Before I left my last call in South Carolina I spent a good amount of time working up a preaching schedule, planning out my Scripture texts and sermons until the end of the year. Well, it seems that every time I plan something, my plans are interrupted. And I’m going to forget what I was to preach on today, and switch topics.
I’m doing this because you and I have been through some rough times in recent weeks. You are such a close congregation, and I know you are hurting because of the deaths of some folks you loved dearly, deaths of a young man, a young woman, who died too young and left behind children and spouses and hurting hearts.
I am hurting too. Three weeks ago, the day before I was to leave my last church, I spent four hours in the boiler room of the Bishopville Presbyterian Church with a church member, a friend, who had a loaded and cocked revolver to his head, trying to talk him out of committing suicide. I did not succeed, and he took his life there in front of me.
How shall we, as God’s people, people of faith, respond when these things happen? Some of us search for explanations; we think if we can figure out some reason why so-and-so happened, our aching hearts will be healed. And ingenious thinkers have for thousands of years grappled with those questions.
Yet the scriptures give us no-clear-cut answers to our “Whys?” There are no answers to why bad things happen to good people. Scripture does not try to link tragedy and pain to some larger purpose. No, scripture gives us something else altogether. Scripture teaches us to lament, to cry out to God when tragedy and sadness and suffering strike.
We shall now read of two examples of lamenting; the first from the book of Job, and the second, from the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Old Job. Do you remember his story? He is the most righteous man in the world, and is living a near perfect life. He is wealthy, he looks after the poor, he has a wonderful family. And one day it all comes crashing in. As Frederick Buechner put it, “The Sabeans ran off with his donkeys and oxen and slaughtered the hired hands. Lightning struck his sheep team and burned up the whole flock, not to mention the shepherds. The Chaldeans rustled his camels and made short work of the camel drivers. And a hurricane hit with such devastating effect the house where his seven sons and three daughters were having a party that there wasn’t enough left of them in the wreckage to identify.”1 And then on top of all that Job developed leprosy.
What was Job’s response to all this? He did not show patience, or quiet resignation. No! Job lamented, by crying out to God, wrestling with God, complaining to God, a God who seemed utterly absent.
Scripture is full of lament. The psalms most notably — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalms 22:12). Jeremiah shook his fist at God and bellowed at him, “O Lord, you enticed me, and I was enticed; and you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” (Jeremiah 20:7-14). Indeed, a whole book of the Bible the book of Lamentations — is devoted to the laments of the people of Israel whose nation was destroyed, and who were carried off in chains to captivity in Babylon.
Lament is the way God’s people have through the centuries responded to tragedy and suffering. The Bible gives us no clear-cut answers to the “why” of tragedy; nor does it teach us passive resignation. No, the Bible teaches us to grapple with God, wrestle with God, cry out to God.
Some folks are instinctively horrified at the idea of crying out to God. Job had four “friends” (if they can be called friends) who were horrified, dismayed, and annoyed at his lamenting. Eliphaz told him to suck it up and stop moaning — others have been through worse. Bildad made the charming comment that Job’s dead children merely got what they deserved for being sinners. Zophar said he should’ve been thankful that God didn’t punish him more, and that Job had better shut up and repent or God would really hammer him. And then Elihu told him that old standby — “Job, God’s trying to teach you something.”
You may know people who try to comfort others like that. There are those who see the universe as a place where good people get blessed and bad people get punished. With that premise in mind, they figure if one is suffering, one is being punished. This line of thinking cannot deal with tragedy or irony or ambiguity or the absence of God — somebody’s got to be blamed. Lament has no place in that sort of thinking.
Other folks may teach passive resignation. Everything that happens, so they think, happens because of a direct application of the will of God. To question what happens therefore is close to blasphemy, because one is questioning the Almighty.
Dr. Andrew Purves, professor of Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tells of the time he was speaking on the psalms of lament. After his lecture, a man came up to him, and asked, “Do you really mean I can speak to God like this?” Purves replied he could. The man went on to explain that four years before his little girl had been killed in a car wreck. Others had taught the man not to question what happened, and he had bottled up his pain ever since. After their conversation, the man walked over to a dark corner of the room, and Purves watched him shakes his fists at the sky, and say over and over a word one doesn’t repeat in church.
That grieving father went into that corner and lamented before God. That man’s shaking his fists and crying out at the Almighty was perhaps the truest prayer he ever uttered in his life. You see, lament is not a cry of unbelief, but a cry of faith, a cry from a person of faith who believes in God, trusts in God, but whose world has fallen in.
We need to understand something crucial about the gospel, and that is this: the gospel is not for good and righteous and smugly content people. It is for those who hurt, suffer, struggle and lament, for those who cry out to God for help and deliverance. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not God’s pat on the head for “good” people; it is God Himself giving us the grace through Christ to survive the dark nights of the soul. As John Leith puts it, “The Christian gospel is directed to the … pathetic, tragic and ironic dimensions of human life.”2 The gospel is not for those who suck it up, who think they have the strength to get through whatever life throws at them; for as Frederick Buechner puts it, “The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves …”3
A cry of lament — from Job’s mouth, from the psalmist, from any one of God’s people — is a cry of faith. Now some of us may have been taught to respect God so much that we are afraid to show Him anything but obedient submission. We hide our pain, our anger at God, we swallow our laments for fear of making God angry. But Henri Nouwen pointed out, “When I need a doctor’s care, I show him my wounds. I do not hide them and show him only what is healthy.”4 The closer we are to God, the more we dare to say what’s going on in our minds and guts. And if we limit our relationship to God to pious, sentimental moments, our spiritual life quickly runs out of gas because we are separating our spiritual life from the issues that really matter in life. Lamenting does not distance us from God; it draws us closer to Him. I wonder how many people languish in the shadow lands of grief longer than they must because they do not express their grief and pain and anguish, and yes, even anger, to God.
God can handle our grief, anger and pain; God will not be offended by cries of lament. There is a wonderful teaching in George Bernanos’ little book Diary of a Country Priest that goes, “… Our God (has) come to be among us (in Christ). Shake your fist at him, spit in his face, scourge him and finally crucify him: What does it matter? My daughter, it’s already been done.”5
Yet does our lamenting do any good? Are we, like King Lear, only screaming into a wind that drowns out our words? If you remember from our scripture reading, Job asked God, “Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see?” Job wanted to know if God could understand, could see, could feel his suffering.
That’s one of the greatest questions of the ages. But we know its answer. The answer to Job’s question is yes. Yes, because of Jesus Christ. Jesus. Who endured abuse — and scorn and torture, and who died after rasping out those incredible, shocking words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Words of lament, from a psalm of lament, coming from the lips of the Son of God, who hung there, bleeding and dying and alone, experiencing the absolute terror of the absence of his Father.
Nicholas Walterstorff is a professor of philosophy, a Christian, at Calvin College. He wrote a terribly poignant book called Lament for a Son after his 25 year old boy was killed while mountain climbing. If you ever wish to try to understand the agony of a parent who has lost a child, read the book. Walterstorff writes, “How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity’s song — all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself. We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.”6
Do you get that? When those nails were pounded into Jesus’ hands, God himself felt the pain with every strike of the hammer. When Jesus hung gasping for breath and dying, that was God up there struggling for breath. Do you see what kind of God we worship? One who came all the way down to us, down into the depths of human life, and shared all of it, even absence and death and pain.
Wolterstorff later in his book speaks of how we are to know what Christ is like. He refers to Jesus’ meeting with Thomas: “Put your hand in my wounds,” said the risen Jesus to Thomas, and you will know who I am.’ The wounds of Christ are his identity.7
Our Lord still carries those wounds in his resurrection body, wounds that forever connect God with human tragedy and pain, wounds that ensure that when God’s people lament, he understands their language for in Christ he has spoken it himself.
Yet lament is never the last word for a person of faith. For lament moves God to action. Perhaps not as quickly as we would like. But God appeared to Job, and the appearance so dazzled him that he was left speechless, and God blessed Job once again. Jesus’ life was not extinguished after he rasped out those terrifying words of lament; for the God he trusted while even on the cross raised him from the dead. And that same Jesus — because he has risen, comes to us, supports us, cradles us when we lament — and brings us through to the other side.
Praise be to a God of such grace and goodness. Amen.
1Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 65.
2John Leith, The Reformed Imperative, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988, p. 61.
3From a sermon by Frank Harrington, “Christian, How Can We Tell?” preached Nov. 22, 1992.
4Don Postema, Space for God, Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1983, p. 135.
5Quoted in Disappointment With God, by Philip Yancey, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988, p. 123.
6Nicholas Walterstorff, Lament for a Son, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987, p. 80.
7Walterstorff, p. 92.

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