Those who know me well know that I am a huge fan of the University of Michigan. I did not attend Michigan, nor did I even grow up in the state (I’m a Hoosier by birth), but somewhere along the way I became a fan of Michigan sports. Having grown up in Indiana, basketball is king. The movie “Hoosiers” is basically required watching for anyone that is born in Indiana. During my crucial adolescent years, Indiana University basketball was life for those around me, and coach Bobby Knight was king. But truthfully, I was not a fan of Knight, and he turned me off to IU fandom. Being a pre-teen during the rise of the “Fab Five” at Michigan, especially given that the basketball team had just won the national championship in 1989, really drew me in to Michigan fandom. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been a Michigan fan ever since, ended up marrying a Michigan girl, and I’ve served as a pastor in Michigan since 2004. Six more years in Michigan and I will have officially lived as long in Michigan as I did in Indiana, where I lived until age 21.
Why the history lesson? Honestly, I don’t know. But if you didn’t know me before, now you know a little about me, so you’re welcome 🙂 As a Michigan fan, I learned quickly to loathe fans of “Ohio.” You know, the ones with that pretentious response to their school – “The” Ohio…University. Bleech… (Their100 game winning streak against us in football not withstanding) But recently I read an article about a former OSU Buckeye (and Pittsburgh Steeler) football player, Ryan Shazier, and his father. Shazier was badly injured two years ago in a game after what looked like a fairly innocent tackle. Instead, Shazier was paralyzed from the waist down and began a long and arduous rehab to learn how to walk again, a journey that continues to this day (although he has come a long way)
This particular article focused on Shazier’s father, Vernon, a pastor of a church in Florida, and his crisis of faith as he wrestled with why this happened to his son, who was only 25 at the time. The article can be found on Sports Illustrated’s website here: https://www.si.com/nfl/2019/12/04/ryan-shazier-pastor-father-reaction-to-injury What stood out to me about the article was the pastor’s belief that he had to show strength in front of everyone else, but would cry in isolation multiple times a day as he thought of and prayed for his son. This belief, unfortunately, is far too common among people of faith, believing that it is “anti-faith” to show doubts, struggles, frustration, questions, or even anger at God. I think it is a false belief, and one that has no biblical support (with a proper interpretation).
Another thing you may or may not know about me is that I began pursuit of my masters degree this summer, and just finished my first semester. In one of my classes, I was tasked with choosing a specific theological topic about which I would be writing several papers throughout the semester, culminating in a 20-page final project. My chosen topic was the “Theology of Suffering.” I chose this because I had recently been meeting with several people in counseling and my role as a pastor, that were truly suffering – recurrence of cancer, abuse, chronic illness, loss of loved ones, disowned by family, imprisonment, etc. – and I was struggling with how to encourage these folks. Suddenly, simply saying, “just have faith,” “trust in God,” seemed empty. I felt God impressing upon me to simply listen and let them know I was there to walk with them, and more importantly, that God was there to walk with them as well.
As I began research on the project, I was completely undecided about the angle I wanted to take. After all, how to you answer the BIG questions about suffering: Why did this happen? Doesn’t God love me? What did I do (am I doing) wrong? Did God do this to me? Did He let it happen? If so, why? What do I do now? Every answer I had seemed insufficient and inappropriate because I felt like it invalidated their pain, suffering, and questions.
In the midst of my research, however, I came across a subject that I could not shake, and it became my “angle.” That angle was the power of lament. To some, lament is simply another word for complaining, but biblically, there is so much more to the term. Lament was actually a form of worship that was often expressed as a poem, a funeral dirge, or a song. About 40% of the Book of Psalms are lament psalms, and one book – Lamentations – was dedicated completely to laments. In fact, one will find the use of lament in one form or another, in nearly every Old Testament book. And while it is not as prevalent in the New Testament, it is there. More powerfully, the gospels record Jesus – the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God – lamenting.
Somewhere along the way, the Church (especially the Western Church) decided that lament was “anti-faith” and contrary to what it meant to be a “strong” Christian (whatever that means). So, when people are legitimately suffering and in pain, the church’s response has often been, “just have faith brother/sister!” “Trust the Lord!”, or my personal favorite (*sarcasm) “everything happens for a reason.” All those are easy to say when it’s not happening to us. Pastor Shazier found himself in a similar position when HIS son, HIS family, HIS faith was now tested. In the interview, he seemed brutally honest about his wrestling, and how he felt he had to present himself one way in public, all while he was struggling in private.
What if Pastor Shazier cried in front of his congregation or family? What if he said, “guys, I’m scared, I’m struggling with this”? Do you honestly think God would choose not to do something because of his “lack” of faith, or to teach him a lesson? If you do, then I think your picture of God is sorely distorted. Scripture tells us that God knows what we need before we ever ask (Matthew 6:8). Would He not know those feelings anyway? Why is it then faith to feel that way and not admit it, and anti-faith to feel it and admit it? That makes no sense! In fact, I would argue that if we think we can’t be honest with God, then we don’t truly trust Him and what His word says about who He is, and who we are to Him. God is a covenant keeping God and will not break that covenant because we’re human.
Case in point, God became human (you know, why we celebrate Christmas!) and Scripture says He was tempted in every way, and is able to empathize with our struggles/weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15), including pain, suffering, doubts, and anger. A feeling isn’t sin. A feeling is a feeling. What makes it sin is how we respond. If I respond to anger by throat-punching someone, then my anger turned to sin. But if I respond to anger by bringing it to God, I’m trusting Him enough with my anger that He will not turn me away or punish me for being angry (or fearful, or confused, or doubtful). God cares to listen to your laments as much as anything else. He is a listening God AND a speaking God.
The most powerful illustration of the power and necessity of lament, is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46;) . In this scene, Jesus comes to the Father “deeply distressed and troubled,” and asks that the mission He came to fulfill might be taken away. Today, if someone came to church saying, “I know what I’m called to do, but I’m scared and don’t want to do it,” and prayed that God would take it away, that person would likely be chastised by many a Christian “leader” for a lack of faith. Yet here is Jesus, asking the Father that His mission be aborted. He didn’t ask once, but THREE times! He was always ended the lament with “not my will, but yours be done,” but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Jesus lamented. He trusted His Father enough that He could bring even His darkest struggles before Him without fear of being ostracized for a lack of faith. And the Father simply listened. Because He cares.
We need to recapture the power of lament in our individual lives, and the life of the body of Christ. Instead of turning every act of gun violence into a political game, maybe the body of Christ should lament with those that are losing loved ones because of it. Instead of making fun of people who struggle with their identity, maybe we should lament with them that they’ve yet to uncover their identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. Instead of offering empty words with those who are in pain and suffering, maybe we need to “weep with those who weep” – listen to them; walk with them; lament with them. And maybe instead of pushing down our feelings out of a sense of “faith,” we need to start following the example of Jesus in Gethsemane and trust God with our deepest hurts, struggles, and secrets. He knows them already anyway.
Lament gives a voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, brings suffering before a listening God, and is the first step to true healing and restoration. You cannot get healed unless and until you acknowledge there is something of which to be healed. By weeping with those who weep, we can then celebrate by rejoicing with those who rejoice, for lament can turn weeping into rejoicing. There’s a reason so many struggle with and lose their lives due to depression, anxiety, and the like. Lament isn’t the only answer, nor is it the final word; but it is an important and necessary step to finding healing – individually, as a church, as a nation, and as the people of God. It’s time we stop pretending and start living authentically and honestly. Jesus wept. So too can you. If you need someone to weep with you, He’s there. So am I. Are you?