A friend recently wrote on his blog: “I cannot pray at the moment. I’m struggling to believe.”
My first reaction on reading this was to marvel at his bravery in making such an honest assertion, knowing that to some it would doubtless be shocking. That’s not the sort of thing that church leaders are meant to say, is it? But it stands as testament to just how bad the situation must be that it is necessary to take the risk of voicing such feelings, knowing that they are impossible to hide and that putting on a brave face is not only disingenuous but likely also to lead to further hurt.
And so my next response, which is the one that lingers, is a profound sense of sadness and compassion for him, as it is for anyone who finds themselves in such a situation. The sense of being cut off from our source of life, our source of comfort, is disturbing to a deep level, shaking the foundations of life lived in relationship with God. If God seems unreachably distant, to whom else can we turn? There is no substitute.
My friend is not the first person I have heard of to go through such an experience. There are several stories of people who lose their faith in the face of adversity or suffering of various forms. And I understand that. I do not take faith for granted. A relationship with God is far more precious and yet potentially just as fragile as any human relationship. The sort of difficulties that impinge upon a relationship with God can be the same ones that are most threatening to human relationships: financial hardship, prolonged physical suffering, mental torment, radical disappointment, loss and change – or even just the threat of them. These are not uncommon experiences, and God’s people are no less affected by them than anyone.
I have had my modest share of suffering that has shaken my faith and caused me to question God. Now, at this point, I feel bound to recognise that from a global perspective, as a white middle-class male Westerner I have had an extraordinarily comfortable and privileged life. So if I talk about my personal suffering, I do so contingently and with sensitivity to those millions of people who might perhaps gladly swap their life circumstances for mine. But equally, I sense that such a perspective does not negate the reality of suffering for whoever it afflicts. Pain and loss and fear can be just as real and as potent for anyone, and telling the person who is in distress that others have it worse is not an adequate or sufficient response.
In my own experience of suffering, my keeping going with God and being able to pray have depended largely on the practice of lament, particularly as it is expressed in the psalms. By lament I mean the voicing of exactly what is being experienced: describing it, bemoaning it, complaining about it. To do this has taken some getting used to! There are several aspects of my own spiritual tradition that militate against it: God is to be praised at all times and in all places; we are called to share in Christ’s sufferings; we are to patiently endure all things as we await Christ’s return; God’s concerns are much bigger and loftier than our own; and it is just plain irreverent to sling our mud at God! To each of these arguments, I want to reply, “Yes, but …”. They are all good points, but they also miss something vital. In the psalms of lament, we find the missing ingredients that allow us to respond to suffering honestly, in faith and with reverence.
Biblical laments have a candour that is searing in its honesty. “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Ps 13.2) This is a most evocative expression of what the psalmist is wrestling with. It speaks of the afflictions of mind and body that intertwine and reinforce each other. What I have found to be wonderful about such expression in prayer is its authenticity. Here is a prayer that starts with the reality of the person praying and allows them to connect with God. There is no sham or pretence, no putting on of a ‘godly’ demeanour. The authenticity of this prayer gives dignity to the person praying it, and takes seriously the idea of God who knows us intimately and is ever reaching out to us.
The faithfulness of such a prayer is seen also in the way it leads to praise. The lament of v.2 leads to the assertion of v.6: “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” This does not mean that the psalmist is suddenly joyful or that problems have disappeared; rather it is a willful re-focusing on God’s goodness and ultimate reliability. So lament in the Bible is never vacuous or self-absorbed. It is not a spiralling descent into a Godless place. Rather it harnesses the energy and passion of grief, through its honest expression, as an upward and outward thrust toward the God of all life and hope. So no matter how desperate the cries and the pleas, they are framed in an expression of faith in God that legitimates them.
The reverence of such prayers is found especially in the way that they are willing to “let go” of the cause of their suffering and put it into God’s hands. Many psalms use the language of “enemies” and include rather strong requests that God deal with them. Such language does not sit comfortably with a Christian spirituality of “loving your enemies”. But all suffering has its cause and often this is real people known to us. It is therefore a powerful act of devotion and reliance on God’s sovereignty to ask God to deal with those people, rather than to seek to deal with them ourselves. The prayer for God to respond is a reverent act of trust that chooses to subject itself to God’s justice.
This final point is particularly pertinent when the cause of distress is other people in the church (or the church as an institution, as described in this blog article). We must always recognise that, in such instances, it is perfectly possible that we are perceived by them as their “enemies” too! Each of our perspectives has the potential to be tainted by our human fallibility and waywardness, so how much better, therefore, that we should take our complaint to God rather than seeking to deal with it ourselves. Walter Brueggemann has described God in this process as like a “wise parent” who is able to tolerate their children’s sibling rivalry and mutual anger, and to respond in a manner that transcends their immediate concerns. No matter how strongly we might feel about other people who cause us distress, God has given us the psalms of lament as a means of expressing that, and through them says to us (as Brueggemann puts it): “I have heard you. Now, why don’t you leave that with me?”
At present in the Church of England (of which I am part) we are going through an incredibly painful and difficult process of discussing and debating matters of human sexuality, particularly as they relate to same-sex relationships. There are many strong feelings, including feelings of betrayal, throughout the church. At the same time, I watch on social media the playing out of divided opinions about Donald Trump’s presidency of the USA, with dear friends on both sides of the divide. I do find myself wondering how much more scope there might be for expressing our fears and our anger to God, rather than to one another; whether slinging our mud at God – who invites us to do so, and who can tolerate it – might spare us from slinging it at one another.
In other words, let us learn to lament. I hope that Songs for Suffering will be a means of such learning.