Psalm 22:1-15 – Responding to Trouble

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me,
    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
    like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death. (New Revised Standard Version)

Christians readily recognize the beginning question of this psalm. Jesus asked it from the cross (Matthew 27:46). Today’s psalm is a heartfelt lament, an affirmation of trust, a call for help, and vow to praise.

Lament

Grieving and lamenting is neither selfish nor sinful. It is necessary. God did it. Job did it. Jesus did it. And the psalmist did it – repeatedly, I might add. So, we ought to do it. It’s biblical. Part of our hard-wiring as humanity is to lament our significant changes and losses in life.

Some folks believe it sacrilegious to challenge, complain, and/or yell at/to God. However, God is big enough to handle our contentions. There are times in life when God seems very distant and aloof, as if the Lord is not paying attention to our plight and pain.

Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering. (Job 2:11-13, MSG)

Asking “why?” can come from a belligerent heart, or it can arise as a genuine heartfelt expression of hurt, anger, and wondering. One thing us humans need to become comfortable with is that it is okay to not be okay. Not everything needs to be fixed, even though we would like it to.

Yet, if we don’t understand what the heck is going on, and where God is in it all, pouring out a passionate cry is both legitimate and encouraged.

Affirmation of Trust

It helps when we have a track record of God working in the past. Even if that doesn’t include personal experience, we have an entire human history of God’s dealings with individuals and groups of people concerning deliverance, care, and help.

If we have been in the habit of affirming our faith in God through daily prayers and weekly worship, then trust comes more reflexively and organically.

Be merciful to me, O God,
    because I am under attack;
    my enemies persecute me all the time.
All day long my opponents attack me.
    There are so many who fight against me.
When I am afraid, O Lord Almighty,
    I put my trust in you.
I trust in God and am not afraid;
    I praise him for what he has promised.
    What can a mere human being do to me? (Psalm 56:1-4, GNT)

One of the reasons I like saying the ancient Creeds of the Church together with God’s people is that it affirms and deepens my existing faith. To know that millions of Christians throughout the past two-thousand years, as well as the believers around me today, openly confess and affirm their faith with these words, helps strengthen me for the hard times to come.

Call for Help

One of the best prayers we could ever pray is “Help!” For many people, asking for help is a humbling affair. It smacks of weakness, perhaps even neediness – as if it’s a sin to not always be strong or be dependent on another.

Scour both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and you will not find weakness or dependence to be sin-worthy. It’s just the opposite. Delusions of independence and strength are signs of misplaced pride which believes we ought to be able to handle any situation. God wants us to ask for help when we need it.

The wicked are too proud to ask God for help. He does not fit into their plans. (Psalm 10:4, ERV)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7, NIV)

I will do whatever you ask for in my name, so that the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14, GNT)

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. (James 1:5, NLT)

Vow to Praise

Whenever we go through difficult times and come out the other side, it is important to tell our story. The sharing of stories deepens our faith, as well as edifying others. And then, down the road, when another event upends our life, we can recall the faithfulness of God in the past.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

 Those who are far from you will perish;
    you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
But as for me, it is good to be near God.
    I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
    I will tell of all your deeds. (Psalm 73:25-28, NIV)

There will be pain and suffering. There will also be victory and glory. The ways in which we engage the seasons of hardship will determine the trajectory of our spiritual lives.

Times change. God is forever the same. May we tether ourselves to eternal mercy. Amen.

Job 7:1-21 – Why God?

Why is life so hard?
    Why do we suffer?
We are slaves in search of shade;
we are laborers longing
    for our wages.
God has made my days drag on
    and my nights miserable.
I pray for night to end,
but it stretches out
    while I toss and turn.
My parched skin is covered
    with worms, dirt, and sores,
and my days are running out
quicker than the thread
    of a fast-moving needle.

I beg you, God, don’t forget!
My life is just a breath,
    and trouble lies ahead.
I will vanish from sight,
and no one, including you,
    will ever see me again.
I will disappear in the grave
or vanish from sight
    like a passing cloud.
Never will I return home;
    soon I will be forgotten.

And so, I cry out to you
    in agony and distress.
Am I the sea or a sea monster?
    Is that why you imprison me?
I go to bed, hoping for rest,
but you torture me
    with terrible dreams.
I’d rather choke to death
    than live in this body.
Leave me alone and let me die;
    my life has no meaning.
What makes you so concerned
    about us humans?
Why do you test us
    from sunrise to sunset?
Won’t you look away
just long enough
    for me to swallow?
Why do you watch us so closely?
    What’s it to you, if I sin?
Why am I your target
    and such a heavy burden?
Why do you refuse to forgive?
Soon you won’t find me,
    because I’ll be dead. (Contemporary English Version)

Few people have ever suffered such agonizing loss as the Old Testament character of Job. He literally lost everything but his life. All his children were killed in one horrific event. He was so racked with physical pain and ill health that even his closest friends barely recognized him. 

Yet the most severe suffering of all came from the grinding silence of God about the whole affair. Job acutely experienced the spiritual pain of a seemingly distant God. He felt like God’s target, being pierced with sharp arrows, one after the other. It seemed to Job as if God was burdened with his very presence on the earth.

Indeed, when one is in the throes of grief, and there is no response from God, the suffering seems pathetically senseless. 

We are currently living in a world of pandemic. There is social and political unrest everywhere. Hurricanes and natural disasters wreak havoc. Religious persecution is on the rise. It may cause one to wonder where God is, in all this human suffering.

As families grieve the loss of home and property, as mothers lament the loss of sons and daughters, and as communities reel in shock over neighborhood violence, how can the loss of life and safety square with a God who is supposed to be sovereign over all creation?

And then there is the very real psychological suffering of mental illness, brain disorders, and unfeeling friends and family who fail to understand the biology and pathology around it – not to mention the extreme trauma of complicated grief.

“Does God understand? Is God even seeing any of this? Why doesn’t God seem to give a @#$!? Am I so odious to God that he’s left the room?” we might say, either out loud or in the deep hurt of our hearts.

It’s the silence that can hurt so badly. Groans, laments, and anguish seem to fly up and away with no easy answers and no immediate relief. 

Yet, God hears. God sees. And God knows. 

We, as readers, have a big picture perspective of Job’s life. We know the end of the story. We even know why Job suffered, even when he himself never knew. However, even with the understanding we have, there is still a large mystery to the ways and the silence of God.

It is a great temptation for many people to give neatly wrapped answers to life’s most difficult realities. But the book of Job does not allow for it. What we have is a man who never understood all that happened in his life yet held onto his integrity and his faith in the God he never fully understood. 

After all, if we understood all there is to understand about God, God would not be God at all.

Invisible God, you are not only unseen physically, but many times spiritually and emotionally unseen, as well.  Open the eyes of my heart so that I might catch but a glimpse of your working. Even though I am but a child and know so little, yet I trust in your steadfast love even in the most difficult experiences of life. Amen.

Matthew 5:4 – Blessed are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.” (NIV)

Throughout most of human history, there have been groups of people, typically women, who occupy a special role within their respective societies. Sometimes paid professionally, and many times not, these folks had an important function – so important was this vocation that a unique skill set was needed to support an entire community of people.

What is that role, that function? To be a mourner.

In Scotland and Ireland, they were referred to as “keeners.” Keening is mourning, and keeners were employed to help others grieve and lament the death of a loved one. Through their emotional wailing, family members could feel as though someone was putting a voice to their grief. It was also considered a way to honor the dead and share their accomplishments. 

The keen is a bygone practice, along with many of the funeral practices of other cultures. With the advent of modern institutional funeral homes, beginning in the nineteenth century, there has been more and more distance to the raw feeling and emotion of death. Keening was a tradition which included songs of lament, at least one of them being composed specifically for the occasion.

For millennia, cultures have recognized and affirmed the need for and importance of wailing and crying and deep grief to have its say.

Jesus believed mourning to be significant enough to include it, right off the bat, in his Sermon on the Mount. Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ mourn.

Mourning, in the Beatitudes, is the emotional response to spiritual bankruptcy. To be a spiritual mourner is to weep and wail over sin… loudly! It is to see that sin in all its foulness and degradation is terrible and destroys relationships. Because of this, we experience personal grief over both the world’s sin and ours.

The Christian disciple, the true follower of Jesus, knows death is coming, and must be faced. God is coming and will be known by all as either Savior or Judge. Sin is present all around us, even in us, and it is unspeakably ugly and black in the light of God’s holiness. Eternity is real, and every living human being is rushing toward it.

The alternatives of eternity are inexorably coming – life or death, forgiveness or condemnation, heaven or hell. These are all realities which will not go away. The person who lives in the light of them, and rightly assesses self and the world, cannot help but mourn.

They mourn for the sins of their nation and neighborhood. They mourn over the erosion of the very concept of truth. The keener mourns over the greed, the cynicism, and the lack of integrity all around. Indeed, the Christian mourner mourns that there are so few keeners expressing the biblical mandate to mourn.

I wonder if sin causes us to weep, even to wail. I am curious if the presence of sin in the world and within ourselves keeps us awake at night, or not.

If individuals can only locate sin out there somewhere and are never close enough to see lost souls entrenched in sin, needing a Savior, then they must come back to the first Beatitude of knowing their spiritual poverty and wrestle with putting pride in its place and fully embracing a humble spirit.

Those who do not mourn have a hard heart because mourners are sensitive to sin.

“But I’m not really a person who cries.” Perhaps you ought to explore why that is so. It could be that a thick callous has developed over the heart. The telltale signs of this are being comfortable with watching violence and having no problem with uttering violent speech.

Many Christians pray for revival; it will not occur apart from the way of the spiritual beggar who mourns over the violence, oppression, bigotry, arrogance, and injustice of the world. 

If there is to be any transformation of heart, it will come through seeing myself for who I am and seeing the sins of this world for what they are.  Without this, there is no hungering and thirsting for righteousness, no mercy, no purity, and no peace in the world or the church. 

Jesus told a parable to illustrate true righteousness versus self-righteousness, saying:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14, NIV)

Jesus says the mourner, the keener, will be comforted; she will find the remedy to alleviate guilt and shame in her own life through Jesus, as well as the answer to the ills of the world, in Christ.

We do not need lots of money, a high position, a particular gender, or even be a faithful practicing religious person to be a mourner. Anyone can be one. And this is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God.

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have sinned and strayed from your ways like lost sheep…. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done…. We acknowledge with great sorrow our great and many sins which we, from time to time, have committed by thought, word and deed, against your divine majesty…. O Lord, have mercy upon us.

Spare all who confess their faults and truly repent; according to your promises declared in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are cut to the heart and are sorry for our wrongs; remembering them now grieves us…. Forgive all our past wrongdoing; be merciful to us now in the present; and extend your kindness to us in the future, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Lamentations 3:22-33 – The Need for Lament

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.
(New Revised Standard Version)

We all face situations, at points in our lives, which cause us to grieve. Grief can and does attach itself to any significant change or loss. Bereavement, divorce, surgery, losing a job, bankruptcy, and a host of adverse circumstances are all, understandably, events bringing grief to our lives. They are unwanted events we did not ask for. 

Grief can also attach itself to the positive changes of life, for example, moving to a new house in a new area, an empty nest, getting married, having children, or beginning a new job. These all produce grief, even if that loss and change were chosen, anticipated, or necessary.

The worst way to approach these grief-producing events is to ignore them, minimize them, say they are simply in the past, stuff the feelings down, and just move on. It’s actually unbiblical to take such an attitude because Scripture discerns that we need to lament our losses. We have with Lamentations an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting a grievous loss.

The prophet Jeremiah was called by God to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem. Not only was Jeremiah commissioned to proclaim a very unpopular message, but he was also given a promise that the people would not listen to him, and that Jerusalem would be destroyed with the people being sent into exile – only compounding Jeremiah’s sadness with complicated grief.

The prophecy of Jeremiah is a long extended message of a melancholy messenger preaching exactly what the Lord wanted him to preach. God’s words came true. The people did not turn from their empty worship and wayward lifestyles. And they persecuted Jeremiah for speaking words of judgment. The Babylonians came and tore down the walls of Jerusalem, decimated the city and the temple, and carried off the people into exile.

Jeremiah, in his grief over the ruined city of Jerusalem, wept and lamented the loss of his hometown and the temple. It was only after an extended lamentation that Jeremiah turned his attention toward the love of God, his compassions becoming new every morning, and the hope of a new existence without Jerusalem at the center of Jewish life.

The hope of love, compassion, and new life comes from first lamenting our losses. There are two popular phrases in our culture that need to be jettisoned altogether when speaking with people experiencing change or loss. These phrases, at the least, are not helpful; and, at worst, compound the anger and sadness:

  1. “Get over it!” can short circuit the grief process and puts grieving people in the awkward position of not seeing the power of lament through to its end of acceptance, resolution, and fresh hope. Far too many people in the world, and even the church, remain stuck in some stage or level of grief, unable to effectively move through their grief because others expect them to be joyful and triumphant when they really feel downright awful – not to mention now guilty on top of it for being sad.
  2. “You have to be strong!” is typically said to people who are in a state of weakness. They can’t be strong. We would never think of telling someone with broken bones to have the strength to walk or even drive anywhere without assistance. We understand they need to heal. Yet, we tell this to people with broken spirits, and then can’t understand why they don’t just bounce back from their emotional stupor. That’s because they can’t. Broken spirits, like broken bones, need time to heal.

Embracing lament is the pathway to knowing compassion and becoming a compassionate person, like Jesus. Wallpapering over our losses without lamenting them is at the root of many, if not most, of emotional problems today. 

Jerry Sittser, a Reformed pastor and professor, wrote an important book entitled, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Many years ago, he was driving his family’s minivan when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit them head on. In an instant he watched three generations of his family die in front of his eyes: his mother, his wife, and his daughter. Sittser writes:

“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery.  It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same….  I did not get over my loved ones loss; rather I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”

Jerry Sittser

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor emeritus at Yale University. In his book, Lament for a Son, he talks about losing his twenty-five year old son to a mountain climbing accident. He has no explanations – just grief. At one point he expressed a profound insight: 

“Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. But I have come to see that it more likely means that no one can see his sorrow and survive.”

Nicholas Wolsterstorff

We all accumulate many losses over the course of a lifetime. Many are small losses; some are devastating losses. The death of children, disability, sexual assault, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament. 

All these changes are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were. We must move through the grief by lamenting each loss. And as we lurch ahead, we cling to the words of Jeremiah that because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed and swallowed whole from grief, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness.

So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?

  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses. We need to avoid superficial responses to significant events. We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to see new life.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love. This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution or acceptance. We rarely move neatly through each stage. The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us not just in spite of the suffering but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering. We must sit with our pain. Do not dismiss your loss by saying others have it worse, or that it’s nothing. Year after year, many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments. The result is a profound inability to face pain. And it has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved. His message predicted what Jesus faced in his passion. The prophet Isaiah described Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people. When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks. On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!” But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health. Life does not always make sense. There is deep mystery to the ways of God. The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us. While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating. Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s resetting a broken spirit.

John Milton’s classic piece of literature, Paradise Lost, compares the evil of history to a compost pile – a mixture of decaying food, animal manure, dead leaves, and whatever else you put on it. Yet, if you cover the compost with dirt, after a long while it no longer smells. The soil becomes a rich natural fertilizer and is ideal for growing a garden. 

But you have to be willing to wait, in some cases, years. Milton’s point was that the worst events of history and the evil we experience are compost in God’s overall plan. Out of the greatest wrong ever done, the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Jesus, came the greatest good – God transformed the stench of evil into good without diminishing the awfulness of that evil.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot. They are:

  • More patient with others with an increased capacity to wait on God.
  • Kinder and more compassionate.
  • Lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.
  • Comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.
  • Humble, gentle, and meek. 
  • Able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but also in the mundane, banal, and lowly.
  • More at home with themselves and with God. 
  • Equipped to love others as Jesus did.

Maybe we are always running, working, and playing because we are constantly trying to keep grief from catching up to us. Slow down. Let it catch you. Let grief do its deep and powerful work within you.

*Above painting of Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (1475-1564)

**Above painting of Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956