I don’t know about you, but I have difficulties praying through pandemics like these. The reason is not because I doubt God’s plan (though at times I do), nor is it because I’m unsure of what I want. Rather, it’s because I’m always uncertain if what I want is what God wants.
After all, with the coronavirus’ fallout, do we simply pray that it ends, everyone returns to work, the economy roars, the churches meet, and life goes back to normal? That’s a laudable thing to desire, but then why did God bring this on us? Or, on the flip side, do we pretend to be such delightfully good Christians that we simply say, “Lord, you’re in control; I get that. We deserve your wrath; I get that. So let your will be done and not mine”?
On one hand we can become heartless theologizers as we say, “Dust begets dust, so do as you please”. Or, we become so attached to our spoiled way of living that we say, “Lord, how can you be good when we’re struggling?”.
We might really wrestle with this, but I also think that’s the point: we’re meant to wrestle. Look at Jacob in Genesis 32, look at what “Israel” means, or look even at Jesus in the wilderness. Christianity is not some guide map on easy living; it turns everything we know upside-down, challenging our norms and desires. It’s a constant battle between old and new natures (Romans 7), with the journey always meant to reshape us in the likeness of Christ.
You see, there’s a tension between God using everything at His disposal to bring about His purposes while also caring about each atom in this world. The tension of how those go together is a great mystery, so how do we walk through it? – The answer is lament.
Lament is a pathway of worship. It’s the great lost language of our time. It’s being attuned to the emotions in our hearts and bringing those before the Lord. It’s understanding the natural fear of this time and laying it before God. It’s about taking our anxiety and saying, “Lord, I don’t know what to do with this because I don’t know what you’re going to do next”. It’s finding the middle way between praying, “Fix it” and “Do whatever” because it’s learning to move from us to Christ.
In other words, lament, at its core, is honesty. Much like repentance, it’s taking what is and submitting it to God. So, how do we do that? Michael Card in his enlightening book, Sacred Sorrow, says, the two questions at the heart of every lament are these: God, where are you? – And God, if you love me, then why is this happening?
If we can honestly ask those questions, we can begin walking the pathway of lament – the pathway not of control and solution, but of humble reliance, submission, and trust in the Lord. The problem, though, is that those are two questions that we tend to eschew.
If you don’t agree, let’s have a little test. Assuming your life and work have been impacted, what are you doing with your extra time? Two or more weeks at home: what are your goals, priorities, and thoughts? Most likely, you’ve resolved to make the most of this time by cleaning your house and catching up on a good book. However, was there a period when you stopped to ask what God is personally wanting from you at this time?
We tend to come out with a plan of action, a plan for control, and yet we neglect the personal cry of our hearts. But lament is the personal. It’s taking real-world situations and bringing them to the heart. It’s sitting in the pain, the fear, the silence, the worry, the unknown. It’s not tightening our laces and asking, “what now?”, only to resolve to not let the situation get us down. It’s being inherently human and being honest about that.
One of the greatest faults of Christians today is that we’re too smart for our own good (which really, makes us foolish). We put the cart before the horse, and while we may worry, we instantly resolve how to relieve the worry. In events like COVID-19, we immediately say, “God is in control”, but if we have not allowed ourselves to sit in the fear or uncertainty, those four words have no power to change who we are, because we’re trying to present an already changed person. We’re neglecting the truth that a Christian is in a war for the affections, and so we turn God’s immense comforting love into a theological platitude. “God says do not fear. Therefore, I will not fear”. The problem is that we don’t actually need a relationship with God to do that.
Now, I’m not encouraging hysteria, but times like these remind us that we all know the frustrating, empty silence of God. We all know how difficult it can be to suffer and not know His plan. Yet clearly, His plan was to bring the world out of lush valleys and into a wilderness, which historically is the way He operates. Why? Because we don’t search for Him in lush valleys; we often only reach out in the wilderness, because the wilderness is the one place we can’t survive without Him. The wilderness is where God wrestled Jacob. It’s where He met Moses in the burning bush. It’s where He was with David while he fled Saul. It’s where Israel was brought from slavery when they left Egypt, and it’s the first place Jesus was called when his ministry began.
The wilderness is the place where we can’t distract ourselves with the things of this world nor take them for granted. It’s the place where God gets our attention, because He’s calling us past simply reciting the correct answers into needing to believe and experience those answers. After all, Exodus 8:1 tells us that the reason God brought Israel to the wilderness was so that they could go and worship God.
This is what lament is: it’s getting in touch with the honest cry of our hearts and turning that over to God. Look at the honesty dripping from the Psalms and other wisdom literature, the phrases and words and problems that we’d consider today to be scandalously blasphemous should we hear another person utter them in our sanctimonious churches.
Psalm 88:18 says, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness”.
Lamentations 2:5 cries, “The Lord has become like an enemy…”.
Have you ever prayed Psalm 22:1? – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.
We love passages like Psalm 23 but we’d give the judgmental stink eye to someone who has the audacity to pray Psalm 39:13: “Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!”
I can think of no greater affront for a Christian than to say, “Lord, I have read your Word and can apply it to my own heart. I don’t need you”. Yet this is what we do when we whitewash our emotions with memorized verses. Can you imagine if, as a child, you never spoke with your parents but constantly told yourself, “They told me in the past they love me, so I’ll be fine”. We need not tell ourselves; we need to hear it from God.
Yet too often, we immediately make plans on what to do next, or we say to ourselves, “I know God’s in control” and cut off the true emotions produced from these uncertain times. But is this what Jesus did?
Of Christ, Isaiah prophesied, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). I’m not saying we should mope around and be miserable, finding problems to every solution, but we all lived through the “WWJD” (“What would Jesus do?”) fad. The underlying assertion was to emulate his morality, yet we stubbornly neglect emulating him as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”.
Instead, look to Christ’s example by listening in on his final free moments before the cross. “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’” (Matthew 26:38-39).
Notice that we’re let into his heart. He specifically tells the disciples that he’s in agony at the thought of what’s coming next. Isn’t that shocking? – He covenanted with the Father before our creation that he would hang on a cross; he lived for over 30 years on this earth knowing that’s exactly where he was headed, and yet it filled him with such grief that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44). It shows us that he did not shut off his heart for a moment nor use knowledge to stifle his emotions. You can see this also in John 11:35 when he weeps at Lazarus’ tomb mere moments before raising him from the dead.
The example our Savior set for us was to take his emotions, lay them before the throne of God, and then submit himself to God’s leading. At the heart of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is a trustful resignation: “Lord, you know my desires, but I give you my heart and submit to your plan”.
This is fundamentally different than how we usually go about life, because we often stifle our feelings because of our intellect. We typically say, “Oh, I trust God’s in control!”, when an honest look to our hearts would reveal a soul crawling in anxiety as maggots cover rotting food. There is nothing heroic or inherently Christian about having it all figured out. Christ didn’t die for perfect people; he died to redeem broken people.
The way he does that and the example he set is by submitting what he is feeling to God’s control. Easily our Savior could have said of the cross, “I know how this ends, so I’ll be okay”. But he did not overlook the moment. He dreaded the cross, and He asked the Father to spare him if possible.
Again, notice that switch, that walking of lament. He did not trust his emotions to lead him out of this difficult time, but he used them to pinpoint where he was so that he knew how to pursue God. He didn’t say, “All shall be well”. He said, “This is dreadful, and I need my Father”.
So, what’s the point of this whole blog? – It’s to say this: spend time in prayerful reflection, searching your heart to see what you’re feeling. Are you scared? Are you worried? Are you indifferent? Are you excited for the time at home? Whatever it is, find that emotion and that place and pray from there. Larry Crabbe calls it your “red dot”, the swirling place of storm.
Let your emotions show you how deceitful and wicked your heart is. Let your heart tell you how afraid and worried or uncaring you are. Then seize ahold of that and say, “There it is, Father. That’s what I’m feeling instead of trusting you. Speak to it, please”. If we assume we know the end from the beginning, the Lord cannot work in our hearts. Instead, the whole journey is taking what we’re feeling and giving it to the Lord to change us.
It’s a daily journey from what we want to where God is, and lament is the bridge between the two. This world is broken at the best of times, but it’s crippled right now. How does that make you feel? – Tell Jesus, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). We’re messed up; God knows that, but if you don’t know something is broken, you can’t fix it. Your heart is broken, Christian, and the only way to let God change it is by being honest about it.
My name is Bryan Lanting. I am a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, and I am presently serving Mt View CRC as their pastor. I am married to a wonderful wife named Sydney, and both of us are loving life, loving Lynden, and loving the Lord!