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Saying Horrors to God

From the series:

by Anna Mondal

You sit, sick with sorrow, as your counselee discloses stories of incest, a forced abortion, or cruel childhood neglect. And these things you shudder to think of, had to be endured.[1] What do you say in response to the unsayable?

God provides (and Christ models) an authentic, whole-person, trauma-aware option for responding to horrors: the language of lament.

What is lament?

Lament is expressing pain God-ward as an act of faith. It vocalizes our deepest shame and sorrow to God, pleading for His intervention. Lament says, “God, this hurts! Help!” Mark Vroegop, author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, says “lament is the language for the in-between world,” bridging life’s trauma and trust in God.[2] “To cry is human, to lament is Christian.”[3]

Still, many Christians struggle to believe it’s okay to lament. We think “good Christians” don’t cry or complain.[4] We may avoid expressing sadness, believing we should “exhibit to God an unflinching, joyful acceptance of His will.”[5] Tim Keller points out that this posture can be “a subtle legalism, a way of securing God’s favor by being good and not complaining.”[6]

Lament is for the shattered ones. The people who are too broken to perform for God. And these are the ones who flourish in God’s kingdom, those who acknowledge their poverty and rely on His grace (Matt. 5:3; John 15:5).

God invites our complaints

Scripture brims with examples of faithful people crying to God in pain. Job screamed, grieved, and begged his case to God (Job 3, 5-13, 29-31).[7] The Lord never scolds him for this (though He does condemn the foolish friends who tried to protect God from Job’s questions).[8]

Before Jeremiah praises God’s endlessly recurring mercies (Lam. 3:22-24), he laments God-sent darkness, homelessness, and bitterness of life (Lam. 3:1-2, 4-6).[9] Before the Psalmist challenges his soul to hope in God, he acknowledges his deep depression, insomnia, and lack of appetite (Ps. 42:6, 3). He cries, “All Your breakers and Your billows have swept over me,” essentially saying, “God, You’ve sent this pain!”[10]

God isn’t afraid of this language. He reserves one-third of the Psalter especially for it.[11] As God-in-flesh, He practiced lament, pleading with the Father and praying psalms as He was tortured (see Mark 14:32-41, Matt. 27:36, Ps. 22, 69).

Counseling implications

We fail to reflect Jesus if we ask our counselees to bottle up their grief. Let’s allow them to express it biblically. I’ve found it helpful to model lament in the session. It’s no good saying I understand exactly what they feel—I don’t.[12] But God gives us words, and Lamentations 3, Psalm 6, 42-43, and 69 are particularly good places to begin. Ask what resonates, what sounds familiar to her experience. Encourage her to create an individualized lament. Share music and poetry that demonstrates God-directed grief.[13]

The goal is not only to scream our pain. The goal is to hand over our pain, trusting the scar-marked Christ to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). He is One we can follow, He is One we can call King.[14]

 

[1] It is right to internally cringe at horrifying abuses of human rights and parental authority. It is very wrong to be disturbed to the point of disbelieving (“that couldn’t be true”) or backing away in self-protection (“this is too hard for me to hear”). “Amy Carmichael expressed it eloquently when she spoke of the Indian girls whom she rescued from the Hindu temples: ‘Those who know the truth of these things will know that we have understated it, carefully toned it down…It cannot be written or published or read, but oh, it had to be lived! And what you may not even hear, had to be endured by little girls.’” See Diane Mandt Langberg, Ph.D, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Xulon Press, 2003), 43. Quoting Amy Carmichael, Things as They Are (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1903), 228.

[2] Mark Vroegop, “Episode 81: On the Christian Practice of Lament” 9Marks, https://www.9marks.org/pastors-talk/episode-81-on-lament/ (March 26, 2019).

[3] Vroegop, “Episode 81: On the Christian Practice of Lament”

[4] Lament is complaining to God, which He invites. But grumbling and complaining to other people (especially if it includes slander or gossip) is not so much to be encouraged (1 Cor. 10:1-13; Phil 2:14-16).

[5] See Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2015) 240-42.

[6] Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014), 235.

[7] See the Bible Project’s “The Book of Job” for a visually striking animated overview of Job’s laments and God’s response. https://vimeo.com/192018182

[8] See Job 22-23, and 42:7-8.

[9] “I am a man who has seen affliction…[God] has driven me away and forced me to walk in darkness instead of light…encircling me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those who have been dead for ages…Remember my affliction and my homelessness, the wormwood and the poison.” (Lam. 3:1-2, 5-6)

[10] See Timothy Keller, “Finding God” Gospel in Life, Audio Sermon, https://gospelinlife.com/downloads/finding-god-6252/ (April 21, 2002).

[11] “Laments, whose primary function is to lay a troubled situation before the Lord, asking him for help…is the largest [category of psalms] by far, including as much as a third of the whole Psalter.” English Standard Version Study Bible, “Introduction to the Psalms” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 940.

[12] Though my personal history includes sexual trauma, I can never say to a counselee that I understand “exactly” what she’s feeling. Every story is unique, every person responds uniquely, and while there are some areas of overlap, it is naïve and arrogant to claim to understand someone else’s pain. Only God can claim to have been inside our sorrows (Heb. 4:15).

[13] See Malcolm Guite’s poem, “A Christian Plummet,” https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2018/10/10/the-christian-plummet/

[14] Imagery borrowed from Balin the Dwarf, courtesy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.