Tag Archives: suffering

Lament During Thanksgiving?

First published November 2013 at www.biblical.edu, this continues to be my primary experience today and so I offer you it again, slightly revised.

Thanksgiving is that time of year when we get together with family to enjoy good food, maybe a football game, and to be thankful for God’s provision during the past year. Sometimes, though, we don’t feel all that thankful. Yes, we recognize that God indeed has given us many good things, things like food, water, salary, housing, and the like. We acknowledge that we have no rights to demand these things. We acknowledge that there are many who are far worse off. Given recent events, we can imagine how much more blessed we are than those who refugees from civil wars in the Middle East.

And yet, despite our knowledge of grace and mercy, there are times when all we notice are the broken things in our lives—our bodies, our families, our communities.

I confess this is my state this Thanksgiving. I won’t bore you with the details but I struggle to stay focused on the many good things God has given me.

But it might surprise you that though I am noticing a lot of brokenness, I am not embittered or angry with God. I am full of lament. I lament the length of time it is taking God to act in some matters. I lament how much active and passive hatred for the other is present, even in there is in our Christian communities! Have we not lost love for those we consider outsiders? I lament that Jesus has not returned and ended death and suffering.

I am thankful for lament

Here’s what I am thankful for. We serve a God who has encouraged us to lament to him. Laments are cries of our heart where we question God (sometimes even accuse as in Psalmfile-nov-19-7-46-37-am 89), cry out for relief, ask for understanding, and grieve over sins done by self and others. Think about this for a moment: what King in all the earth not only invites such communication but even writes words for his subjects? He is not afraid of our questions or our complaints. Giving him such can be an act of worship.

Enter Isaiah 64. Isaiah is a book of confrontation of sin, call for holiness, prediction of judgment, and vision of restoration. In addition, we find windows of Isaiah’s lament for what is going to unfold for Israel. Listen to portions of his lament and some of my commentary:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.

Ok Lord, act already. Do it! What are you waiting for?

But when we continued to sin against them [the vulnerable, the righteous], you were angry…all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…no one calls on your name…you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.

We so deserve your wrath Lord, but we are wasting away here Lord, if you don’t help us!

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure O Lord…Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we are your people.

Lord, we know you are our creator. We deserve no special recognition. Yet, remember we are your image bearers. Oh Lord, shape us, don’t destroy us.

Thankful I can vacillate?

Notice how Isaiah 64 and other laments (e.g., Psalm 42-43; Habakkuk, the book of Lamentations) bounce between recalling God’s goodness, questioning his plans, grieving own sin, yet imploring God to vindicate. Are these writers wishy-washy?

I don’t think so. Too often we think the best theology is all neat and tidy:

Problem + Victorious God = No Problem

While this will be true one day, it isn’t yet. And so we lament in vacillating and non-linear ways. Even as we proclaim God’s sovereign power, we also acknowledge that we are in great turmoil. These laments give us examples of how to hold on to our faith even as we have no answer for the moment. We are not required to end on a happy note. Look back at Psalms 42-3. See how the Psalmist cries out in despair, recalls better times, enjoins himself to hope in God, but then again remembers that he is great pain. Notice that neither Lamentations nor Habakkuk end in victory for the “good guys.” Lamentations, like Isaiah 64, ends with a question mark—“if you haven’t forgotten us already?” Habakkuk acknowledges the victory of being able to praise God in a terrible famine, but that doesn’t remove suffering or the reason for the lament in the first place (ongoing sin by Israel and her destruction by a pagan nation).

So, I’m thankful this season that we worship a great God capable of holding our laments and recording our tears. I am thankful that I do not have to pretend all is well for fear God will strike me down. He knows my pain. He has suffered in every way and so is a High Priest who can relate to my feelings of abandonment. And he is working for our future Good. But for now, I can lament that it (victory) hasn’t arrived in its fullest form and take comfort in a more realistic equation:

Problem + Presence of God = I Lament and am Not Alone


Filed under Biblical Reflection, Christianity, Meditations, suffering, Uncategorized

Emotions in the face of suffering: Thoughts by Joni Eareckson Tada

“Most people think that living with quadriplegia is overwhelming. And it is.” Speaking at #CCEF16, she says this even as she says that now, nearly 50 years later, she would not give up her intimacy and depth in Christ, deepened through suffering, in order to walk. How do we bring these two opposing experiences together.

Joni tells us there are 1 billion disabled people in the world, most living in the developing world–people who are at greatest risk of being abused, neglected, and not protected. 

She spoke of her chronic pain that grew over the years and exploded in the mid 2000s and how it robbed her of joy and capacity to do the work she wanted to do. “It (the pain) made my quadriplegia a walk in the park.” “I know I am under the sovereignty of God but now his sovereignty seemed so scary.” “My depression lifted the day I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer.” She said this with a smile, “Oh God, you might be taking me home now.” 

“I knew in my head that God is sovereign and that I trust him. Why can’t my emotions fall in line?” She then used the idea that in this life we experience “splashovers” of hell and “splashovers of heaven.” “There is nothing more sweet than finding Jesus in your moment of hell.” Pain tends to bring us into self-focus. But when we see the affliction of Jesus on the cross, our focus is changed. It doesn’t mean we no longer suffer but that our suffering done in and with Christ, “no longer afraid of it.” There is comfort in the promises of God even in the dark seasons. 

How can counselors convince others that Jesus is enough even if the pain is not able to be fixed? We start by counseling with compassion (being with them in their pain and suffering). When the sufferer sees they have a place in the body of Christ, that they are not isolated, this is of great importance. Spiritual community helps the sufferer to accept the pain as their own. God never intended us to suffer alone. Together, healing begins. We don’t just declare God is over all suffering, we demonstrate it through deep relationships. 

Someone who knows suffering can say things that many able-bodied people cannot say, or cannot be heard to say. Joni’s voice is prophetic for the Church. She calls us to walk with those with disabilities rather than avoid. May we listen. May be validate their pain first as we sit with them. May we never tired to hear of their difficulties. May we never put our need for assurance that “everything will turn out right” ahead of their need to be heard and loved. 

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Filed under biblical counseling, CCEF, conferences, counseling, suffering

Lamentations as Comfort for Trauma Victims? Consider Lamentations as a Teacher for Counselors

The book of Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I have often thought it would make dramatic theatre to have it read with modern-day images flashing behind the reader connecting today’s crises with the cries from the destruction of Israel.

What if we read it as a lament about the problem of child sexual abuse in Christian communities and the resulting discipline of the Church for covering up and denying the problem for so many years?

Sadly, this small book of poetry (written in acrostic format) of five chapters, languishes in most churches. I cannot recall a single sermon preached from this book. It could stand to use someone extolling the virtues and values of this book.

Enter Chris Wright’s new commentary “The Message of Lamentations” (IVP, 2015). I received my copy today in the mail. It is entirely readable. He provides a good overview of the structure of the book, illustrates the heart of the poetic style yet never loses touch with the practical value of the cries as he proceeds to exposit the book.

Having read his introduction, here is why Chris says this book is for today’s suffering:

  • It is a memorial. Even though the exile ended and Israel was restored, that “does not erase the suffering of those who went through the horrors of 587 BC.” Later he tells us, “It compels readers forever afterwards to look and listen, to remember and reflect. ‘The biblical book of Lamentations refuses denial, practices truth-telling and reverses amnesia.’ (p 35, quoting Kathleen O’Connor). No cover-up, no quick reminder of heaven to erase the pain of today.
  • It is a voice. “…the poetry of Lamentations gives voice to those who were rendered voiceless in the vortex of violence.” The book lets the voiceless speak.

And that, as is well-known, is a vital part of any hope for healing from deepest trauma…. And we may want to step in with our comfort or corrections, our advice and solutions. But Lamentations simply makes us listen to the voices of the sufferers–in the profusion and confusion of their pain, the bitterness of their protest, their shafts of self-condemnation, their brief flashes of hope and long night of despair, and their plaintive pleading with God just to look and see. And if in the midst of these voices there is accusation against God, Lamentations lets us hear that too…. This book forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, allowing the words that emerge to have their own integrity and authenticity, whether we approve or not. We are called not to judge, but to witness. Not to speak, but to listen….”This is what really happened,” they say, “this is what we went through, and this is what we felt.” (emphasis mine; ibid)

Chris goes on to talk about the confession of sin in the book and makes it very clear that lamentations is not meant to be a theology of suffering and sin applied to every situation where people suffer. Surely there are proper times of confession and the book of Lamentations records the confession of sin for Israel’s rebellion. Chris goes on to point out that even if all of the suffering can be attributed to sin, such sin cannot erase the suffering being experienced. To do so would erase the reality of experience. I find counselors all too interested in sorting victims and sinners. At one level, it doesn’t matter. Suffering is suffering, no matter who experiences it.

  • It is a protest. No matter the cause, the immensity of suffering as found on the pages of Lamentations and in sexual abuse produces cries of protest. Chris denies that protest is blaming God. Rather, our protests assume God’s capacity to right all wrongs and confusion as to why it has not yet happened. He calls such protest evidence of spiritual “vertigo.” And he notices that such statements of faith and protest are seen together in the final verses of the book. “You, Lord, reign forever…Why do you always forget us…?” (p. 40)
  • It is our home and we share it with God. He quotes O’Connor again. Lamentations is “a house for sorrow and a school for compassion.” Lamentations is the home for our tears and a home where God too weeps for us.

We counselors bear witness to pain and suffering. Lamentations teaches us to listen. It teaches us to express spiritual vertigo with our clients and to wait for God’s answer (notice God does not answer in this book; thankfully we have other books that do give us a direct answer).


Filed under book reviews

Knowledge vs. information: When trauma stories change you

Last night in our Advanced Global Trauma Recovery Institute (GTRI) course web conference, we were discussing the weight of listening to trauma stories. This conversation spawned from our delving rather deeply into the systemic torture, trauma, and loss of identity occurring in post-WWII eastern Europe (specifically in Romania). We considered the question

What should we do when we are overwhelmed with the weight of trauma stories around the world? Especially, what are we to do when we can do little to nothing about the new stories we hear every day? How do we respond to temptations to despair?

Knowing or just information?

During the web conference, Diane Langberg pointed out the common phenomenon that sometimes we hear of atrocities but do not really know about them. We hear information on the news about various tragedies (e.g., ISIS, Boko Haram, shootings, suicides, etc.) and sometimes fail to process it. One of our students reminded us of a bit of dialogue in Hotel Rwanda between the hotel manager and an American journalist,

Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.

Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?

Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?

Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “oh my God that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.

Not far from the truth, right? However, when someone takes the time to really listen to trauma stories, something changes in that person; they are no longer able to go about their life as the did in the past. When we choose to sit with stories of pain, we gain knowledge that changes our view of the world. For example, when we take new individuals to Rwanda, we often hear, “I remember hearing about the genocide….but I didn’t know. I knew but I didn’t know what I know now.” The same thing happens when individuals are willing to learn about racism, domestic violence, gender based sexual violence and the like.

When you see something in detail, you can’t unsee it. You will be changed.

I know…now what?

Once you know, really know, the depth of suffering of a community, you are changed. That knowing often creates deep pain, especially when we can do nearly nothing about it. So, now what? What can we do? Here are a few things that may be overlooked as insignificant

  1. Listen. Wait, didn’t we already do that? What good is hearing more about the story if I can’t do anything about it? No, listening is part of the solution. Individuals and communities who are enabled to tell their trauma story benefit from repeated truth-telling. They benefit from “being seen and heard.” It matters that those from outside cared enough to come and hear of the pain. Do not underestimate how such listening may empower a trauma survivor to move towards healing.
  2. Lament. Laments are conversations with God about the brokenness before you. Whether done in private or in public, these laments help us to communicate to God what we find intolerable, to ask God to do what is impossible, and to look closely for his response. Laments hand the problem back to God. “Do something Lord!” Laments also tell victims that their pain is real and not merely an emotional weakness on their part.
  3. Look for seeds of healing. If you are hearing a story of tragedy, then you are also hearing a story of survival. While being careful not to dismiss losses and pain, we can also point out signs of life, of resistance, of resilience. These seeds do not deny the damage being experienced. Jeremiah’s plaintive sigh, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed…” does not undo his previous tears, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.”
  4. Do one thing. If you are in direct contact with the person who is suffering, you can check in with them, find out what would be helpful. If you are not in direct contact, then do any number of “one things.” You can pray daily. Ask not only for restoration and justice but also for God to direct your response. You can tell one person about what you have learned. You can look for ways to identify how the seeds of the same tragedy might be in your own environment and not just “over there.” You can give an alternative points of view when you hear someone speaking naively about the situation. Start a conversation with friends.
  5. Remember. Look to find God’s view of the situation. How does He feel about injustice, whether minute forms in us or the massive ones we see on television? What reason might God have for waiting to bring all things under his control?



Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma

David Brooks on Suffering

Over at the BTS faculty blog, I’ve written a short post pointing to David Brook’s recent Op Ed pieces on suffering. He has been writing quite a bit on the topic lately. I think you will find his nuanced thinking quite useful and theologically rich.

You can read my post here.

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Whose eyes do you see when you look at the suffering?

A friend of mine has written the most exquisite Lenten devotional based on the passage in Mark about the evening of anguish spend alone in the garden.

I commend it to you here.

Why do we suffer? Why is it not removed? This we cannot say. But we can say, as Josh says, that in suffering we see the eyes of Jesus. It is difficult to keep both the depth of our suffering and a sovereign God in sight at the same time. But Josh shows us how without fancy theological argument.

Read it.

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Filed under Abuse, Biblical Reflection, Christianity, Meditations, suffering

Thoughts on closure by Bryan Maier

Is closure after trauma, grief, or some other sort of suffering a realistic goal? If so, how would you know when you arrived?

My colleague, Bryan Maier has a short review post of the book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us. I think you will find his thoughts compelling to consider.

Sounds like a book we should all read.

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What to do with Psalm 89?

Check out this blog entry from my colleague, Steve Taylor. Steve helps us consider what to make of the “unrebutted” charges against God found in Psalm 89. If you ever struggle with feeling that God has not kept his promises or struggled with what to do with OT passages that seem to charge God with failure to keep his promises…read this:

Jesus Redeems a Psalm: What a Difference “Christotelicity” Makes!.

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Filed under biblical counseling, Biblical Reflection, Biblical Seminary, Doctrine/Theology, suffering

Surprised by peace? Surprised by suffering? What do you expect?

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What is your baseline perspective on life? Do you tend to believe that life should work pretty well and are surprised when suffering and pain enter your life? Or, do you tend to believe that life is hard and are surprised and pleased when it is not so hard or when you have moments of peace?

Perspective is pretty much everything. If you are driving during rush hour and you expect that traffic will be really bad but it turns out to be better than you feared, you probably feel great. But, if you were thinking your drive would take you one hour but it took two, you probably feel a bit frustrated. Both drivers might travel exactly the same amount of time but have opposite perspectives.

Expectations shape our feelings and perceptions of how life is going for us. Now, I am NOT arguing that if you just think happy thoughts, you won’t be bothered by problems in this life. No matter your perspective, you will suffer. To think otherwise would be denial of reality. But behind most of our “this is not fair…why would God allow this…I’m not sure I want to believe in a God who allows pain to happen” kind of comments are some assumptions and expectations that reveal what we believe life should be like.

Consider these assumptions or expectations. See one that gets you?

1. Life should be fair and should work. This could be called the Jonah perspective. Yes it should. But since sin entered the world, it isn’t. Instead of blaming God, might we not want to notice how many times in life, things are fair, just, and good? Might we not want to see that God is giving us better than we deserve? How might that mindset modify our general view of God’s care for us?

2. I have sacrificed much for God, why hasn’t he given my good and decent desires)? This one is similar to the 1st point but focuses along the lines of Psalm 73. Fairness is seen along the lines of righteousness. The good guys get blessings and the bad guys get suffering. If we hold this expectation then it is common to feel gypped when we don’t get our good desires met.

3. Suffering is something that is temporary, something to get through. This is an American viewpoint. We can overcome obstacles, we can heal the sick, we can fix problems. Once we get our education, get married, get the job we wanted, get our 401Ks then life will be good.


Filed under Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, Insight, suffering

When life doesn’t follow the “plan”

One of the more significant causes of emotional/psychological suffering is the experience that life isn’t turning out as expected. While we all conjure up something different when we hear “normal”, we do have something that we assume is the normal expectation for how life should unfold. Most of us assume we will go to college, graduate on time, get married, have kids, start a career (or several over the course of our life), develop economic stability and growth, stay healthy, retire, find fulfillment, etc. Unexpected events will happen, we tell ourselves, but the general plan or trajectory should continue.

But then we hit more than a bump in the road. We don’t get married, can’t have kids, lose a job, divorce, get sick (or watch a loved one die before their time). When we suffer we are forced to come face to face with the fact that life does not have guarantees–except that there will be suffering and that suffering is not something we can get beyond, try as we might.

Christians are not immune from having expectation. In fact, we may have even more than those who don’t have the “hope of heaven.” We assume we will have peace and joy and that God will deliver us just as he delivered Daniel, David, Esther, etc. We recite Psalm 23 but gloss over the hard parts (death, enemies). Or, consider, for example, the pattern found in Psalm 107: Sin/Weakness leads to suffering…the people cry out in their trouble…the Lord hears and saves/blesses them with good things…  We like this pattern and expect to get the “happily ever after” that the pattern seems to promise.

Notice that as soon as God isn’t delivering us from our pain, we begin to look for the reasons. Maybe there is a new technique to prayer to try. Maybe there is a sin to confess. Maybe it is due to judgment on our country for its errant ways. We want to blame someone!

The truth is the “plan” isn’t as detailed as we would like it to be. Yes, there is a normal trajectory of life: growth…maturation…passing on to the next generation. But promises for obtaining specific outcomes are not given. We only assume they are assured until we discover one of our assumptions blown up by reality.

The same goes for our assumptions of the “rescue plan.” Either God does not deliver on his promises to care for his children OR his care looks markedly different from what we assumed it would be. And, it appears that God’s plan for rescue is global rather than individual. He did repeatedly rescue Israel during the time of the Judges…but some years and oppression went by each time and some of the chosen people did not survive.

Does this depress you? It can. Especially when we take note of more and more suffering and see less of the “normal” life we once expected. As we age we notice that death is everywhere–as if it wasn’t there so much when we were younger. If it doesn’t depress you, you may find yourself struggling with bitterness. How can God really exist or be good?

Or, you can consider John Calvin’s words (thanks John Freeman for showing them to me) and consider one blessing amidst the disrupted “plan.”

With whatever kind of tribulation we may be afflicted, we should always keep this end in view–to habituate ourselves to a contempt of the present life, that we may thereby be excited to meditation on that which is to come. For the Lord, knowing our strong natural inclination to a brutish love of the world, adopts a most excellent method to reclaim us and rouse us from our insensibility, that we may not be too tenaciously attached to that foolish affection…the whole soul, fascinated by carnal allurements, seeks it felicity on earth. To oppose this evil, the Lord, by continual lessons of misery, teaches His children the vanity of the present life.(as quoted in L. Boettner’s Immortality, p. 31)

If Calvin stopped there we might think he was a stoic–one who hated any pleasure. However, he is not. He says this “contempt” of this life should not lead to hate pleasure or “ingratitude” for good things.

So, consider for a moment what “plan” you expected and your reaction to not getting it. Or, better yet, what “plan” did you expect that you actually got but then found out that said plan didn’t deliver the goods you thought were to come with it?

How might your mood, your attitude, your perspective change if “the plan” was focused on meeting/seeing God each day? What would you stop striving for? What would you set aside as a waste of time? What would you notice that right now escapes your glance?

One final comment. I don’t think that this change in “plan” reduces the pain of suffering or stops our goal-directed activity in this life. We are designed to growth, develop, change, find pleasure, pursue economic stability for self and other. Further, suffering always hurts, no matter what good comes of it. Just because good comes from pain doesn’t mean pain is itself good. Our problem is that we sometimes often forget a deeper design of relationship with God.


Filed under Biblical Reflection, christian counseling, Christianity, Doctrine/Theology, suffering