Is God Big Enough to Handle Your Pain?
When tragedy strikes, we often don’t know what to do next. Yet, when the Lord’s hand of judgment fell on Israel; when the temple was leveled by pagans; and when the most tender and refined of women resorted to cannibalism (cf. Deut. 28:56–57), Jeremiah knew what to do. He sat in ash and wrote an acrostic poem. Let that sink in. When all around his soul gave way, Jeremiah penned the book we call Lamentations, a series of highly structured and theologically dense poems.
That response to tragedy might strike us as odd. But Jeremiah’s response is a gift to posterity. His laments illuminate the way out of the dark jungle of despair. He gives us a path to walk toward life, healing, and toward God himself.
The Importance of Lament
Mark Vroegop’s new book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament draws its title from two verses in Lamentations: one about the clouds of judgment that hung over Zion (2:1), and the other from the stunning promise of fresh mercy each morning (3:22). “Lament stands in the gap,” Vroegop writes, “between pain and promise” (26).
When tragedy strikes our lives, our churches, and our communities, we need a competent guide through the laments in the Bible, which are less familiar to most Christians than they should be. Take our diet of modern worship songs as an example. The book of Psalms is one-third lament, while the overwhelming majority of our modern worship songs are “positive and encouraging,” as one radio station boasts. Focusing on the upbeat in music and calling funeral services “a celebration of life,” are not necessarily wrong, but it does leave us impoverished. We also need to know how to grieve.
Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy has three sections: the first engages with four psalms of lament, the second with the book of Lamentations, and the final explores applications to individual and corporate life. The book has also discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Not only would it be a good book for preaching and worship pastors to read individually, but it’s also a good book for them to read together. Last fall at our church, we preached a 10-week series through the book of Job, and though Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy wasn’t published yet, I wish it had been so it could have better shaped not only our preaching but the whole worship service.
Learning the Meaning of Lament
There’s a famous joke from the show Seinfeld where George’s father creates the holiday Festivus, a foil to Christmas. Each year Festivus beings with the “airing of grievances.” Mr. Costanza bellows, “I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear about it!” To the uninitiated, it can seem like biblical laments are like that, the mere ranting to God our pent-up anger and disappointment throughout the last year, a vomiting of emotions and a verbal shake of our fists. As Vroegop engages with four Psalms of lament in the first section of the book (Psalm 77, 10, 22, and 13, respectively), I gained a better understanding of what lament, biblically speaking, is and what it is not. And more importantly, the detailed discussion through each modeled how to make use of lament as an individual Christian and in the life of the church. Big surprise: it’s not the way of Festivus.
Biblical laments have, according to Vroegop, three key features. First, there is an address to the Lord. In this way laments are for believers, not those shouting to the void or an impersonal universe. Second, laments complain. The complaint might be overtly because of some sin, or it may be less clear why the tragedy struck, but regardless something has gone very wrong and the people of God aren’t going to pretend it’s okay. Finally, laments have an expression of trust or praise, sometimes both. When all the sawdust of a lament finally settles to the ground, a believer is still a believer because God is God. Often this expression of trust marks a turning point in the psalm. Appendix 4, entitled, “But, Yet, And,” traces a number of examples of this “turn” in various psalms. “In some cases,” Vroegop writes, “the specific word [but, yet, or and] is not present, but the tone of the sentence fits the purpose [of asking boldly or choosing to trust]” (209).
Like the book of Lamentations, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy was also born out of tragedy. The Vroegops first experienced lament in the wake of a stillborn daughter and they later had other significant troubles during pregnancies. “Pain and fear mingled together in a jumbled torrent of emotion. . . . I wrestled with sadness that bored a hole in my chest,” he writes (17). My wife and I—and I’m sure many in your churches—know a little bit about this. You don’t forget that pale look on an ultrasound technician’s face when she says, “I’m going to grab the doctor,” on her way out the door. But it was in this season of sorrow that the Vroegop’s found solace in the Scripture. “The Bible gave voice to my pain. . . . I discovered a minor-key language for my suffering: lament” (17).
A Book for Those in Pain
Whenever I read a book about suffering, I find myself wondering about the author’s intended audience. Russ Ramsey, the author of Struck, another edifying book on suffering, has said there are two kinds of books on suffering. “There are books that you give to people who are interested in the subject, but not necessarily afflicted or suffering in the moment. And then there are books for people who are in the middle of suffering.”
Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy is more in the latter category, but it’s not the book you hand them on the way home from the funeral. The wounds are probably still too raw for this book. It seems to me that Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy is best given to someone when the steady delivery of meals from the church has stopped, when friends forget to check in, and when acute grief has dissipated but long-term grief still lingers. It is a good book for every pastor to read, but at some time or another, it will also be a book for most people in the pews.
* This book review originally appeared at 9Marks.