By Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary, and the author of Walking Through Twilight: A Wife Illness—A Philosopher's Lament (InterVarsity, 2017).
We develop some skills in life, but others we can avoid. As a young man I played baseball, but my skills stalled and I left it behind. In high school I played drums in garage bands, but my unhoned abilities took me no further. I later realized that God called me to be a thinker, writer, teacher, and preacher. I developed those skills and found ministry opportunities. But for most of my life, I never thought of suffering as a skill.
No one can avoid suffering, and sometimes God’s pours it out in a flood, as he did with my late wife and me when we found out that she had dementia. I had to develop a skill I never wanted to learn. No one wants to learn it. It is the skill of suffering well as a Christian. We can avoid pursuing some skills—as I did with baseball and drumming—but we cannot avoid suffering. Scripture has much wisdom to offer us, but we often miss it, either by seeking to avoid all suffering, by pretending the suffering isn’t so bad, or by moving on quickly after suffering.
The overarching cause of our suffering is the Fall (Genesis 3). Things are not as they were meant to be since our first parents rebelled against God and were evicted from the Garden of EdenWe are now sinners, alienated from God and alienated from each other by our innate selfishness. Everything is harder, and then we die. Paul writes that the whole creation is “groaning” in expectation for its final redemption at God’s hand (Romans 8:22; see also Revelation 21-22). Thus, our suffering is not an utter mystery, since we know its origins and that it is not eternal. That itself is a gift from God. Christians are not in the dark about the darkness of this world, as so many are.
Behind the general explanation of the Fall, our sufferings stem from three sources: persecution for being a Christian; trouble we wrongly bring on ourselves (such as self-harm or crime); and undeserved suffering from the hands of others (crime and other cruelties) or nature itself (diseases, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornados). If we are suffering for our sins, then we need to repent and seek God for restoration. But in cases of suffering for our Christian faith or suffering for inexplicable reasons, we can suffer well through lament. This is not the whole answer, but a needful ingredient in suffering well.
In Hurting with God, Old Testament scholar Glen Pemberton found sixty of the psalms to be laments of one kind or another. A lament is a heartfelt cry to God for help in the face of suffering. Laments may involve sorrow, fear, anger, and confusion because our lives do not seem to match up with what we know about God. For example, David cries out, “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” (Psalm 13:1-3).
This is passionate language, but it is uttered in a prayer to the God David knows and to the God who knows David. David voiced a lament later heard from Jesus’ dying lips. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; see Matthew 27:46). Unlike us, Jesus was an utterly innocent and righteous victim, but he lamented the ultimate lament when he suffered and died for us on the Cross. Jesus thus authorizes our laments as we experience myriad kinds of suffering. His death and resurrection give us hope that our suffering and lament in the Christian life is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Many are afraid to be authentic, honest, and open with God about their sorrows because they believe this shows a lack of faith in God’s goodness. Well, if so, then Jesus himself lacked faith in God’s goodness. But that is not true. Rather, lament is a spiritual way of handling the darker events and seasons of life. As Ecclesiastes tells us, “There is a time for everything... a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). It may be time to lament.
If we know Jesus as our Savior, then we can lament with hope for eventual restoration of all wrongs and ills, and "this hope does not disappoint us" (Romans 5:5). Until then, we need to give ourselves and others permission to lament—not to grumble or to deny God's goodness, but to express the pain and longings of our hearts to God.