What if, in God’s command to love others as ourselves, there is an invitation for believers to be anguished by what hurts others and by sin that tears communities apart?
We only have to watch about five minutes of the evening news to see something unjust, infuriating or heart-breaking. These days, nearly every story manages to include all three at once.
A worldwide illness drove us all inside; countless jobs were lost and systems upended as people tried to protect the vulnerable; the fearful swarmed grocery stores to empty aisles; then protests fill the streets as a cry rose against historic and systemic injustices; outside groups came in to capitalize on the crowds, confusion and pain with opportunistic looting and arson; police officers have been attacked; innocents have been assaulted; communities are becoming divided on how to respond.
Our world seems determined to pull itself apart at the seams.
For some, the answers seem obvious; for others, this cascade of events has left them at a complete loss for what to do next or even how to react. The heart can feel so battered and lost that it may seem easier to close our eyes and ignore the news.
In his book memorializing the loss of his 25-year-old son, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote, “But we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much, though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.”
If we take this invitation to love and grieve seriously, how do we cope with the emotions and the pain without ignoring it or being overwhelmed?
Why Do We Still Hurt?
Mark Vroegop wrote for Desiring God about a fundamental kind of grief that many of us are experiencing in this season and then how believers are called to respond. “Lament is the prayer language for God’s people as they live in a world marred by sin. It is how we talk to God about our sorrows as we renew our hope in his sovereign care. To cry is human, but to lament is Christian.”
Suffering, pain and grief are not our favorite words. In fact, in some branches of the American church and in much of our everyday ideology, they are ignored altogether. People feel ashamed if chronic illnesses aren’t healed or they struggle financially or they don’t have an answer to the question, “If God loves us, why do we hurt?”
Netflix’s documentary American Gospel: Christ Alone explored how pervasive this mentality has become in the modern church.
“Whatever happened to anguish in the house of God?” David Wilkerson asked. “Whatever happened to anguish in the ministry? It’s a word you don’t hear in this pampered age…. So many times we say to God, ‘This time you’ve touched me for life. I’ll never be the same.’ It’s just all fireworks, a loud band and a lot of noise, and then it dies. All true passion is born out of anguish.”
How else can we explain the book of Job or Lamentations or events like Christ’s crucifixion or Paul being executed in Rome? Scriptures are filled with bad things happening to godly people, and these individuals’ difficulties and questions are not swept under the rug.
Not only are believers, ancient and current, invited to identify pain and wrestle with grievous problems, but they’re called to do so corporately. A third of the Psalms are laments, public invitations to join in with others’ suffering.
Philip Yancey, Christian author and longtime editor-at-large for Christianity Today, said in an interview about God and suffering, “A healthy body is not one that feels no pain. A healthy body is one that attends to the pain of its weakest part.”
The Western church may need to relearn this discipline that many believers in other parts of the world have never had the luxury of forgetting.
Not Getting Lost in the Sorrow
In his sermon “A Call to Anguish,” David Wilkerson lays out justification and a pretty clear framework for godly lament. He describes how Nehemiah heard news that deeply disturbed him and was heartbroken at the destruction of his homeland.
“God found a man who would not just have a flash of emotion,” David Wilkerson emphasized. “Not just some great, sudden burst of concern and then let it die! He said, ‘No. I broke down. I wept, and I mourned. I fasted, and then I began to pray night and day.’”
Nehemiah turned to God with his torment and laid out exactly what was twisting his insides into knots. He begged God for an intervention.
He didn’t ignore the terrible news he was given; he didn’t let it make him lose hope for a redeemed future. Instead, he allowed it to bring him to tears and then he held these tears up before God. He confessed his sins, remembered God’s promises to his people and then he pleaded, “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man” (Nehemiah 1:11, ESV).
When we are slapped in the face with horror and heart-break, when we’ve turned to God, when we’ve acknowledged how broken we are in front of our holy Lord, then we are to remember God’s promises.
Here we have to be careful. Especially in our pain, we may all too quickly take God’s Word out of context or tweak them a little to promise ourselves relief.
God loves us and is merciful to us, but ultimately, he will also be just and work in his own time, for his own glory. We must pair whatever we’ve found in scripture with the final step of a lament: trust in God. This does not mean that we stop wrestling with issues or stop talking about them or stop fighting for what is right or stop weeping for all that is wrong in the world.
As Pastor Mark Vroegop said, “Laments are not cul-de-sacs of sorrow, but conduits for renewed faith.” In another place, he added, “The practice of lament is one of the most theologically informed things a person can do”
Through the pain, we trust God’s goodness and purpose.
The Church’s Need for Lament
Paul Miller wrote the deeply thoughtful and impactful book A Praying Life, and in it, he said with conviction, “There is no such thing as a lament-free life...To love is to lament, to let your heart be broken by something. If you don’t lament over the broken things in your world, then your heart shuts down. Your living, vital relationship with God dies a slow death because you open the door to unseen doubt and become quietly cynical. Cynicism moves you away from God; laments push you into his presence.
“So, oddly enough, not lamenting leads to unbelief. Reality wins, and hope dies. Put another way, the reality of a broken world triumphs over the new reality of a redeemed world. You miss resurrection and get stuck in death.”
Ryane Williamson put it in a slightly different way for The Village Church, “In our attempts to meet the unspoken expectation of perfection within our Christian subculture, we so often simply refuse to lament. We refuse to acknowledge the dark and difficult realities of our lives and our world in a way that honestly demonstrates our dependency on the Lord…
“Consider your need for lament. What’s breaking your heart? What reality of your life or our world is just too much to bear on your own?”
Sadly, recent events have given us more than a few options with which to answer that question. It’s time to turn to our God, lay out our bleeding hearts, dig deep into his Word and recommit ourselves to trusting him while in the grip of anguish.