problem of Suffering (Eerdmans: 1990), 82-83.
Internal quote from Brueggemann.
We have a problem. Too often, we jump forward to the solution in an effort to avoid the full seriousness of our predicament.
Too many attempts to discuss suffering end up making light of it, by making it merely a means to a beneficial end: it will teach us perseverance; it will build our community; it will chastise our faults; it will enable us to minister to others who suffer; it will bring glory to God.
Any or all of these may be true - or true at least some of the time - yet any attempt to make positive outcomes into the purpose and meaning of all suffering is cruel.
And it makes God cruel.
There is no need to justify suffering through recourse to a "greater good" that is served by it. God may bring from it greater - or lesser - goods, but these are not its meaning.
So let us first simply acknowledge that it hurts and is wrong, and let us lament and protest. The God we worship 'is not a God who needs protection from our cries and suffering.
Authenticity is important to me, as I want to know what is REAL and TRUE even if it is painful, because then I can be realistic about what I am up against and do my best to prepare myself to face what is really in front of me. We (as a society) have gotten so "politically correct" and "nice" in our communications that often, we end up saying nothing of any value, and perhaps of any truth.
Grief helps us child-loss grievers cut to the chase and be real because Grief MAKES US REAL! No hiding. No pretending. No pretense. What you see is what you get --because we don't have any extra energy to do otherwise! And we know that LIFE is too important and too short to spend any time being fake!
~Angie Bennett Prince
It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of every man;
the living should take this to heart.
The Christian gospel tells us more of the meaning of sin than suffering. ... To the "why" of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course, some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder is not told us. It eludes us. Our net of meaning is too small. There's more to our suffering than our guilt.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 74.*
I think this is such an important point to remember both pastorally and apologetically. Our job is not to explain all suffering. We can protest, groan, learn to endure - without explaining.
For the early Christians, suffering and evil … did not have to be ‘explained’. Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be ‘explained’. Indeed, it was crucial that such suffering or evil not be ‘explained’ – that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing the suffering.
- Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine,
and the Problem of Suffering (Eerdmans: 1990), 49.
That there is no 'explanation' of suffering and evil does not mean that God has no response. There is no explanation in the sense that there is no exhaustive account of the origin and purpose of evil, how it fits into the world and plays a useful role. But God's response is found in the cross and empty tomb - and the promise that arrives with the Spirit as the first-fruits of a new age.
The focus for Hauerwas, however, is in the present gift of a community of grace that enables us to go on in hope.
When the enemy of your soul slaps you around and knocks you down and says, “Why don’t you just stay down this time?” The Hand with great wounds reaches down and lifts you up, and the Lover of your soul whispers in your ear so only you can hear, “I got this.” He defends the weak and heals the broken and knows there is infinitely more to your story.
- Geoff Ludlow
Several quotes from Byron Smith from http://nothing-new-under-the-sun.blogspot.com
*Wolterstorff, a well known American theologian, offers a moving personal reflection upon the tragic death of his 25 year old son in a climbing accident.