A few cracks are hammered into my spirituality every time the devastation of another hurricane is met with, “This is all in God’s plan.” A few scabs are picked in my faith journey every time a mass shooting is smoothed over with, “God planned for this and prepared us for it.” A few trust threads are snipped in my relationship with God every time the death of a loved one brings the same sympathetic words of, “God has a plan and He will use this.” Why is it encouraging to hear that we should “just trust” a supernatural being if we believe he is orchestrating all of our human suffering?
For half a decade, this question has been the ferris wheel I can’t seem to hop off, taking me up, down, and around without any forward progress. One of the worst rides started a little less than three years ago, when just three months after giving birth to her baby girl, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer at the age of 26. By the time the doctors caught it, the infectious cells had attached themselves to her spine and to her brain. Throughout the grueling antidotes of her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, I would pray repeatedly, “God, please heal her, but if it is your will to take her from us, please prepare us for it.” If it is your will.
One month before my wedding in September of 2017, my husband’s family and I sat around Jeni’s bedside listening to Hillsong’s “What a Beautiful Name” as we watched her breathing go still. What followed was a perpetual daytime nightmare, a nightmare that was nearly always met with platitudes from well-meaning family and friends: “God will use your story to bless so many people.”
While this may help redeem some small piece of this horrendous reality for me, how does this even begin to redeem it for my sister-in-law? In response to all of our desperate prayers for healing and redemption, her young life was taken, and it felt a whole lot like God had chosen death over healing, that he willed for our family’s suffering.
For years I’ve continued going round and round on the ferris wheel, immobilized in my grief, buried under this conviction that God is conducting our human suffering. Until one day when I cracked altogether. I finally threw my question at God, “How can this—this cancer-filled body, this stillborn baby, this ended marriage, this mass shooting, this battle with depression, this empty belly, this homeless migrant—how can this be your will for us?”
I was recently invited to pick up the book Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey, and her contemplations on sadness and grief have started patching up my spiritual cracks and bandaging my faith scabs and retying my trust threads. A rare prophetic voice speaking into the loud misperceptions of God’s plan, she writes:
“Whether it’s in my own small stories or in the larger and more horrific stories of others, too often we seek to comfort with the platitudes that have held the Church captive for years: God is all-powerful. God could have stopped it, God didn’t stop it, therefore this–all this–is God’s plan for us. And so this is how we comfort the grieving, the abused, the oppressed, the beaten, the exhausted. The problem with this quick shot of comfort, the predigested talking points spouted in times of unspeakable pain, is that they end up filling our heads with the wrong idea of God while perhaps absolving us of our complicity. We pit our pain against God, holding tally and requiring meaning, instead of saying the truth: This isn’t God’s will. This is completely against what God wants for us. And it’s wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
Bessey’s reflections have taken a jackhammer to the foundation of my faith, dismantling my conviction that God’s vision board for humanity is pasted with images of our pain and suffering, and I have found a new invitation to enter into a sacred in-between space. I picture my recent faith journey to be akin to sitting in a hammock, as I find myself frequently suspended in the paradox between two pillars: the first being the newfound knowledge that God’s will is not for our despair and the second being our shadowed and painful reality. In the hanging tension between these two, I have discovered a widely underutilized spiritual discipline: lament.
Nearly half of the Psalms in our sacred scriptures are laments, deep cries at injustice and pain and loss. Some laments are communal cries of grief, while others depict individuals having it out with God. Many start with a cry of agony, a plea for God’s intervention, an honest prayer springing out of the human experience. And yet each Psalm of lament simultaneously reaffirms that God is good, that he can be trusted, reminding us that lament is rooted in a place of deep faith in the goodness of God (although, I dare to argue, sometimes our laments need to start in the corners of our doubts as we learn to trust our God again).
At its very heart, lament is the process of grieving with God and learning to both individually and communally present our pain to our Abba. In our loud and humble cries of lament and our honest confrontations of what we know is wrong with the world, the Lord changes us, refines, and remolds us to be the people who can enter into the dark spaces in order to ignite hope and proclaim redemption. And this is exactly what we find when we venture to meet with Jesus.
“Lament is the process of grieving with God and learning to both individually and communally present our pain to our Abba.”
In his 33 years on earth, we find a short but rich life of lament. In John 11 Jesus publicly weeps over a dead friend, knowing this is not how things should be and also knowing full well that he will soon raise his friend from the dead. The lament precedes the resurrection. In Matthew 14 he takes a solo boat ride to meet with his Father after the death of his cousin John, and upon reaching the shore is bombarded with a crowd of needy people whose needs he meets with gentleness. The lament creates the capacity to heal, serve, and offer compassion. And in Matthew 5 Jesus offers this promise: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The lament nourishes the roots of our wholeness.
In the life of Jesus, we see that lament—the confrontation of the inherent wrongness of racism, death, poverty, depression, war, disease, violence, and injustice—precedes the redemption. We see that it is an enormous act of faith to grieve all of this pain and injustice, because it attests to the innate understanding deep within us that there is a different way, a better way, that these things were never meant to be, that God intends for all these things to be redeemed.
“In the life of Jesus, we see that lament—the confrontation of the inherent wrongness of racism, death, poverty, depression, war, disease, violence, and injustice—precedes the redemption.”
I once received communion from the man who has come to embody lament and reconciliation for South Africans and the millions around the world who have watched and studied his courageous facilitation of healing after apartheid. As the person in front of me moved toward their seat, I found myself standing face-to-face with Desmond Tutu, who stood with a cheeky grin as he generously extended the bread and the wine to me. As I stepped forward to accept the gift, chewing the bread and sipping the wine, Tutu gave me the benediction, “May we become what we receive.”
When we accept this benediction, we begin to find the strength to resist our own numbness, the stamina to resist consolation over injustice, the courage to relocate to the margins of society, and the imagination to urgently expect hope.
As we collectively participate in the hard work and creativity of lament, as we remind ourselves that to be human so often means intertwining the grief and the joy, we begin to step into one of our deepest connections with Jesus and with each other.
“When we accept this benediction, we begin to find the strength to resist our own numbness, the stamina to resist consolation over injustice, the courage to relocate to the margins of society, and the imagination to urgently expect hope.”
We finally begin to understand the expanse of suffering that Jesus chose to step into, the wild vision of our redemption that he simultaneously clung to, because he loves us so. And we too can grab hands and face the darkness, as our growing comprehension of love leads us to lament when we glimpse another’s pain.
The weight of worldwide injustice, oppression, and suffering so often squashes us flat because we try to independently trudge into the multiplying darkness holding our one little tea candle. I have a hunch that Jesus knows this, that maybe this is why he so often calls us together–he empowers us one by one and sends us out as twelve. Is the journey of lament any different?
As people of faith, we have received an invitation to come together in order to create spaces where those around us can give voice to their pains, where potential answers to injustices can be verbalized, where suffering can be brought into the presence of God. As we learn to lament as a community, we begin to shift the responsibility of hope, redemption, and newness onto God and us, his people, and away from the systems that have created the oppression.
As we participate in our rituals of breaking the bread and drinking the wine, we are becoming the death before the resurrection, the grief before the celebration, the darkness before the light. We are learning to embody lament. As we come to the table again and again, may we leave as the people who become what they have received.