Sometimes life sucks. We get sick or injured, our families break up, our friendships are destroyed, our finances ruined, or any of thousands of other things. That and we watch, often helplessly, as these things happen to the ones we love. And then there is death. Suddenly someone is gone and nothing is ever the same again. No one is immune. No one is exempt. These kinds of events happen to us all. Things may be great right now, but the night will come and darkness will fall on each of our lives. This is the inheritance we have from our first parents and their disobedience.
The universality of sorrow in the human experience led the Buddha to exclaim that “all life is suffering.” His answer was to seek detachment from the world and its cares. As Christians, we sometimes end up with a similar detachment but from an altogether different reasoning. We proudly proclaim that life is good and that the suffering in the world is the result of sin. But then we downplay our own sorrow and say that because Jesus loves us and died for us everything is ok. We’re fine. After all, Christ has set us free, both now and in eternity. Just think of how great heaven will be! But on the inside our hearts are breaking and we struggle against our circumstances and the consequences of our decisions. We can, and do, ask for prayer but we try not to get too emotional about things.
Maybe what I’ve described isn’t like your church. But most churches in America do little more than acknowledge that suffering happens and try to provide a supportive space for people to work through things in private. Don’t get me wrong; this system has helped lots of people for a long time. The downside is that by only letting people work through their pain in private, the public face of the church is one where everything is always rosy and everyone is always smiling and the sad stuff happens behind the curtain. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
The Apostle Paul tells us that we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). For most of us, the first part is easy. We all like to be happy. On the other hand, sorrow is hard. Weeping isn’t fun. Grief is a heavy burden. But we are not supposed to carry our burdens alone. Christ tells us to cast our cares upon him. He has given us the Holy Spirit as a comforter and a guide. And he has given us the church to be our family – our support system. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one celebrates, we all celebrate.
Lessons from the Psalms
It’s hard to read through the Psalms and not be struck by how much sadness is in them. To be honest, it sometimes feels a bit whiney. But that’s one of the things that makes them real. Real people with real issues wrote them, brining their hurts and cares to God. The fact that they remained in the Scriptures shows us that God listens to and receives our prayers – even the whiney ones. These sorrowful psalms are called laments and just like the other psalms they formed an integral part of the worship of Israel and the worship of the church up until recent times. When most churches abandoned the singing of psalms in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, they unwittingly abandoned a whole language of corporate lament. If we want to recapture this expression then we would do well to look at how lament functions within the psalms.
The psalms of lamentation usually follow a set pattern. They name God in respect to some aspect of his character or some act that he has done. Then they lay out the issues that the author is concerned about and make a petition for God to act. The psalm invariably ends with some declaration of praise to God – sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy. One example of this is Psalm 85. Verse 1-3 address God as forgiving. The psalmist then goes on in verses 4-6 to question God as to why the people continue to suffer. In verses 7 and 8 a petition is made for the Lord to show his love and speak peace to his people. The remainder of the psalm is a description of the Lord’s goodness and the benefits that flow from it.
The ending of praise is important. A cynic might look at it and say, “oh, these people are trying to sweet talk God into doing what they want.” The truth is very different. At least in part, the praise at the end is for us. It is a reminder that God is in control, that he chooses the best even when we can’t see it, and that he is a loving and compassionate Father. It reminds us that there is hope in the midst of our pain. The night will pass and the darkness will not reign forever. It reminds us that the Morning Star has risen in our hearts.
An Anchor in the Storm
Faith, hope, and love. It’s one of the great bumper sticker phrases from the Bible. But it is a bit of an unequal trio. I’ve lost count of the sermons I’ve heard and the books I’ve read on faith and love. Though there is plenty of writing and speaking on hope, it has tended to take a back seat to the other two, at least in my experience. I think that, in part, it is because we talk about faith as an assurance of things not seen. This definition tends to lead us to think of things as already being accomplished. I have been saved. God has a great plan for my life. While these things are true they are a bit simplistic. I have been saved, but I am also being saved and will be saved. God has a great plan for my life, but the details of that plan depend on my actions and willingness to follow his direction. These things are already done but not yet realized. Faith acknowledges the end and sees it as already. Hope acknowledges that while our situation is beyond our ability to manage, God is in control. Hope lives in all of the uncertainties of the not yet.
The tension between faith and hope is easy to gloss over. If we begin to spend “too much” time on our circumstances, we are told to have more faith. But hope recognizes our circumstances and God’s ability to use them for his glory. The writer of Hebrews notes, hope functions as an “anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19). A boat on a journey has little need of an anchor in calm weather. But when the winds blow and the seas get rough, the same boat can throw its anchor into the water and the anchor will steady the course of the boat in the face of the wind and waves. The boat can continue its journey knowing that while it may be blown about and battered in the open ocean it will not be overcome by the angry sea.
It is in this sense that hope anchors us. It doesn’t fix us to one place, rather it orients us to the One who controls our circumstances and can bring us through. Hope will not make the seas less rough, the darkness less black, the pain less severe, or the road less hard. But it does give us the strength to keep moving forward and to push back against the forces that would leave us in despair. Hope gives us the will to fight through the sorrow, the fear, the hurt, and the unknown because, when combined with faith, we know that our circumstances are not insurmountable and they do not define us.
Weeping in Worship
We need this message in our worship services, but how can we incorporate these ideas into our worship? I think it has to start with the leadership. Pastors and other leaders need to be open about the struggles they face. There is an enormous amount of pressure to appear holy and righteous, and the fear is that if we admit we are struggling then we aren’t holy enough. But that’s exactly the point – none of us are holy enough and we all face trials, sorrow, and pain. When leaders are real with people about our own suffering, it gives others permission to do the same. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that church become a massive pity party. But I am saying that we need to set aside our masks and be open with each other about the events in our lives.
In the service itself, there are several opportunities and options that allow for people to express their sorrow. A big one is reintroducing the psalms into our worship. It may feel strange to sing laments at first, but it is hard to argue with the words of Scripture. Moreover, by using the psalms to provide the language of lament, we can be certain that we are honoring God as we weep together. If that isn’t something that seems feasible, the answer might be as simple as having an occasional time when people are invited to come forward to share their grief with a counselor and receive prayer within the context of worship. Another option could be to allow for a time of open prayer where individuals can voice their own petitions within the group. Are there people who will abuse such an opportunity? Yes. But as leaders we can set expectations for how that time should be used and model what is appropriate. The important thing is that we give space for people to speak to God from their hearts. That is how we move forward; we lament our brokenness/sorrow/pain to God and then hold fast to the hope that he offers us in Christ.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Jesus was no stranger to suffering. Countless times in the gospels we see him moved by concern for the plights of others. At least twice, he openly shed tears: over the death of his friend Lazarus (even though knows he is going to raise him from the dead a few moments later), and over the city of Jerusalem during his triumphal entry. When it came to his own personal suffering, Jesus made no effort to hide his feelings to make others comfortable. In several places we are told he spoke openly about his coming death but the disciples weren’t able to understand what he was talking about. At the last supper, Jesus rejoiced that the moment had finally arrived, but it’s hard to miss the note of sorrow as he spoke to his friends. In the garden, Jesus poured out his heart to God – not alone, but with some of his closest followers near at hand. His ultimate suffering, his torture and crucifixion, was not a private matter but carried out before friend and foe alike. His resurrection is important because it gives meaning to all that he did and suffered. It shows the glory, power, and – above all – grace of God. Jesus’ resurrection did not make all of the things he suffered better. Instead, it redeemed those events and gave hope to us.
We need hope. Faith and love are loudly proclaimed – and rightly so. But what of the hurting people who are questioning where God is in their struggle? Where is their chance to cry out to God like the psalmists (to say nothing of the myriads who have used the psalms in worship) and petition him to move and act? Are we weeping with those who weep? Are we acknowledging the reality of sin’s impact on the world? We have much to celebrate in Christ Jesus, but we also have much to lament about the present state of the world. Let’s not be detached from the suffering around us. Let’s go forth boldly into the world with faith and love, but also hope.