This article originally appeared in a Sola Publications periodical, which has since ceased publication. I'm sharing it with readers here with their full permission.
For years I’ve gone to my mom when I had a problem. Ever since fifth grade when I didn’t get invited to the right slumber parties, she’s been hearing me out. Recently, I encountered a situation where I sensed God asking me to sit alone with him. He invited me to spend time with him first and seek godly counsel after that. Maybe. It’s not that I’m wrong to seek Mom’s advice, or that of other godly individuals. Rather, God wanted to teach me that sitting with him when I’m hurt, grieved or angered does a greater work. When we run right to counsel, all talk and feelings, we miss out on the opportunity to commune with God in a deeper, more meaningful way.
The matter at hand was a church issue. I’d been involved in theologically unpacking the way forward for our local church, but ultimately the decision making was out of my hands. I did not agree with the final outcome, but I knew the individuals who made the decisions had sought God through scripture, prayer and spiritual discernment. God reminds me often, if you’ve found a church that does these things together, you’ve found a healthy church indeed. Still, I needed to sit with the disappointment, let the feelings wash over me and offer each one up to God with hands of surrender. I would eventually include others in the process, but I needed to go to God first.
I found myself in the early stages of lament. An online Bible dictionary defines lament:
To mourn to grieve to weep or wail to express sorrow.
First with God, then with man. Lament as partnership. A number of stories in the old testament demonstrate how to do this well, but perhaps none more so than the book of Job—the biblical poster child for suffering. What did lament look like in the life of Job? Upon receiving news his children had died, and suffering from a physical illness himself, Job took time to lament in the following four ways:
1. He sat among the ashes (Job 2:8)
One of the best ways to acknowledge our grief is to sit with it. Society offers any number of ways to run from or ignore suffering, sorrow, or disappointment, but consider what God has for us if we sit in these tender moments.
When we first started attending our current church, a family in the congregation lost their little girl to trisomy 18, a rare chromosomal abnormality. Kylie lived for thirty-two minutes, seemingly insignificant, yet a priceless amount of time for the family to hold the infant and say their goodbyes. Our pastor ministered to them in their loss. He met with them privately and officiated at the funeral. The first Sunday my friend came back to church after Kylie’s passing, the pastor scratched his prepared sermon and spoke words of lament from the pulpit. He demonstrated to our congregation how to walk alongside a grieving family.
In her book No More Faking Fine Esther Fleece writes,
It appears we are keeping disappointment and heartache inside the counseling offices instead of expressing them in corporate worship or even from the pulpit.
We need to learn, like Job, how to sit with our church family among the ashes, not rushing grief, but offering up hurting souls to our great healer.
2. He realized the presence of friends was a gift (Job 2:11-13)
The second chapter of Job introduces us to his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar (Elihu speaks up later in chapter thirty-two). At first, they seem like a welcome relief. Upon arrival, they offer Job condolences and comfort. They join him in weeping, tearing their cloaks, and tossing dust in the air over their heads. Then, for seven days and seven nights they sit beside Job on the ground and don’t speak. These are all cultural norms for the time; physical ways communities grieved together.
And if they had quit there, they would have been very good friends indeed.
We know though, they don’t quit there. They proceeded to offer advice, even spewing accusations. In our day too, silence gets uncomfortable, so we share what we consider words of wisdom. Take Eliphaz’s words as an example, “Your iniquity dictates what you say, and deceit is your chosen language” (Job 15:5). So. Not. Helpful.
I lost my father to a sudden tragedy in 2006. My parents had divorced a couple years prior. My older brother and I lived out of state. My other brother held my dad in his arms as he took his last breath. Without warning, our family found ourselves in the eye of a hurricane, and our lifeboat had a hole in it. God drew near, and we rode out the storm, surrounded by family and friends I’d known my entire life, including those who had raised me in the church. I don’t remember much of what anyone said to me during that difficult time; at my childhood home, at the church luncheon, at the funeral home or cemetery. I remember faces in the crowd though. I can still feel their hugs. I knew the presence of loved ones and it helped carry me through.
3. He asked God for a response (Job 7:17-21, 31:2-12)
In chapter seven, Job calls on the “watcher of the human heart,” asking why he finds himself a target. Repeatedly, Job wants to hear a word from God, whom he has trusted. We all do, when things happen that we don’t understand. During those times when God appears to be silent, as we personally, or the entire world, suffer another disaster, man-made or of natural causes.
God answers, in his time and his way, although it may not always be the reply we anticipated. Just ask Job.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the tempest.
From the eye of a storm, he reminds Job and his friends, and all those who have encountered the ancient book of Job since, that he is God; his ways are bigger and his vantage point greater.
In the midst of our lament, as we sit alone and with one another, it’s important to wait there until we sense God speaking. These are the moments our soul longs for, not the answers to all our questions, but the felt presence of our Lord.
We’ve reached my favorite passage in all of Job,
I knew of you then only by report, but now I see you with my own eyes. Therefore I yield, repenting in dust and ashes.
When we learn to lament, in the ways God intended, we can’t skip any steps, no matter how long each one lasts. We might even spend some time going backwards. Know this, while lamenting we can expect to meet with God spiritually. In this state of submission, the Holy Spirit will bring to mind areas where we need to surrender or repent, notice verse six above tells us this is done in dust and ashes as well. Jesus, who knew great suffering, joins us. We lament with our triune God.
4. He got a new start. (Job 42:10-17)
If I had authored Job’s story, it would end differently. Perhaps readers could encounter the first resurrections, and Job’s children would live again. We could read about the earliest development of a medicine that cures boils overnight. Before I, like Job, get a mighty scolding from God, let me assure you, it’s a good thing God is the author and perfecter of our lives, our faith.
In the final chapter, we learn Job had seven more sons and daughters (beautiful ones we’re told), God blessed him with great material possessions, and he lived a long life. But he still lost everything before that, including his original ten children, and that’s not fair. Therein lies part of our need for lament, because life is not fair. Lament won’t make things fair, but in time it makes room in our hearts for something new. When we lament as individuals, as a church, as a society, we better see the role suffering plays in the bigger picture. As believers, we realize taking the time to mourn properly can deepen our faith in God. Although the book doesn’t mention it, I would surmise Job never forgot the family he lost. I think he learned to seek God before receiving advice from his wife or friends. He likely held his possessions loosely.
I’ve realized over the years, we lead highly individualized lives of faith. Tragedy happens and we’re too embarrassed to talk about it. We wouldn’t be able to show our faces at church again if anyone there found out. Family and individual secrets are kept hidden for fear of judgment or, God forbid, to avoid the trite statements that actually leave us feeling worse. What if we stopped pretending we live instagram-worthy lives?
Together, let’s make room for lament. The Church offers a number of practices to help us. As individuals or in small groups, pray the psalms, from a prayer book or directly from the Bible. Seek out small groups where you can learn about lament from scripture and books. Churches, even if it’s during scheduled times, open your sanctuaries for prayer. Clergy, walk us through the intentional lamenting seasons built into the church calendar; advent, lent and particular days of holy week. Regularly offer prayers of confession, altar calls and guided silence during worship. Invite individuals to share their testimony from the pulpit. Preach exegetically from books like Job and Lamentations. Worship leaders, lead us in songs of sorrow and repentance amidst our songs of praise.
While God doesn’t cause the suffering, in the midst of it, there are ways to experience more of him. When lament is a regular practice in our personal lives and the lives of our congregations, we can partner with those who have read Lamentations over the ages, saying,
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23