Wednesday 10 June 2020

On Learning to Lament

The below is an excerpt from an email written for the congregation where I am one of the pastors.

How could God allow that to happen? If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why doesn’t he just fix everything?

Perhaps you’ve been asked questions like those. Perhaps you’ve asked them yourself, possibly even over the last few weeks.

How we respond depends, at least in part, on whether the questions are being asked from the perspective of an ‘armchair’ or a ‘wheelchair’. In some cases, the issue of suffering is little more than an intellectual challenge to the existence of God, and is asked from the relative comfort of a conversation between friends or in a radio phone-in discussion. In other cases, the questions are heartfelt cries from those who are themselves in agony, broken, and completely bewildered with the misery of pain, evil, and injustice in a messed-up world.

The contrast between philosophical and personal engagements with suffering can be seen in the writings of C.S. Lewis. As a university don, he wrote a book called The Problem of Pain, in which he argues from a theological and philosophical perspective that human pain, animal pain, and hell are not sufficient reasons to reject belief in a loving and all-powerful God. But, as a devoted husband, he wrote a book called A Grief Observed, reflecting on his experience of bereavement following the death of his wife from cancer. Which book is more helpful? Which is more truthful? Which is more authentic? Both, at different times of life? Each in its own way?

It’s in the pain of bereavement that Lewis writes: ‘Meanwhile, where is God? ... Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.’

Some of us might be able to relate to that. Certainly the psalmists could.

Would it surprise you to learn that laments are the largest category of prayers in the book of Psalms? Take a moment to reflect on that: what might it mean that the Holy Spirit has so overseen the writing of Scripture such that over a third of the Psalms bring a troubled situation to the Lord – not in a cold, detached way but from a place of deep agony? What does that say about our own expectations of the way things should go? How are such prayers to shape our own prayer life?

In every case, these psalms allow an honest response to God in prayer from the depths of the broken hearts of his hurting people, even to ask those challenging questions: Where are you, Lord? How long, Lord? They provide a way to pray through a period of crisis, grief, or despair. They give us the words to express our brokenness, our need, our longing for justice. Most importantly of all – and contrary to what we might think at first – they demonstrate trust in God, because they’re addressed to the only one who really does hold all things in his hands.

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