Suffering and Lament

“Just get over it.”
“Let it go.”
“Let go of the past and look to the future.”
“Put it behind you.”
“Big girls don’t cry.”
“Be a man!”

In other words, hide your suffering away. Pretend it isn’t there and you’ll forget to suffer.

We all know how well that works.

Pain that is ignored or denied clogs the arteries of the soul until nothing of life can flow through them. And yet the pressures of our culture encourage denial.

If we’re not telling ourselves to get over it, we’re telling ourselves to be ashamed of what we feel.
False piety: “Think of others who have suffered so much more.”
Dismissal: “No one wants to hear your complaints.”
Fear: “People will think I’m weak.”

Even the conventional wisdom of religion doesn’t always deal well with suffering. Historically, it’s most often been assumed that suffering is a result of sin. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The same notions are at work today when we assume that if we eat the right foods we’ll never get sick, or that a chronic condition is the result of not taking care of ourselves, or that if we’re just good enough (whatever that means) bad things won’t happen to us.

When the bad things do happen – and they do happen to all of us – conventional piety tells us to just lay our suffering at the foot of the cross or to give it to God – as if it’s simply trash to put out for collection. But it’s never that simple. We can’t just give our suffering away; we have to do more than that.

The usual response to suffering is either to deny it or to wallow in it. Tough it out, or play the role of victim. In either case, the pain festers and is not healed. But there is a better way. Job got it right. The psalms of lament got it right. Suffering is too real to release without expression. That expression, whatever form it takes, is lament.

Lament is therapy for the soul. Grief, anger, fear, regret, guilt, shame, loss, resentment – any emotion that grows out of suffering is a spiritual burden that needs to be voiced if the suffering is ever to lessen. The burden can’t simply be set down and forgotten or stuffed in a dark corner. Nor is it healthy for the soul to languish in victimhood.

In our culture, which stresses the ideal of the rugged individual who is self-reliant and strong, we tend to think of lamentation as whining. It makes us uncomfortable and touches too closely the very real fear that we are not in control of everything. But lamentation is not whining. It’s the expression of strong emotions that need to be released so that healing may begin. It’s also a spoken or unspoken recognition that the person who laments is not alone and that wholeness is possible. That’s why the lament is made to another – to a friend or to God.

Lamenting can be uncomfortable for the listener. Our culture values doing. When someone is suffering, our first impulse is to try to fix whatever is wrong or at least help the sufferer move beyond the suffering. But most of the time what is needed is not fixing but listening. Simple listening is a real gift to the one who is suffering – much more of a gift than good advice or exhortations to get over it.

A friend of mine recently visited an elderly woman who had worked for her for years until she became too ill to work, and whose son, her primary caregiver, had died not long ago. My friend sat with her all afternoon, listening while she recounted the loss of her son and her grief. This was a true lament, deeply felt and vividly expressed. My friend may have been a little uncomfortable, but her quiet presence was a blessing, allowing the full expression of the woman’s grief. This was a ministry of presence and of listening.

Much as friends and confidants might help by listening to our laments, God is the ultimate listener. Voicing our woes to friends and counselors is helpful, but God is the one who can use our suffering for transformation and spiritual growth. Our laments provide an opening for God to bring acceptance and healing, even though we may not be aware of it at the time.

Unfortunately, we all too often feel that we can only show our positive emotions to God. Our worship is filled with lots of praise, much thanksgiving, a bit of repentance, a little supplication, and almost no lament. The unspoken message is that pain and suffering are not fit for God’s hearing – and certainly not fit for the congregation to hear. We end up thinking we can only tell God the good stuff. But the truth is that everyone suffers, and all communities suffer. We can’t surprise or offend God with our complaints.

When we do have negative feelings, we may try to give them to God, hoping God will simply take them away. But if God were to do that, no space would be created for healing and growth. Nothing would get better. We would not get better. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve given God their anger, their grief, their shame, or their need to control – but then found themselves taking it back. Or they’ll say they tried to give their worries to God, but it didn’t work.

Lament, on the other hand, opens us up to God’s action within us. It doesn’t fix anything instantly or necessarily bring us immediate relief, but over time, it can bring us closer to God, and that is where we will eventually find healing. In lament, we bring our pain and our negative emotions to God – but more than that, we express those feelings, voicing them fully. As we describe our emotions in detail, we not only purge some of the pain but we also gain a greater understanding of our feelings. Lament helps us know ourselves and our suffering more fully, and that can lead to acceptance and healing. In time.

I can think of three times when I have felt overwhelmed with anger. Not the ordinary, passing annoyance that is a routine reaction to small offenses, but a deep, roiling sense of betrayal. On two of these occasions, I lay awake all night, rigid with anger and grief at what had been done to me. I was burning up with emotion, and it never occurred to me to try to express it. I tried to escape it by thinking of other things; when morning came, I busied myself with my usual activities. The anger festered in me for days before it began to abate. I was left diminished and weakened.

On the other occasion, I sat down and wrote a long, explicit letter to the person who had betrayed me, detailing what had been done to me and my emotions in response. I also described in detail all of the personal flaws of the one who had made me angry. No, I did not send the letter or show it to anyone. I tore it up. But the very act of lamenting not only the acts of the betrayer but also the loss of the relationship was healing. The pain was lessened, and perspective restored.

Lamentation is not a place to linger. It is a spiritual practice whose goals are growth, wholeness, and relationship. Like all spiritual practices, it is not an end in itself but a means of drawing closer to God and all creation.

Lament is for any negative emotion we may feel. We may think of lament as an expression of loss or grief, and often it is just that. But laments can also express anger at a person or an injustice. They can give voice to worries and anxiety and fear. They can be a release for guilt or shame or resentment.

The psalms provide patterns for lament and restoration. The emotions are expressed, and often (but not always) a recollection of God’s goodness follows. Reading them can help make us more comfortable in expressing our emotions to God. Here are some of my favorites. Among the best for expressing anguish are Psalm 22 and Psalm 38. For anger, you might try Psalm 10, Psalm 13, or Psalm 58. For fear, Psalm 27 and Psalm 56. For injustice, Psalm 26, Psalm 28, Psalm 43, and Psalm 44. For resentment, Psalm 41. For betrayal, Psalm 55. For grief, Psalm 42 and Psalm 137. For despondency or depression, Psalm 88 and Psalm 102. For a desire for vengeance, Psalm 109 and Psalm 137. For guilt, Psalm 25 and Psalm 52. Look for one that resonates with your own suffering, and pray it to God.

It’s not enough to “turn it over” to God. It’s necessary to experience our pain fully by expressing it fully. That isn’t easy or comfortable, but it’s healing. Although we’d rather not experience our pain fully, that’s what we need. When we allow ourselves to face the deepest truths of our suffering, we open ourselves to God’s transforming presence within us, and to God’s healing.