When a phone rings at 1:30 AM in the morning, the news is seldom good. The voice on the other end of the line spoke in official terms, “Is your brother’s name Michael?” I responded with a sheepish reply that yes, I had a brother by that name. I was informed at that moment his body had just been pulled from the river after drowning. My first thought upon hearing this news? I was glad my mother had died earlier and was not forced to hear these words. My next thought: I was the sole survivor of my family. At twenty-one years old, I was alone.
Sudden death isn’t the only sort of tragedy that creates the shock and awe of grief. For others it might come as the shock of discovering their spouse has been having an affair or a child is arrested for a crime or a job is lost. Whatever the cause, the experiences of loss and pain are universal in their reach and touch every human being in some way. Loss is common to all, but the modern American church has moved experiences of sorrow to the periphery of her public witness to the point that denial is the only psychological term that is an appropriate descriptor for much of modern ministry. In the words of Ligon Duncan, however, when life falls apart, “You will introduce yourself to yourself.” In moments of crisis, what resides in the heart is revealed with great force, and what is really believed is made clear.
But what about the Christian who truly believes the gospel and has sought to build their life on the Word of God? What about the Christian who has sought to live a godly and holy life in this present world but continually encounters trials to such a degree that even unbelievers who observe their lives begin to doubt the goodness of the God they profess to serve? When life crashes and the worst fears of the heart come true, to what and to whom does a Christian turn?
Don’t Waste Your Sorrows
Somewhere between the dark clouds of pain reside the deep mercies of God. How to find them and to abide in them requires that a believer learn to lament—and lament well. This idea of lament appears with such great frequency in the Bible that it is strange modern Christians have ignored it for so long. Read the Psalms, and lament is there. Read the Gospels, and lament is present as Jesus encounters the world, the flesh, and the Devil himself. Mark Vroegop’s book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, is a corrective to the pabulum of the modern prosperity gospel.
Early in the book, he admits, “to cry is human, but to lament is Christian.” Lament is not a common word used in modern conversation, so he carefully and with great precision defines it according to biblical categories. “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust,” he states. “Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.”
This man has read the Psalms over and over during seasons of mourning and grief, and he has discovered what previous generations of Christians knew all too well. The Psalms provide the language of prayer for Christians to use in order to speak their complaints to God even as they trust in the core doctrines so carefully articulated for them in the Bible. It is not that the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, goodness, and power are hidden from their eyes. It is that their experience has created a gap between what they feel and what they know. Lament helps close that gap, and the process Vroegop gives is the roadmap for grief during seasons of lament.
Vroegop doesn’t present mere formulaic prescriptions for grief. Rather, he uses what could be described as a return, of sorts, to what the Puritans accomplished in their writing more than two centuries ago. He searches the Psalms and discovers a pattern of prayer and action that sustained the people of God in every age. When circumstances of sadness and woe rained down upon them, they first turned to God in prayer, spoke words of complaint to God in those moments of prayer, learned to ask God boldly for help and hope, and chose to trust him and his mercy even when answers were few and understanding was hidden from their eyes.
“To be a Christian means trusting in what God says and who he is,” writes Vroegop. “Choosing to trust through lament requires that we rejoice without knowing how all the dots connect.” Lamenting helps the believer practice what he calls, “active patience.” In this season of despair and heartache, the continual turning to God in prayer where the Christian breathes out their woe in prayer gives way to a fervency of asking God for help that finally expresses a trust in his providence and mercy even and especially when the trial continues. Over time, the providence of God and the patience of the Christian comes to a point of believing what they know to be true “even though the facts of suffering might call that belief into question.”
Lament for Life
An entire book of the Bible written by the prophet Jeremiah is dedicated to the spiritual reality of lament. The book? Ironically, its name is the very practice itself—Lamentations. This is an area of the Bible most Christians avoid except, as noted by Vroegop, the famous verses of Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Most assume these verses appear in a place much like a Thomas Kincade painting where all is peace, joy, and light. Frankly, Jeremiah wrote these words “over a dark and tragic landscape.” The ashes of Israel’s existence were shattered and virtually everything about their life and civilization was gone only to be replaced by violence, abuse, and death.
Lamentations teaches that every sorrow of earth can ultimately be traced to the reality of sin. Vroegop is careful to state that while it is not always the personal sin of someone that leads to the sorrow they experience, the presence of sorrow is, at some level, the direct result of sin. Somewhere, somehow, the stench of sin is present, and it is important to allow the experience of lament to accomplish its work of reorienting the mind toward a less dependent attitude on the changing scenes of earth and anchoring them more in the certainties of God’s eternal justice.
To say this is hard when the fires of grief burn hot is an understatement. The active waiting on God must be driven by a continual recitation of the facts of doctrinal truth that will, over time, help the Christian discover that waiting on God is not a waste of time. Through the process something happens to the believer. The experiences and places of grief become a memorial that speak of God’s presence in the midst of horror and tragedy. The book of Lamentations helps the church to anchor itself in the truth that through the agonies of life something happens to the company of those who lament. They are changed and made more like Christ. They learn to see with new eyes and feel with hearts made more holy as they open their hands to release the idols of earth only to find God himself fills their lives with his great mercy and help in time of need.
“Lament is the language that calls us, as exiles, to uncurl our fingers from our objects of trust,” Vroegop writes. Somehow, through the pain, believers are taught not to waste their sorrows, but to use them as pathways toward peace as they journey to the end. Perhaps Vroegop’s counsel might best be communicated by Ecclesiastes 7:4: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning. More funerals, fewer parties; more prayer, less idle talk; more trust, less anger. For through many tribulations, we must enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
Douglas E. Baker is Tenth Presbyterian Church’s current Church Administrator, having joined the team in 2018. He enjoys history, theology, and Chick-fil-A. He holds degrees from LSU, Johns Hopkins, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Originally posted on Tenth Presbyterian Church website on May 7, 2019. Republished by permission.