About ten years ago I got a phone call that no one ever wants to get. My wife called me to tell me that my nephew and youngest son Caleb’s best friend, Josh Bixler, had put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger at the age of fourteen.
I remember standing up and pushing my face into the corner of the room and screaming out to God. If someone had heard my guttural scream, they would have been certain that I had lost my faith. I had held this boy in my arms and dedicated him on Mother’s Day. I had gone to his t-ball games. I had bought him Christmas presents. I had taken him backpacking several times with Caleb.
That evening, when we had to tell Caleb about the death of Josh, it was one of the worst days of my life. My wife and two oldest sons and daughter-in-law stood in our living room in a circle, held hands and prayed while fifteen-year-old Caleb was up in his room playing video games. I remember saying, “In five minutes Caleb will hear the news that will send shockwaves into his soul for the rest of his life. He’s upstairs as a child after we tell him about Josh, he will go back up those same stairs—not a child.”
The family asked me to eulogize Josh. (click the hyperlink) I remember flying to Denver and feeling as if I were flying into a war zone. As I drove to Josh’s house, dismembered memories lay like body parts at every street corner along the way.
I wrote as well as I could the eulogy that I wanted to share at the church in front of about 600 people, many of whom were students at Columbine High School. Yes, that Columbine High School that had suffered so much horror seven years earlier.
The pastor called on me to come to the podium and share my eulogy. I went off script from my notes and the first thing I said was,
“This is not right. We, none of us, should be here. You students should be playing soccer or studying for tests. You teachers should be grading papers. Caleb should be watching a Star Wars movie with Josh. His parents should be at work. I should be at home writing a sermon. This is not what God wanted any of us to be doing today…”
Well, that sucked the life out of the room.
We live in a culture that is clueless about how to grieve and cry out to God. We live in a celebratory culture that wants everything to be rainbows, daisies, and puppy breath.
Author Tara Owens put it wisely when she said,
Our inability to feel and articulate the deep sorrow of our life causes us to only experience truncated joy. There is an equilibrium between the depth of sorrow experienced and expressed and the abiding joy that God wants us to know in our lives.
We have lost our ability to cry out to God because we refuse to allow ourselves to feel deeply our hurt, doubts, pain, and suffering. In short, we have lost the skill of lamenting.
It might surprise you that prayers of lament show up quite a bit in the Bible. And these are anything but pious, proper, or polite.
For example, in Psalm 13 we read:
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
Or we read in Psalm 44…
Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?
Arise! Do not cast us off forever.
Or in Psalm 39 the writer wants God to go away…
Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength,
Before I go away and am no more.”
The question that a thinking person might ask is simply this, “What are these prayers doing in the Bible? And how do you and I make sense of them?”
I think that these dark prayers of lament, that turn up more frequently than we might expect in this old prayer book, illumine for us a profound paradox about Christian praying. Praying your doubts, your tears, your anger, and your desperation is not a sign of a LACK of faith; it is an ACT of faith. Christian prayer takes seriously that life for all of us, sooner or later, can be hazardous to our health.
These words give us a vocabulary to yell for help to the living God when we are in the middle of our own troubles, vulnerabilities, anger, and confusion. The psalms of lament give us words to speak to God smack in the middle of our messy lives.
Why does an infant cry? It cries when it is hungry or when it has soiled itself. Those cries can be loud and incessant. The cries in the middle of the night are for help with some kind of discomfort. It is altogether appropriate for that infant to cry out under those conditions.
What we learn from the ancient prayer book is that when we have “soiled” our lives and are sitting in our own filth, we can cry out to the living God and know that he hears us and will come to us. The fact that these laments are recorded in the book that we love, tells us that it is altogether appropriate for us to cry out under all conditions.
What does this mean for us practically: We can give God our tears.
In the Russian novel, Brothers Karamazov, there are a number of scenes in which Ivan, one of the brothers, shakes his fists at the heavens. Ivan is deeply troubled by the suffering of the world and in particular of children. He protests over and over again if there is a God how could there be such horrific suffering in the world.
If you read the novel it is telling that Dostoevsky, who is a Christian, offers no rhetorical answer to any of Ivan’s questions. The counterpoint in the story is supplied by various character’s example of love and faithfulness amid suffering.
I mention this because, in the tapestry of Holy Scripture, the very same thing happens. Like it or not, the Bible offers to us less than we want on the one hand, but more than we could ask for on the other in response to all of our protests and questions over life’s hardships and the world’s horrors.
As products of the age of enlightenment, we are prone to want answers. We want explanations. We are looking for cause and effect. So, when there is evil, horror, suffering that defies our ability to understand and we start looking to God for answers, we want him to give us solutions and explanations that make sense to us.
But when you turn to the Bible you don’t find explanations for anything and everything that God could say as to why there is so much suffering in the world. But what the Bible does is tell us a story. A long epic story about what God has done to rescue us and the cosmos. He does it by entering into it and coming near to us to taste our suffering and our hardship.
The scriptures don’t settle for what God could say; they narrate for us what God does.
He does not snap his divine fingers and make it all go away; He dares to come near us in our plight. Jesus willingly gives himself to be “eaten up” in our suffering and death.
The world’s deep suffering closes in on Jesus; so that God can rescue us from the inside; from all of the dark and the wrong that swallows us up. In that way, we can be sure that, though it feels like our feet often slip in life and that we are in up to our necks, we are never in up to our necks—alone.
When your throat is dry from crying out to the heavens, and your eyes are swollen from weeping and looking around for where God might be hiding—here’s where to look…
When you wonder to yourself, “Where is God in my heartache?” Lift up your head and look at the cross. Because the cross of Jesus is where the God of the universe has stepped into the world, tasted the horror of suffering, dealt with the injustice of unpunished wrongs, and has promised that He will bring us through it all.
There was an Andre Crouch song that was popular when I was a kid that said:
I’ve been to lots of places,
I’ve seen a lot of faces,
there’s been times I felt so all alone.
But in my lonely hours,
yes, those precious lonely hours,
Jesus lets me know that I was His own!
Through it all,
through it all,
I’ve learned to trust in Jesus,
I’ve learned to trust in God
When we cry out to God in lament, God does not respond with quick fixes and pat answers. He responds by giving us himself.
I wouldn’t want to imply that all you need is prayer if you are struggling with dark thoughts of hopelessness. Please get appropriate professional help.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255