Through pain to praise

Today I had the privilege of sharing God’s Word at the church my friend attends, and I realized afresh the enormous responsibility that comes from doing so. Below is an edited version of what I shared this morning:

I would like to offer you my understanding of one of the ways we can genuinely connect with God. And when I say “genuinely”, I mean not only with your thoughts, with what you think about God, but also with all of you – your body, your emotions and your thoughts. I have learned through my own journey that the only way I can genuinely praise God, is when I push through my pain towards Him.

Two significant events brought much pain, but also unexpectedly, brought much healing in my life and in my tumultuous relationship with God. The first event was my infertility diagnosis in September 2005. I was devastated. How could this happen? What did I do wrong? What did I not do? I entered a period of desperate prayer, clinging on to the promises received in church and in Scripture, that God was a healer, that nothing was impossible for God, that He opened and closed wombs. And seven years later, my arms are still empty.

The second event occurred in June 2012. On the 18th of June, Francesco, myself and two of our closest friends embarked on our dream holiday – a 12 night Mediterranean cruise. We boarded the ship on the 22 June 2012, and on the night of the 24 June 2012, I received a call that my cousin, who I loved deeply and was always seen by me as my big sister, died instantly from an aneurism – she was 39 years old. Again, I was devastated, but in order for me to salvage my holiday, I chose to bury the grief deep down inside me.

When I arrived home, the grief seemed to be almost absent. There were times when it would surface, but I never fully felt it. The next six months were all a blur – I took on additional responsibility with my cousin’s eldest son. I also completed my first year of postgraduate studies. And all this time, I felt numb, until by the end of November, I felt completely disconnected from God, and began questioning whether He even existed.

I stopped praying. I mean, why should I pray? If God does not exist, then who am I praying to? News of tragedy – shooting at a primary school where young lives were ended so senselessly – trauma, and the M23 rebels invading Goma, a city in the DRC – where people whom I knew lived – pushed me over the edge.

Inside I felt myself screaming out at all the pain in the world, wondering how we can claim that God is in control and that He is all-powerful and loving and yet there is so much pain in the world and He is doing nothing about it! And so I took the step I had always dreaded. I thought, “Either God is a cruel God, who can do something but chooses to do nothing.” Or I thought, “But I can’t imagine such a cruel God, so therefore he must then not exist.” And I sat with these thoughts churning in my insides all through Christmas, which was really hard last year.

And in the last six months, I have been journeying with my pain in a way that has brought much healing in my life and breathed new life into my relationship with God. This journey was a journey of truth-telling, of lament.

Ellen Davis tells us that the “incomparable surprise gift” in the book of Psalms are the psalms of lament. These kinds of psalms dominate the first half of the book, and their language is not really polite. In fact, it is language that we almost never hear in church and in conversations with Christians. For example, in Psalms 22 and 88, these psalmists accuse God of abandoning them.  And in Psalm 44:24, the psalmist accuses God of falling asleep on the job. The sheer number of these psalms challenges us to take them seriously as a biblical model of prayer.

And this is not the only place in the Bible that expresses such language, such audacity. Another place in the bible is the book of Lamentations. But before turning to Lamentations, a quick overview of the context within which this book was written:

  • The destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the deportation into exile of the top structures of the Judean leadership by the Babylonians.
  • The loss of their temple – the place that symbolised God’s eternal presence among them – the loss of their land and the loss of their status as an independent nation, a nation who are God’s people.
  • It plunged them into despair and caused them to question their identity as God’s people and to question God’s character. Where was his fidelity, his promised faithfulness, His assurance that He was their God and they were his people?

It was in this context that the book of Lamentations was written. So now let’s read passages from this book to get a feel for the language.

When you look at the language in Lamentations 2:1-5, you hear the speakers accusing God of humiliating Zion, of God destroying without mercy, of levelling fierce anger against Israel, of God becoming “like the enemy” of Israel. In Lamentations 3:1-12, we hear the speaker saying that God drove him/her “into darkness without any light”, how God “besieged and enveloped” him/her “with bitterness and tribulation”, of God shutting out his/her prayers. And in Lamentations 4:4-11, we read how The Lord gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations.”

These passages voice speech that many of would never dare level at God – it feels almost blasphemous. And yet, the writer(s) of Lamentations do just that… they dare to accuse God of murder, of abandonment of pouring out his anger upon them. And it is precisely in this language that God’s people are led to healing and freedom.

Kathleen O’ Connor, as cited by Brueggemann in his introduction to the Old Testament, offers us a perspective that holds the promise of healing and restoration, for us and for our ability to genuinely connect with God. She says that these poems give us 5 gifts:

  1.  Lamenting is an act of truthfulness. The writers speak out their truth before God, and this speaking is in itself an act of faithfulness. It says that they are not willing to let go of their relationship with God; that, in spite of their circumstances, they will still engage with God in the most honest, authentic way possible. Their faith was strong enough; their relationship with God was strong enough that they felt they could use such language when engaging with God. Their lament was “prayer abandoned to truth”.
  2. Lamenting is an act of impassioned hope. This passionate expression of grief and sorrow is passionately hopeful precisely because the Israelites believed that their cry to God would mobilize Him to act. And if one knows their story, then one would not be surprised by this belief. It was their cry as a result of their oppression under the Egyptian Pharaoh at the end of Exodus 2 that mobilized God to act, to raise up Moses to lead them out of slavery into their freedom in God. And so, again, in a place of utter despair, the writers cry out on behalf of their people, desperately clinging to the hope that God’s mercies are new every morning.
  3. Lamenting is a wish for justice. By crying out against the pain, they name the injustice of their current situation and the injustice that led to their current situation. They dare to ask God why he did not, or does not act. They are crying out against everything that destroys their ability to survive dream and flourish. Kathleen O’ Connor writes, ““When people live in conditions that deprive them of dignity, of control of their bodies, of what they need to eat and clothe themselves, or of what they need to flourish in mind and spirit, they need to lament.” And somehow, mysteriously, the releasing of the cry ushers in catharsis and healing.
  4. Lamenting is a political act. It is a political act because it dares to confront the powers that be with the injustice, with their grief, abandonment and loss. It has the power to bring tears to the surface and accepts the tears. And in its acceptance of tears, it validates them, giving birth to hope.
  5. Lamenting teaches resistance. It does so by providing a language of defiance. It encourages the person lamenting to resist the injustice and to promote human agency rather than passivity in the face of that which robs one of life and dreams. We will only be able to gain our full humanity, unleash our blocked passions and live in genuine community with others when we come to grips with our own despair, loss and anger and allow the grief to run its course. Lamenting melts frozen and numbed spirits.

Lamentations gives us the language to express our inner world and our feelings/thoughts towards God. But it does more than this. It authorizes us to use that language, to bring to expression those places and spaces within us that before we have not been given permission to do so. Lamentations authorizes truth-telling.

It is through lamenting, journeying through the pain that one finds one’s way to praise. Ellen Davis writes,

“When you lament in good faith, opening yourself to God honestly and fully – no matter what you have to say – then you are beginning to clear the way to praise. You are straining toward the time when God will turn your tears into laughter. When you lament, you are asking God to create the conditions in which it will become possible for you to offer praise – conditions…that are mainly within your own heart…sometimes the only act of faith that is possible – for those who suffer and those who minister to them – is to name our desolation before God, and to implicate God in our suffering.”

My story echoed this journey. February till May were months of lamenting, of truth-telling, of owning my grief at the loss of my sister and the pain of empty arms that I found myself again, that I was able to access my emotions again, that I was led into a place where the healing process can continue. And the biggest gift of all… the most authentic connection with God in all my years as a Christian. As soon as I cried out, as I entered into my own space of truth-telling, it brought a release inside me, and now it feels that just when I thought I had lost God, I had in fact found Him. No, actually it feels as if He now has been gently pursuing me. And I love it. It’s not always easy, but as I cultivate the spaces of truth-telling in my own life, my connection with God is deepening, but also becoming more child-like.

May you find the courage to enter into your process of lament, and may you experience healing and restoration through your truth-telling.

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2 thoughts on “Through pain to praise

  1. fiona lynne June 18, 2013 at 10:07 am Reply

    This is just stunning. I would have been so blessed to be sitting in that congregation that Sunday. And it seems timely for me to read this today. I came home from Uganda to the news of a friend’s stillbirth. And my heart seemed to say, no, not now, I’ve had enough heart breaking situations to handle these last weeks. But I know from my own story that lamenting is a path straight towards God’s open arms.
    Thank you for writing this, for preaching it, for living it.

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