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.


In a Time of Pain, Where Can Healing Begin?

How I Feel Now

I’m not sure where to go with this. My heart is full of pain, disbelief, and betrayal. How can a nation founded on principles of equality and religious tolerance have moved so far from those principles? How can so many people, including people I love and respect, have chosen to elect as president a person who freely uses bigotry, hatred, and anger to get his own way? Who stirs up fear and xenophobia in his followers? A narcissist who doesn’t read, doesn’t listen, can’t accept criticism, thinks he’s smarter than anybody else, and trusts and respects nothing except his own gut instincts? Has the country’s lowest common denominator become the dominant definer of who we are?

Last Wednesday morning, trying to get my mind around what had happened, I realized that I felt very much as I had on the day – May 4, 1970 – when thirteen students were shot (four of them killed, one paralyzed) by the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State University campus. My then-husband and I had come to Kent to teach the fall before; he was teaching that Monday morning and I was at home in our apartment across the street from the campus when I heard the shots. I felt the same disbelief, the same sense of betrayal this past Wednesday. The same sense that the country I knew and loved wasn’t what I thought.

Pain All Around

There’s pain on both sides of last Tuesday’s election. I’ll leave the analysis of voting patterns to others with a better knowledge of politics than I have. What concerns me most at this point is what this campaign and this election say about the country and the world we live in. If we view the whole thing only on the surface, we might say that government has become a spectacle, a media-driven power battle with no rules and no standards. In this milieu, we can’t even talk to each other. But underneath, I think there is something more significant going on. And I keep thinking that this must be like what was happening in Germany in 1933-34.

There is an underlying pain in our country and elsewhere in the world that must be healed if we are to move beyond the hatred and strife that seem to be in charge of everything. Some of that pain comes from a sense of betrayal, a feeling that the establishment that seems to be in charge of the country isn’t doing a very good job. Much of the pain comes from fear – fear of change, fear of the loss of whatever is important.

For most of us, it’s hard to accept anyone or anything that seems to threaten what we see, consciously or not, as stability and comfort. Such fear has nothing to do with reason or principles – it has to do solely with our instincts of self-defense and survival. But we are more than the most destructive members of the animal kingdom. We’re able to think beyond our immediate time and place, and beyond our own worst impulses and most primitive instincts – if we care to do so.

The Shadow Within

It’s important that we see and acknowledge the ways in which this long campaign and election have given voice to the worst that is in us all. We all are beings of light and shadow, and Trump’s campaign rantings gave voice to that shadow side that distrusts, fears, and lashes out at anything that seems to be a threat. That lashes out without thought or logical analysis, and without love or kindness. Those rantings gave permission for the open expression of hatred and bigotry.

If we are going to encourage and support the healing our society needs, we have to begin by getting to know our own individual shadow sides, as well as the shadow side of our country. Denying either will not help us move toward reconciliation. And we badly need shared understanding and reconciliation.

So we begin by a close examination of ourselves. What do I fear? What lies behind those fears? Why do I hate what I hate? What makes me angry, and why? Who do I fear, and who do I blame? What causes these feelings, and what have I done to overcome my negative responses to others?

Examining one’s own worst feelings and fears is not pleasant, but it’s necessary. If we can’t look at that destructive part of the self that fears difference and see threats everywhere, then we can’t assimilate it into our best self and let it be kept in balance, healed, and transformed into an understanding of all the hurting and unhealed. If I can’t acknowledge and come to know my own fear, how can I understand yours and support you as you deal with it?

Some Steps Toward Healing

  1. Taking responsibility. If the division in our country that currently has erupted in hateful slogans in high schools, violent public action, and loud expressions of bigotry, misogyny, and racism is ever going to be healed, we must all take a part in the healing. That includes those of us who wear safety pins to show we stand with the threatened, people who feel – and are – threatened, those who hate and attack, and those who see a changing world that seems to deny their basic beliefs. All of us. All of US.
  2. Listening. Refusing to associate with those whose views we find repugnant isn’t the answer. Nor is trying to “fix” one another’s views. We have to be willing to hear ideas we can’t accept and recognize their importance and their truth to those who do accept them. We need to listen to one another – listen without the intention of refuting or denying perceived truth, listen in order to understand and find the common humanity that underlies all our differences.
  3. Giving respect. Respecting others, even when they don’t respect us, is not easy. But the pain that lies beneath so much vicious expression today is real pain, and ignoring it or dismissing it as invalid doesn’t lead to understanding and reconciliation. Respecting others and the pain they feel is vitally important. A willingness to be with those with whom we disagree and to listen to their views can help close the gap that divides us. It is more healing to simply be together in a spirit of acceptance than it is to try to reach agreement.
  4. Teaching. The eruptions of hate in some of our schools show how much education is needed if future generations are to work together for the common good and not perpetuate current divisions. It’s unreasonable to expect the schools to do it all for us. Every one of us has the responsibility to teach by example as well as by precept. If we believe in love and equality and justice, we need to live out those values and express them wherever we can in the way we listen, respect, and treat others.

The divisions in our country and our world will not be healed overnight – will probably never be entirely healed. But if we do not work toward healing, they will surely get worse. Let us all work together for the sake of a future without concentration camps, genocide, racism, oppression, and meaningless wars.

Healing Heart

Healing is the acceptance of our own suffering and our own joy.  When we turn our minds to blame and recrimination, we block any healing.  When we accept the circumstances of our situation, recognize our losses and mourn them, we open up a space for the presence of God in the midst of our suffering, a space for healing.


Prayer in Pain

Dear Lord, I’m hurting.
The pain goes on and on,
And nothing done for me can ease it,
And nothing takes my mind from it for a moment.
My body is all pain, and my mind follows.
Dear Lord, be with me now.
I’m afraid, and I can’t stop crying.
Lend me a little of your strength,
Reach down from the cross
To these hands that helped put you there.
Forgive me, for I know not what I do.
Dear Lord, I think of that pain
You suffered on the cross for me –
Surely I can bear this little pain
Since you bore such a greater pain
For my soul’s sake.
Let your outstretched arms sustain me.
Dear Lord, be with me now.


Hanging On

There are times in our lives when all we can do is hang on – and when hanging on takes all we have in us.  The death of a child or a spouse is one of those times.  The unexpected end of a career is one of those times.  The death of a marriage or other important relationship is one of those times.  And in such times, all we have is what we have left.  And we don’t know that that is enough.

As we work through the disbelief, the anger, the hurt, the grieving, we may think we know what we need – escape, oblivion, retaliation, vengeance, something to get us through and out the other side as painlessly as possible.  But it’s not a matter of what we think we need.  It’s a matter of what God knows we need.

What we have is what is left after loss.  We have the love that is still with us, even though it may not be the love we thought we couldn’t live without.  And the love we have – love of friends, family, colleagues – God’s love, above all — is enough, even when we don’t believe it is.

The work we have to do has to be done.  The grieving.  The working through anger.  The acceptance of broken hopes, abandoned expectations, a changed texture to our daily lives, a diminished reality, a loss of identity.  It’s all there.  It’s all real.  Our task is to work through it all.  And if we allow God to use the dreadful, dismal, overwhelming experience, we come through it all and we are transformed.  And we find out who we really are.

The important thing is the hanging on.  One day at a time.  One step at a time.  When we can’t find hope to hang on to, or a sense of purpose, or any joy at all, what is it that we hang on to?  God.  It’s that simple.  And that difficult.