To Love Is to Lament

Have you ever been shocked by what is written in the Psalms?

Arise, O God, defend your cause;
    remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!  (Psalm 74:22)

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
    you have been angry; oh, restore us.  (Psalm 60:1)

Have you ever wondered how the psalmists dared to speak like that to God? In fact, why in the world are prayers like that included in God’s holy word as examples of how we should pray?! They seem rather presumptuous, or at least a bit disrespectful.

I certainly have wondered those things before, and just as certainly have struggled to pray in that way. So Paul Miller’s explanation of Hebrew laments in his new edition of A Praying Life is very helpful for me:

Laments might seem disrespectful, but in fact they are filled with faith–a raw, pure form of faith that simply takes God at his word.

There is no such thing as a lament-free life. In fact, if your life is lament-free, you aren’t loving well. 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. 

God rebukes his people and his priests because “they did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?'” (Jeremiah 2:5-8) A sure sign of their wandering hearts is that no one is in God’s face. No one takes hold of God and pulls. This idea is so strange to our ears that I must repeat it: God is upset with Israel because they are not lamenting. We think laments are disrespectful. God says the opposite. Lamenting shows you are engaged with God in a vibrant, living faith.         [pages 173-175]

I need to lament. Life in this broken, sinful world is not as it is meant to be…and not as it one day will be. I need to lament over the childlike creativity and initiative that died in my daughter during her years in an orphanage. I need to lament over the inabilities to love that I find in myself and see in others. I need to lament the senseless devastation taking place in our own country and around the world.

“Where are you God? When will you answer these cries of my heart? Let me not give way to hopeless cynicism. Come and help me!”

 

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A Lament for the Weary

My wife and I have had the joy of attending a national conference on Biblical counseling, put on by CCEF, for the past couple years, and this year’s conference in Frisco, Texas was our favorite so far. One of the biggest highlights for me at each conference has been the time we spend singing in worship, and this year was no exception.

I learned a new hymn there, which ministered deeply to my soul. The hymn is a lament song, written by Anne Steele in the mid-1700’s, as a hauntingly beautiful expression of her deep trust in God in the midst of weariness and doubt and struggle. I love how she addresses God as the “dear refuge” of her weary soul. In my own weariness and pain, this honest lament points my longing soul to the ever-open mercy seat of God as my sure and constant hope. Here are the first and the fourth stanzas:

Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief,
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief,
For every pain I feel

Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet,
Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet

You can listen to the hymn here, or read more about the writer, Anne Steele, from the musicians who are attempting to bring it back into circulation, Indelible Grace.

Long-Suffering

I am not a patient man.

People who know me might say that I am pretty easygoing. My personality assessment would define me as one who is not too easily ruffled. Compared with others, perhaps I tend toward patience in many of my interactions. And for the most part, that is true.

But held up against the Bible’s description of patience, and measured against my Savior’s example of long-suffering, I realize how far from patient I truly am.

I’ve been reading a compilation of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons on I Corinthians 13 (the book is titled Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love), and what Edwards says about verse 4 of that “love chapter” of the Bible is very sobering and convicting to me. In modern English we do not use the term “long-suffering,” but that is what the word “patient” in I Corinthians 13:4 means. Edwards says that this patient quality of love is called long-suffering, or suffering long, for this reason:

Because we ought meekly to bear not only a small injury, but also a great deal of injurious treatment from others. We should continue in quiet frame without ceasing still to love our neighbor, not only when he injures us a little but also when he injures us much, when the injuries which he does are great. And we should not only thus bear a few injuries but a great many, and though our neighbor continues his injurious treatment to us a long time…. The meaning is not that we should bear injuries indeed a long time, but may lawfully cease to bear them at last; but the meaning is that we should meekly bear injuries though they are long continued, that we should not only bear it when men injure us a little while and then soon repent of it, but we should meekly bear it though they continue in their injuriousness a long time, yea, let it be ever so long.  [pg 100]

If that is not convicting enough, Edwards further says that the manner in which we meekly bear injurious treatment for a long time is not with a “bitter exasperated countenance” nor with “rash and hasty expression” but with “peaceableness and calmness” and grace. If needed, a person…

…may reprove his neighbor; but if he does, it will be with politeness and without bitterness, which still shows the design to be only to exasperate. It may be with strength of reason and argument and serious expostulation, but without angry reflections or contemptuous language. He may show a dislike of what is done, but it will not be with an appearance of high resentment; but as a man would reprove another that has fallen into sin against God, rather than against him; and as lamenting his calamity more than resenting his injury, and as seeking his good rather than his hurt; more to deliver him from the calamity into which he has fallen than to be even with him for the injury he has brought on him.  [pg 98]

Oh that I could truly see and lament the calamity of another’s sin against God as the far greater problem than that person’s injury to me! What would that look like to meekly bear injury against myself without contempt or resentment but truly with sorrow for the calamity that person will face before God because of their sin?

And lest I bemoan the fact that injuries against me seem to happen so often, Edwards cautions that I should not be so surprised.

If we are not disposed meekly to bear injuries, we are not fitted to live in such a world as this, for we can expect no other than to meet with many injuries in this world. We do not live in heaven, or a world of purity, innocence and love. We dwell in a fallen, corrupt, miserable, wicked world; a world that is very much under the reign and dominion of sin…. Men who have their spirits heated and enraged, and rising in bitter resentment when they are injured, or unreasonably dealt with, act as if they thought some strange thing had happened to them. …it is no strange thing at all; it is no other than what is to be expected in such a world…. A wise man does not expect any other and is prepared for it, and composes his spirit to bear it. [pg 106, 107]

I am not a patient man. I complain all too easily about the short suffering that I face. My spirit gets easily ruffled and resentful from others’ injurious treatment toward me. Edwards’ apt application of Scripture pierces my pretense of patience and shows me how desperately I need the Spirit of God to grow this fruit in my heart.

Vent…or Lament?

In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, I said that learning to lament is one way to practice the Romans 12:12 command to “Rejoice in hope; be patient in tribulation; be constant in prayer.” My understanding of lament is that it is pouring out my heart and pouring out my complaint…to God. And the operative phrase there is to God. The orientation of my heart makes all the difference between sinful complaining and God-honoring lament.

I read a wonderful description of lament in a brand new book that I’ve been devouring in the last couple days since it arrived. Andrew Wilson, a pastor in the UK, along with his wife Rachel, have written an incredibly hopeful and helpful little book called The Life We Never Expected, reflecting on their still-very-raw-and-painful journey of learning to live and love in the midst of a regressive autism that has begun to affect both of their young children. This is what Andrew writes:

Lament is more than crying, of course, although it is certainly not less. It also involves putting into words the depth of feeling and sadness we’re experiencing: in prayer, in a journal, in a song, or whatever. Doing this forces us to give due weight to our emotions, which many of us (particularly the English among us) are not always very good at; articulating them carefully helps us understand them, as well as handle them wisely. But it also forces us to take our pain to God, first and foremost, before we take it to other people. Lament, you see, is about bringing your sorrows to God, in painful description, petition, and confusion, and throwing all your doubts and questions at him. Rushing to dump them on friends, on family, or on Facebook, without having gone to God with them first, is not lamenting but venting, and in the long run it doesn’t do nearly so much good. With the best will in the world, people aren’t big enough to absorb your grief. God is.

And so, less than an hour after reading those words, I found myself yelling at God in exasperation over the impossibility of breaking through my daughter’s institutionalized-stupor-made-worse-by-Down-Syndrome, which was being displayed in her bath time routine. No one else was in the house to hear me, and I’m not sure what my yelling accomplished, but it was a lament, and in it my heart was oriented toward God. Because He alone can awaken life and mindfulness in my daughter…and He alone can bring healing to my angry, hurting heart.