From Kleenex Theology to Messy Spirituality: The Biblical Invitation to Honest Lament

I don’t do suffering well. In fact, I despise suffering. My daughter’s tears bring out the worst in me. My first thought is “How do I fix this?” It’s easily translated in to pastoral care or clinical counseling. “What should I say? How can I help?” I’ve been habituated to respond to suffering with answers.

It’s because I despise suffering and its nasty side-effects that I take a kind of twisted pride in how well my community, my church, and my nation deal with suffering. We seem to be so civil about it. A slight tear brings out the Kleenex, and suffering is wiped clean. (Suffering can be wiped clean, incidentally, in scented Kleenex or Kleenex with aloe.) We’re domesticated sufferers. Our churches acknowledge suffering only as something true faith can mitigate; we deny its reality, and in doing so evade the possibility that we might have to dive in to uncivilized grief, grief with tears that cannot be quenched.

And it is with a degree of arrogance that I watch the Nightly News, shaking my head at the very uncivilized displays of communal lament among the “ancient peoples” of the mideast. Poor souls…they look so miserable as they march through the streets, wailing with fists raised at their impotent deity. If only they would embrace my form of civil suffering…my Kleenex theology…then they might not subject themselves to awful displays of raw and uncontrolled emotion. Poor, uncivilized souls.

Of course, the secret truth is that I admire them. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s true. I long to lament in a way that releases me to surrender as Jacob was released at Peniel. I long to join the ancient cry that was rarely private: “How long, O Lord…” I long to abandon my sanitized Kleenex theology for a messy one, one that even allows saints already in heaven to lament before God (Revelation 6), one that acknowledges the paradox of God incarnate crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In other words, I long secretly to know the ancient art of crying our prayers before a God who doesn’t offer fast food fixes, but who enters my pain in order to know me, and I Him. That sounds like biblical faith. And more and more, I’m convinced it is.

Honest Expression

“If I would have wanted my pain theologized away, I would have gone to Job’s friends.” So said a very wise, very wounded client of mine early in my clinical counseling internship. She was incapable of such wisdom, or so I thought. I was the wise one, the expert, the one in the cozy leather chair with a hand stroking my beard, looking the part of clinician. Her comment struck me dumb. She needed Jesus, one who would leave the comforts of heavenly bliss to engage suffering face to face. Instead, she got a theologian, a medical doctor of the soul, applying theories, making generalizations, testing cures. I had failed her. But she had the courage to speak.

In God’s ironic grace, my failure was the gateway to her renewed journey of Hope. She had spoken, and spoken honestly, not only to her counselor but to a minister, a spiritual leader, much like the ones responsible for beating hope out of her for so many years. The child of a pastor, she had known only spiritual platitudes and proper ways of interacting. She had known only a Gospel of principles for better living. Never challenged to use her voice, never encouraged to speak her doubts, never engaged by people willing to wade in her murky waters, she lived a lonely, isolated life. Referred by her pastor, her presenting problem was “depression.” Categorized, isolated, marginalized and referred to professionals for help, she had begun to believe the message her church was feeding her: “You’re too messy. When you get better, we’ll invite you back in to ministry.” In the months following, she learned to lament and not be ashamed of it. In offering her desires to God in tears, she found new hope released in her soul. She began to see the world in color. However, her journey required a path of validated suffering.

Job needed friends to engage the pain, not interpret the pain. Job needed friends who would join in the chorus of lament, not offer the secret prayer to a life of blessing. Job needed what Henri Nouwen calls “Wounded Healers” to enter the pain with him, but he had friends who were “Healed Wounders.” Blinded by their own comfort, security and sense of well-being, they arrogantly jabbed at Job, attempting to come up with a rational explanation for the mess at hand. Job lamented before God, not only because he had been subjected to terrible trouble, but because his friends had failed him. “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,” Job cried, “but they’re as undependable as intermittent streams.” In the end, Job is commended for his honesty. His theologically correct buddies are scolded for their insensitivity.

Ordered Messiness

I like how Barry Webb describes the Book of Lamentations: Ordered Messiness.

Biblical lament, much to the relief of the “Healed Wounder,” is not ultimately chaotic. To the contrary, biblical lament has a beginning and an end. While the middle may be messy, while it may seem to go on and on without relief, lament, properly understood, rests finally in the Sovereign hand of God. Eugene Peterson echoes Webb when he describes the form of Lamentations as a series of 5 acrostics (much like Psalm 119), literary patterns that travel the alphabet slowly, in meticulous detail, from beginning to end. Lament begins at aleph and ends at tau, proceeding with careful detail and extraordinarily honest expression through each letter. 5 times in 5 distinct poems the writer revisits his pain, most often in communal expression, with a brief interlude for private weeping. The writer’s intent is clear…every detail of pain is important. Suffering cannot and should not be wasted on quick fix alphabet dances that deny proper expression. Acrostic was used as a memory device, as Peterson points out, emphasizing that every jot and tittle of suffering be remembered and experienced.

Suffering, as both Webb and Peterson note, is also historical. Pain’s roots are in concrete experiences, not abstractions. The Lamentation cry is rooted in a historical event, the terrible judgment of God through Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Christ’s lament, likewise, embraced Gesthemane’s reality and the inevitability of crucifixion. The martyr’s cry of “How long, O Lord” not only challenges contemporary, ‘pie-in-the-sky’ descriptions of heavenly bliss, but adds a final exclamation point on the biblical reality of suffering. Even those who have left the toils of earthly labor look down upon injustice and evil and cry out with ancient words of lament. And once again, their lament is not an abstraction, but a response to real-life, historical suffering. Lament requires reality, and reality invites tears.

Thus, the message of Lamentations is that the denial of lament is the denial of reality. Interestingly, neurosis is often defined as the denial of reality. Perhaps, providing a context for lament might be a way to alleviate the neurosis of a culture that feeds on un-reality, false reality, and virtual reality. Perhaps, too, this provides a challenge to the church that works hard to keep lament on the margins. The church might be just as guilty as contemporary culture of avoiding reality, choosing instead fanciful and imaginative “perspectives” and “attitudes” born out of a Kleenex theology. Sadly, the church that denies lament, referring the wounded to ‘clinical care’ only to be returned to the body healed, buries its head in the sand of false reality. That is not to diminish or question the important role of clinical counseling as a ministry among and for Christians. That is to say, however, that too often, the pastor’s counseling referral is due to his refusal to walk through the timely and messy acrostic of suffering from aleph to tau, and perhaps also to his fear that corporate lament in worship does not produce the kind of growth explosions that un-real methods do. However, the grave danger is this. In denying the opportunity for an embrace of lament, we miss a Christ-formed life of pain-sharing, compassion, incarnation and Gospel-healing. We miss the opportunity, in other words, to become more like Jesus.

Lament, the Most Hopeful of Things

“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” St. Paul once wrote. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It’s amazing how we pluck verses like these out and use them as evidence that the day of lament is over and the day of rejoicing has come. St. Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Philippian church, the same letter in which he laments over his long and continuing earthly pilgrimage, the same letter in which he calls “suffering” a gift from God along with faith, the same letter that plainly identifies the reality of his culture as “crooked and depraved”, the same letter that invites the cruciformed Christian to follow the downward path of Christ to humility, suffering and even death, for the sake of knowing Christ. St. Paul, in other words, was not at all afraid of suffering. His hope came in the embrace of it.

Lament is ultimately hopeful. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? The person sitting before you is weeping and wailing about his pain, and it is supposed to produce hope? There, of course, is a fine line between complaining and lamenting, but too often we dismiss the baby with the bath water. Dan Allender says that one who laments often looks like a grumbler or complainer, but that biblical lament is nothing of the sort. Instead, lament contains in itself the possibility of extraordinary hope, restored desire, a changed heart. Lament is, at its core, a search for God. It is not a search for answers. It is not an invitation to fix an ailment. Rather, lament enters the agony with the recognition that it might not go away for days, months, even years. And yet, the lament carries with it the hope that God will eventually show. Dan Allender puts it this way: “Lament is a search – a declaration of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor an arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.”

Of course, you won’t know the hope of lament if you don’t risk walking through the valley. But we need not venture in to the valley alone. We journey with a host of biblical witnesses, and hopefully, a community of faith and friends more dependable than Job’s. The biblical model for lament, whether in the Psalms, Lamentations, Job, Jesus, Paul or the saints in heaven reflects a rugged heart born for a risky, but incredibly rewarding, journey Home. The cry of lament, as Allender writes, is the deepest and most honest cry of the homeless person. Our journey is no different than the saints of Hebrews 11 who, by faith, kept on their sojourn because their hope was in a heavenly city. In other words, we walk in familiar company, men and women who longed deeply for God’s presence in times of trouble, people thrown to the lions and hung on crosses and beaten mercilessly for the sake of the Kingdom. Our hopeful lament is caught up in the universal cry reaching up in to the heavens, even among the saints. God has given his community permission to lament. In fact, he has given his family permission even to make their complaints known to Him. Psalm 44 and Psalm 80, for instance, bring accusations before God that send chills down the spine:

You have fed us the bread of tears

You have made us drink tears by the bowlful

You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors. (Ps. 80:5-6)

However, we speak with the confidence that our complaint will be heard, contained, validated, listened to, and ultimately bring about a change in our circumstances. Like Jacob, our wrestling leads to surrender, deeper relationship, greater trust, a heart made soft by its honesty before God. It is a sure indication that we are fully alive human beings, says Barry Webb, open to the full possibilities of God’s wild and risky involvement in our lives.

This wild trust, this openness to surrender, is precisely how God brings about radical transformation in the hearts of sinners. But it is a transformation that takes time, that is often un-remarkable, that doesn’t change the facts and circumstances of life very quickly. Lament without a quick fix or a happy principle to mitigate it is lament that is ugly and un-productive to modern, ‘results-driven’, western Christians. However, the gift to be patient and engage suffering not to fix or make sense of it, but simply to experience it before the face of God honestly, is a gift that stirs the deepest hope, the hope of the saints, the hope of the very un-broken, tear-free world to come.

He Will Wipe Away Every Tear

God is not in the business of quenching hope. His way, however, often is the longer, harder road through rough wilderness terrain. The oft-quoted proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” speaks of the reality of life in the now. Suffering is just plain sickening. I hate to see it. I hate it for myself, and I hate it for my friends. It angers me, and it causes me to jump-start quick cures to get through it. I almost always have a better plan than God’s, but His wisdom wins the day.

I notice a tendency today to skirt past the reality of suffering. We pride ourselves in being a people who can quickly move past our grief, as we experienced in the September 11 attacks, to regain our pride and status as world superpower. While mourners cry their uncivilized tears on the other side of the globe, we apply our best science to eradicating the need to lament ever again. And isn’t it ironic? Don’t we do this in our churches, as well? Don’t we position ourselves in ways to eradicate suffering and maximize progress?

Upward mobility has become not only the mantra of a consumer culture, but of churches that believe bigger is better, that pride themselves as “healthy” churches rather than “broken” churches, that sell a Gospel of feel-better spirituality. Incarnational ministry is a rare thing these days. In fact, we call smaller churches that focus on pastoral care and spiritual formation the “dying churches” of our day. These churches often contain the walking wounded, the financially destitute, the spiritually needy. You don’t build churches on the backs of these folk. But it is precisely these folk that Jesus came to and lived among. The comfortable didn’t meet Jesus on dirt roads. Lepers met Jesus. The poor met Jesus. The homeless reached up from their beds of sand to touch the corner of his robe. The Gospel is offered to those weak and frail enough to cry out for strength outside of themselves.

Isn’t this the hope of lament? Isn’t lament far less scary if we view it as our divinely inspired and ordained way of communicating deep heart desires to a God who can do something about it? Rather than theologizing lament away, or finding ways to contain it, might we “lean in to it”, as Eugene Peterson remarks, in a way that brings about personal and communal transformation? Might we take the example of the heavenly martyrs who called upon God to act?

In St. John’s apocalyptic history of the world, The Book of Revelation, God does respond with force and fury to the enemies of His people. The Satanic trinity of dragon, beast and false prophet are, once and for all, thrown in to the lake of fire. God’s wilderness-wandering people are vindicated, saved, and prepared for their heavenly betrothal. The weary Bride, tainted and tarnished from her long journey through dark valley of self-indulgence, and the rough terrain of persecution, is now readied for eternal glory, fitted in her pristine white wedding dress for her heavenly Pursuer and Rescuer. Gently wiping away her tears, He speaks to her words she has longed to hear: “There will be no more weeping or mourning. Isaiah’s prophecies have come to fruition. No more death, no more pain, no more struggle. You’re mine, and I’m yours, eternally. Lament no more.”

The end of the Story is a happy one. The Gospel is for those who love comedy, tragedy, and a good, true fairy tale, as Frederick Buechner loves to say. In Revelation 21, the scene shifts from epic battle to unimaginable glory and ecstasy. The Bride is given back her lost Eden, the paradise-city she remembered only in her dreams. C.S. Lewis reminds us that the first Eden has always existed, if only in our memory, urging us own to lives of holy desire as we search out our Paradise-Home. The Bride gets all she has ever desired, and much more. Her ancient lament, raised to God not as an angry fist of rebellion but as an impassioned complaint rooted in desire, is heard, received and acted upon. Her Groom has come to the rescue. And now, eternal happiness.

The Glory of the Gospel is that our lives, our worship, and our relationships need not end in a minor key. The kingdom Hope is the dominant tune, albeit thrown off-key by our trials and tribulations. The minor key of lament is an important reminder that we’re not Home yet, and an invitation to sing songs that reflect our deep hearts and truest struggles, knowing always that our long-suffering Savior will win the day.

So, lament. Join the chorus of ancient voices in their universal cry. Speak honest words to a God who does not fear a complaint born in desire, but actually responds to it. And by all means, live. Pain, as CS Lewis says, is God’s megaphone to call us to be awake, and the awakened, passionate life is a lot better than the false realities our neurotic and fearful world has to offer. Lean hopefully in to lament, and be honest with those who don’t lean with you. The wintry valley of suffering will eventually lead to green pastures, tall-snow capped mountains, and a sunrise that will break through the darkness to a final chorus of praise.

Copyright Chuck DeGroat 2005


7 comments

  1. Hi Chuck, I’m excited to come across this article again. It reminds me of how you helped shaped my own thinking on lament years ago (has it really been that long?), and how this topic was also one of the earliest things I blogged about, trying to sort it all out in my head, as I pondered what you’d written. I still blog and comment anonymously for the most part (all the abuse paranoia is not gone from me, especially in a big public place like the internet, where I’m exposing my heart to who-knows-who. I know it’s not likely S. will ever “find” my thoughts and words online, but still…) Anyway, I’m not trying to be evasive to you, but I’m assuming that WordPress sends you this comment with my email, so you’ll know who I am.

  2. I want to trade in the Kleenex theology of my society/culture too! I can so relate to the lady because since coming here I have REALLY experienced this brand of theology that says “grin and bear it” “just pray” “have faith” “God is able” and other platitudes.
    And to be honest, I felt worse because I realized I had done the same to others when they were hurting. I was embarrassed to acknowledge that I had been like one of Job’s friends to my friends. And sadly, even though I committed to never doing that again, I still find myself doing it to others sometimes. I realize that I do it for two reasons – the rescuer in me wants to fix their problems with a quick fix but even more than that, putting it on God’s sovereignty makes me feel better about the situation.
    But I am coming to realize that in times of struggle, it is not always about fixing the problem or making it go away but rather about holding someone’s hand as they go through so that they are not alone in the process.
    In the midst of pain and struggle, I ultimately go back to the goodness of God. I KNOW that God is good and that He knows what He is doing even when I don’t so I eventually come back to that hope. But when the pain is raw, I want someone to acknowledge that very real pain, not make me feel like it is wrong and un-Christian to feel bad about misfortune or disappointment. I hope to one day be able to do this more naturally as well i.e. stop trying to minimize other’s pain so that I can feel better.

  3. the other day I was talking to a friend, who has inspired me more than any to lament. I told her that I was thankful for her honest laments. She told me that she hoped that I never had to lament in the same way she had to, as she has suffered a lot. I am sure that I do not want to suffer the same way she has, but I am not certain that I do not want to lament, and come before God, as she has. The times I have lamented have been some of the times I have spoken most honestly to God.

  4. As I read this, two thoughts conflict in me. Initially, I want to agree. I begin thinking about all the times that I have been in pain and how the church has not been of any great help during those times. I remember knowing experientially what it is to be truly alone, and even more I remember wondering why God would think this experience is for my betterment. Lament is hard for the one going through it, but it is also hard for the one trying to live beside the lamenter. And, while I agree that learning to lament is a place of needed growth within the church, I would not want to over simplify the “Kleenex” response. I am not convinced that the church wants to “wipe clean” the tears simply because it is less messy and allows them to move on. In my experience, people have wanted to walk with me in lament, but they have not really known how to enter in. And, as the lamenter, I have not made it easy for them either. This inability to enter in is when people begin to say quick verses. They are not certain what is expected of them in the situation, and they resort to things others have told them. Not even to fix the person, but because they are just overcome with striking awareness of inadequacy toward the hurt. As someone who has lamented, I now look back with compassion on these “quick-fixers” in my life for the whole reason they spoke is that their own inadequacy in helping was revealed to them. What does “mourning with those who mourn” truly look like in a practical way? And, while I believe that Christ called us to “mourn with those who mourn,” part of me knows from my own experience that some of it I had to do alone. The loneliness is what ultimately brought me back to God.

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