I once visited a school to help give a lesson on science and religion to some older teenagers. One of the pupils had sadly passed away from cancer a few weeks before and his classmates asked, “How God could let this happen?” At one point they started to debate angrily, asking how someone could believe in God when this family had lost a son at such a young age – but the chaplain gently intervened. He reminded the class that they couldn’t speak for their classmate’s close kin who were Christians, and were finding that their experience of suffering had brought them even closer to God than before.
Of course, these young people’s questions about where God was in this situation were important and needed to be answered. They needed to work through their own grief at losing their friend. I have tried to dig into these difficult topics in my last two posts on this theme, but we also need to look at why people often find that difficult times bring them closer to God. Part of the answer, for me, is that we can share our grief with a God who listens.
The Biblical writers demonstrated very effectively how we can express ourselves to God. They had no scruples about giving vent to their feelings, telling him exactly how they felt. Unlike the average evangelical church song collection, which can sometimes be overwhelmingly upbeat, about one third of the Psalms express grief in one form or another. “My tears have been my food day and night” (Psalm 42); “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13); “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught…My heart is in anguish within me” (Psalm 55).
The whole of the book of Job is a series of responses to one man’s suffering as he lost his children, property and health in quick succession. He cries out to God, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11). Lamentations is also one long outpouring of sadness, focusing on what happened to the people of Israel under the Babylonians. “See Lord, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed” (Lamentations 1:20). Some of the prophets, especially Jeremiah, also expressed their grief at various events that happened to the rebellious people of Israel – which reflected something of God’s own feelings at giving up these children that he loves. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? … My heart is changed within me and all my compassion is aroused.” (Hosea 11:8)
Most of these biblical authors would have had access to Scriptures that encouraged them to turn to God whatever the circumstances. The books of the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy) outlined the way that God expected his chosen people to follow him. In his perfect Fatherly love for the Israelites God guaranteed that no matter what they had been up to, and what sort of punishment they were experiencing, when they turned away from their rebellion and back to him he would be there for them, listening to them in their suffering and ready to help them (Deuteronomy 30). This message is repeated time and time again by the prophets later in the Old Testament, and affirmed by their stories of the Israelites flourishing after they turned back to God for a time.
Emboldened by their knowledge of God’s character and promises, these divinely-inspired writers even expressed their anger to God about the things they believed he let happen, or because he seemed to have acted unfairly or ignored them in their plight. “God has unstrung my bow and afflicted me” (Job 30:11); “How long, Lord? Will you reject me forever?” (Psalm 13); “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1); “Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you?” (Job 7:20).
Not only did these men let it all out without fear of reprisal, they clearly expected a helpful answer. “You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you”, says Jeremiah (Chapter 12:1). Time and time again, the Psalmists express their faith in God’s power to help them, whether based on past experience or trust in his goodness: “I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation” (Psalm 13); “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him” (Psalm 42).
Not every writer records a resolution to their troubles, but many do – often simply because God speaks to them and comforts them, enabling them to keep going. “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you” (Psalm 55); “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42). Job was humbled by the big picture of God’s action that was presented to him, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” – before his fortunes were restored (Job 42).
So my response to questions about why people believe in God in the face of suffering, or the rawness of those teenagers’ loss, is I have also experienced deep personal loss, including losing family members to cancer, but I know that God is there and he helps me. I know that he has experienced grief and pain himself, not least on the cross, and he cares.
The pattern laid out by the biblical writers demonstrates that God can handle pretty much anything – anger, blame, sulking, heresy – if we direct our questions to him and are actively looking to him for help. I have found that expressing myself in God’s presence is the first step in letting him help and heal me, including pointing my thoughts in a more helpful direction if that’s what I need. Pete Greig of the 24-7 prayer movement has written, “pain that is not expressed can never be transformed”. He can transform us and our response to a situation, as well as the situation itself, in incredible ways. As my colleague, Roger Abbott has written in his book on “Unanswered” Prayer, “Let us not confuse reverence with spiritual prudishness. Perhaps honesty, the way it feels, is precisely what God is waiting to hear from us.”
I expect we will need to recover the powerful language of lament in the coming months, expressing not just our own grief but our reactions to the events that are happening around the world. A number of prayer movements seem to be blossoming just now, and if we want to take part we might well find that lament is one of the essential items in our prayer toolbox.
Prayer Tool no. 16: How to Lament, in the Prayer Course toolshed
Roger Abbott, Hello? Is Anyone There? A pastoral reflection on the struggle with “unanswered prayer”, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).