This series of articles was birthed when our brother Tommie Van Der Walt asked me to write an article on pastoring the suffering. Perhaps he considered me qualified as a result of the grief and suffering we as a family have experienced. In January 2008, my 22-year-old son died in, what the world would call, a freak accident. He was stationary at a stop sign when two trucks collided in the intersection in front of him. One of the trucks, a fully laden concrete mixer overturned and landed on Clifford’s vehicle, crushing, and killing him instantly. I came on the scene just moments later and saw my son’s car flattened under the overturned concrete mixer. I am not sure that qualifies me to write these articles, but I do know I have learnt some lessons about suffering as a result.
As I thought about the articles, there were several thoughts bouncing around in my head.
Firstly, that there is never a time when pastors are not pastoring the suffering. Suffering is normal in this cursed and fallen world, “man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). D.A. Carson calls it the “effluent of the fall”, and Christians, far from being exempt, may actually face more suffering because of persecution and opposition (see John 15:18-20 & 2 Tim 3:12). Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33) and we certainly do.
Secondly, that the moralistic triumphalism, so commonly taught in many churches only adds to the suffering. Like Job’s friends, they teach that good Christians do not suffer, they flourish. God shields them, favours them, and protects them. If you are suffering, there must be some culpability on your part, it must in some way be your fault. Apportioning blame is partially a self-protection mechanism, “the same couldn’t happen to me because I do/don’t ….”.
Thirdly, that so often we want to “solve” the problem for the sufferer, to “make the suffering go away” to help them “get over it”. We want to help people get back into their nice comfortable lives. However, most suffering is not worked through in that way. A person who losses a limb for instance, will never “get over it”, they learn to live with the consequences for the rest of their lives, and make the necessary adjustments. Likewise, when we lose a loved one, we live with certain consequences of that loss for the rest of our lives, and like the person who lost a limb, we need to learn to live with that new reality in a godly and healthy way, not “get over it”, or be cured of it.
Fourthly, I was considering that sometimes the suffering is beyond our ability to bear. Many will object, saying, “the Lord will not allow us to be tested beyond our ability” (1 Cor 10:13). But that is a misconception based on a mistranslation within the context of the passage – as most translations affirm. The Greek word peirazo (peirazw) may legitimately be translated “test”, but the context demands, as does the rest of scripture, that the better translation is “tempt”. Paul himself says that the affliction he and his companions experienced in Asia was beyond their ability to bear, to the point of despairing of life itself (2 Cor 1:8). The consolation is it’s never beyond the Lord’s ability to bear it, or to assist us in bearing it (Psalm 23:4).
With all these thoughts, and many others, going around in my head, I came across the Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the grace of Lament. It was as if he put the lyrics to the tune of my heart. He articulated and set out in structured form what I had and do live through, what I know to be true, and what I have been counselling other sufferers with. I also came across Colin Smith’s book “For All Who Grieve”. I highly recommend both books. They in turn led me to preach a series of five sermons on Learning to Lament, and it is the content of those messages that I would like to share with you in this series of articles.
This is such an important subject. As Mark Vroegop says, “to cry is human”, it is the very first thing we do after we are born, nobody teaches us to cry, it is a natural part of being human, it is something we do throughout our lives. The Bible is full of tears, God has a special interest in our tears (Psalm 56:8). Just as our God knows and numbers the individual hairs on our heads, so too he knows, and numbers each one of our tears. Some interesting research has been done on tears which has shown that, just like snowflakes, every tear drop is unique. (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-microscopic-structures-of-dried-human-tears-180947766/). How awesome is our creator!
Sadly, many Christians think that grieving is sub-Christian. They feel guilty about grieving. They see crying as something wrong. But our Lord himself wept at the grave of Lazarus, he wept over Jerusalem. “[D]evout men” mourned deeply as they buried Stephen (Acts 8:2), the widows grieved the death of Dorcas (Acts 9:39). We as Christians do grieve, albeit differently, but we do grieve (1Thessalonians 4:13). The world grieves without hope, we grieve with hope. Hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the future resurrection of all who are in Christ (see v13-18), which is all well and good for the future, but what about now? How do I get through the night right now? Do we as Christians cry now in a way that is Christian, that is different from the hopeless grieving and crying of the world? Yes, again Mark Vroegop says so eloquently, “to cry is human, to lament, is Christian”. We as Christians lament.
As Christians, when we go through times of grief, suffering, trial, tragedy, and trauma there are three fundamental questions we need to ask: 1) Is God? Does He exist? Is He real? Is He there? If these sorts of things can and do happen, that is a very real and important question. The atheist uses these sorts of things to justify their belief in His nonexistence. 2) Is God sovereign? Is He in complete control, all the time, everywhere? Did this event take place outside of his control or knowledge? 3) Is God good? If He allows or even causes such events or circumstances, is He good, or is He mean?
If we answer those three questions correctly and biblically, yes God exists, yes He is sovereign, and yes He is good, then how do we make sense of the brokenness of our real life situations and circumstances? Lament helps us to bridge that gap.
So, what is lament? How do we lament? Can we learn to lament? Yes, we can!
The bible is full of teaching on lament. There are two whole books on Lament – Lamentations and Job. One third of the psalms are lament psalms. The prophets are full of laments, consider Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9.
So yes, we can learn to lament, and I am convinced that the most important part of pastoring the suffering is teaching them to lament. Learning to lament ourselves and teaching it to others. I will be posting a series of short blog articles on learning to lament based on the sermons preached at Germiston Baptist in January 2021. I trust they will be of benefit to the readers as the sermons were to the congregation at Germiston.