REacting to Pain: What is Lament?

There are a variety of human responses to pain. Some people, when faced with suffering, soar. But for others—maybe even for you—suffering can drive our faith into the ground. It deeply impacts our walk with God, and not always in a positive way. What once was everything—our faith, our devotion to Jesus, our unwavering love for him—can sadly transform into a small, unrecognizable thing, a mound of dirt and earth and mess and doubt and questions and frustrations. We might still pray and sing worship songs and have our “quiet times,” but deep inside, we feel like we may as well be talking to the ceiling fan.

Many people walk away from their faith at this point in their journey. You and I have all seen this happen. They (or we) begin to doubt. Soon, doubting leads to desolation. Desolation results in a departure from Christianity altogether.

If we don’t walk away from our faith, another possible response to pain is to pretend like it doesn’t exist. We suck it up. Compartmentalize. Pretend, as I have done for so long. But as we all know, denial typically ends up hurting us or our loved ones—because emotions tend to dwell near the surface, just waiting to explode. In other words, you can move all your trash to the attic, try hiding it from yourself and the neighbors, but sooner or later, the whole house is going to stink.

Or perhaps we attempt to escape the reality of pain. We drink or overeat. (I personally binge-watch British television shows on Netflix.) We shop. We sleep. We stop sleeping. We become addicted people. Soon, we realize that pretending something isn’t there only gives it more power.

The reality is that none of us want to suffer long. We like to think of affliction as something to rush through, strut successfully away from, and then talk about during an inspirational keynote address at a conference. The problem is that when we’re in the heart of painful seasons, none of those options—walking away, faking, or escaping—actually leads to true healing.

Lament, a crying out to God, asks us to do something out of the ordinary. It invites us to sit with our grief, no matter how uncomfortable. In the words of Eugene Petersen, lament says, “When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions. Wait for hope to appear.”[i]

Lament calls us away from our typical responses to pain and asks us to simply stay put until God does something. But how, practically speaking, do we even do that?


The How of Lament

If you need a starting place when it comes to lament, take a look at one of David’s most famous songs, Psalm 13, a fearless example of lament:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

for he has been good to me.


David doesn’t run from his sorrow or pretend like it doesn’t exist. He hurls his most vulnerable Hows at God, over and over again. This isn’t a gentle surrendering; it’s a reckoning, a list of the absurd ways David has felt abandoned by God. You can hear the desperation, the anguish of David’s soul. “Look at me and answer!” he demands. Don’t betray me. Don’t forget me. Don’t disappoint me. How long? How long? How long?

Then somehow in the middle of his outburst, David shifts his tone: “But I trust in your unfailing love.” David’s reaction to pain begins with complaint (lament) but eventually and mysteriously moves to praise. David’s misery hasn’t dissipated. His enemies are still threatening to celebrate his downfall. But still, somehow, David sings his louder song. Somehow David has learned to trust the God who initially appeared untrustworthy.

As we learn to surrender our laments to God, we are actually letting God loose from the neat and tidy boxes we’ve placed him in. We are letting God be God. As this new intimacy with God transforms us, our laments are transformed as well.

~

There’s this story about Jesus where he spits on the ground, mixing dirt and saliva together to form a muddy concoction. He rubs the mixture onto the eyes of a blind man, giving him sight. If at the moment, your walk with Jesus and your faith journey are nothing more than a mess of dirt, mud, and spit, take courage. That’s enough material to see your way to lament—to stop faking, escaping, or running away and stay put in your grief while waiting for hope once again to appear.

And in Jesus—hope will always appear.

 

Aubrey Sampson

This excerpt is from Aubrey Sampson’s book The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament (NavPress). She is also the author of Overcomer: Breaking Down the Walls of Shame and Rebuilding Your Soul (Zondervan). She, her husband Kevin, and their three young sons planted Renewal Church in the Chicagoland area, where Aubrey serves on the preaching team. Aubrey is part of the Propel Cohort at Wheaton College and travels around the country speaking and preaching at a variety of churches. Find and follow Aubrey on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and at www.aubreysampson.com.

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