Resuming our conversation about suffering, we think through some faithful Christian responses to evil and loss. How can the church reintegrate the deeply Biblical tradition of lament into its corporate and individual life, picking up on the psalms and ultimately Jesus on the cross? And what might a resilient and hope-filled fellowship of believers look like in the light of this?
1. Created dependence
Made out of dust (Genesis 2:7) We are made out of the same stuff as everything else!
We share the limitations of the physical universe. We are designed to be physical, dependent, frail and vulnerable beings.
The world was created good but it was also created fragile. The potential for brokenness is woven into the very fabric of creation and into the fabric of our created humanity.
Made in God’s image (Genesis 1: 26,27)
Each human life is not only a gift, it is a reflection of God’s character and being.
We are made in the image, as reflections, of a triune God who is suffering love, and therefore part of the way in which we image God is in suffering.
‘As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed. He remembers that we are dust…’ (Psalm 103:13-14)
2. Suffering is a mystery
“Suffering is not a question which demands an answer, it’s not a problem which demands a solution, but a mystery which demands a presence”
Suffering goes into the heart of God. Christ brings suffering and lament into God’s own life.
God is present with his people – both as co-agent, working out his purposes in and through us, but also as co-sufferer.
But God enters into suffering in order to bring healing and redemption. He overcomes the destructive effects of evil in the creation not by divine fiat – to shatter evil by sheer overwhelming force – but instead by costly divine love in which the suffering of the world is fully experienced and then overcome by God. The evil of the world is penetrated by God’s suffering love. God has refused to hold himself aloof from violence and suffering but has absorbed it into himself.
Creation is fragile because it is underpinned by divine love which is both powerful and fragile. True love requires fragility and vulnerability – an opening to the other which makes the lover vulnerable.
3. Suffering and evil will be redeemed by the power of the lamb
Revelation 13:8 ‘….all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.’
“The deeper magic from before the dawn of time” (Narnia stories – CS Lewis) – that evil can be overcome and transformed into blessing and healing through the cross.
The resurrection of Christ promises us that this earthly suffering will ultimately be overcome and transformed into blessing and healing.
But as we wait faithfully in patience and hope we too participate in Christ’s suffering and in a small way we are called to absorb suffering into our own being and to resist evil and despair.
2 Cor 1:5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
Phil 3:10 ‘That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’
1 Pet 4: 13 ‘But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.’
Phil 1:29 ‘For it has been granted to you (charizomai) that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake”. Greek word charizomai – closely related to charisma – a gift of grace. “It has been grace-gifted to you that for the sake of Christ you should suffer for his sake.’
4. The practice of godly lament
The theme of godly lament is present throughout the scriptures but especially in the Psalms. Lament takes pain and suffering seriously. Lament is prayer, but a particular kind of prayer. It takes the brokenness of human experience to God and demands that he answer. The lamenter cries out to God expressing the hurt, confusion, disappointment and anger that they may be experiencing. The lamenter is allowed to say very harsh things to God and is never criticised or judged for their words and emotions.
There is frequently a movement in the process of lament. It starts with articulation of the heart’s pain – this may include anger and disappointment with others and with God – then it moves from the articulation of pain to submission and then ultimately to relinquishment – Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemene is one of the destinations of the prayer of lament – ‘nevertheless, not my will but yours be done…’
Ps 42: 7 “Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls, all your breakers and your waves have gone over me…”
Lament provides faithful language with which we can bring our pain to God. It is a way of reframing suffering in the light of the hope and promises of God. Relinquishment is an essential and painful stage on the journey but it is not the final destination of godly lament. The final destination is joy.
Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2).
God takes ultimate responsibility for evil and suffering through the incarnation, cross and resurrection and through his continued presence in the midst of a suffering world. Through lament we hold God to account in the light of his character revealed in scripture and in the face of Jesus Christ.
By practising lament we become the kind of people who take seriously the pain and sadness in our own hearts and relationships, and the pain and sadness of the world, but we refuse to be crushed by these realities.
Lament is not an activity of faithlessness and despair – it is an activity of godly faithfulness and resistance to evil.
5. Practices for faithful resistance to evil
How is it possible to form habits of faithful resistance to evil?
How is it possible to continue to love and serve God when battered by evil and suffering?
These are some of the practices and regular disciplines that will assist us both individually and corporately to resist evil and suffering and to encourage their transformation and redemption into healing and blessing.
1. Practising Godly lament – both individually and corporately. We should not sanitise, restrain or air-brush the pain, disappointment, anger or despair we may be feeling. We are called to pour it out to God. But we don’t stay in the place of anger or disappointment. We move on to submission and relinquishment, in hope that we will ultimately come to the place of joy.
2. Walking in the light with one another – a continual process of honesty, transparency, mutual forgiveness and openness.
3. Practicing regular hospitality and Christian friendship – developing and encouraging an alternative and resilient community in which we can support one another. Avoiding the tendency to withdrawal and isolation which grief, suffering and weariness can foster.
4. Thoughtfulness – developing a transformed mind – developing new insights into the nature and origin of evil, the stratagems of the evil one, and ways in which we can resist them – looking beyond the surface to what God is doing and how we can cooperate with the hidden activities of the Spirit.
5. Practising the daily discipline of Christian hope.
There are two equal and opposite sins against Christian hope:
The sin of presumption and the sin of despair.
Instead we are called to practice the daily discipline of Christian hope. Choosing to listen not to our internal voices of fear, anxiety, anger or despair, but to the internal voice of the Spirit, encouraging us, reminding us of the truth of God’s love and care for us and pointing towards the future, when ‘all things shall be well’.
Hope is to hear the melody of the future
Faith is to dance to that melody in the present
Raging with compassion – John Swinton
Evoking lament – Brian Brock and Eva Harasta