I remember when I turned 16 years old and my parents surprised me with my first vehicle. It was a used, factory model, 1992 white Ford Ranger pickup truck with a purple stripe down the side. I thought it was the coolest truck that I’d ever seen. It was manual, had a bed liner, and a little tint to the windows. I believed it was a unique purchase, different than all other vehicles on the road. To my astonishment, I soon noticed many similar trucks that littered the streets.
Over this past year, God has directed me to study His Word by tracing the theme of sorrow and lament. Lament literally means “an expression of grief or sorrow” and is a prayer in the form of a complaint against God. It is an acknowledgement of one’s bleak situation, his desperation for deliverance, and an appeal to the very character of God. A lament gives believers the rhetorical tools to grieve biblically, which leads to worship and the comfort of our Heavenly Father. It is illustrated throughout the pages of God’s Word. Instead of a thin veneer, biblical lament offers us something more substantial, more weighty, more enduring and less circumstantial. Christians in the West need this example today. FBC Sparta needs this example during this season. God knows our thoughts, fears, and grief (Ps. 139). The Lord wants us to cast our burdens on Him (Ps. 55:22). In fact, it’s the very valley of the shadow of death that He promises to walk through with us (Ps. 23).
I know what you are probably thinking. This pastor really seems like a ray of sunshine. Actually, I tend to be very hopeful and positive. In fact, I once had a friend in seminary who told me that I was “optimistic to the point of delusion.” Now, I am not certain to this day if he intended that to be a rebuke or an encouragement, but I decided to interpret it as the latter. Regardless of his intent, the point is that my God-given bend is toward happiness, rather than melancholy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I get discouraged and experience sadness like everyone else, but it is not my typical mood. Recently, as I have searched the Scriptures, I have been bombarded by the constant refrain of suffering, sorrow, lament, and comfort. Throughout this journey, I have become increasingly convinced that this is a predominant theme of God’s redemptive plan. Just like my white Ford Ranger, it is everywhere.
So why am I telling you this during the depressing season of COVID-19, where the last thing we seemingly need is someone being downcast? It is because, after my studies, I am equally convinced that the modern-day American church knows very little about biblical lament. In fact, we tend to avoid it at all cost, and in so doing, miss out on God’s ordained provision for our soul’s sorrow (2 Cor. 1). We don’t preach on it, even though there are more psalms of lament than any other poetic theme in the book of Psalms, and a whole book is written on this, Lamentations, by the weeping prophet (Jeremiah). We don’t sing about lament, even though Jesus Himself models it (Matt. 23:37-39, etc.) and we find laments from Genesis to Revelation. The American church has a vacuum in this area of biblical application, and it does not serve us well in times like our current one.
Life is hard, really hard. The clear story of the Bible tells us this fact. Beginning in Genesis 3, man’s sin unleashed an unceasing fury on creation that remains to this day. It will not relent until Christ returns again (Rev. 19). Unlike the popular Hallmark Channel movies that are clean and tidy, our world is messy and 21st Century Christians do not like this fact. Pain, suffering, and sorrow make us uncomfortable and they should, on the one hand. Before sin entered the world, there was no sorrow. However, following Adam and Eve’s blight, we see throughout the Bible, church history, and our very lives, that sadness is a constant companion (Jn. 16:33). It stings. Our hearts get pulverized in this fallen world. Yet, thankfully, the Good news of Scripture is that a Redeemer has come to restore what sin has broken. Jesus did this by being the perfect sacrifice for sin on the cross and raising victoriously from the grave, beating sin, Satan and death. All who trust in Jesus, receive forgiveness of sins and inherit eternal life. The brokenness in our relationship with God is made right (Col. 1). Jesus then dwells in us (2 Cor. 13:5) and becomes our refuge (Ps. 46).
Instead of utilizing God’s remedy for suffering (Himself) (Matt. 11:28), we tend to create anesthetics for the pain. Some create a false gospel, like the prosperity gospel that denies the reality of suffering, distorts the character of God, and makes positive thinking a synonym for faith (which is a lie from hell). Other Christians run to the idolatry of self-reliance, money, and politics to provide a false sense of security and control. Still, others turn to drugs, alcohol, sexual immorality, etc. to try to numb the pain. Perhaps most tragic are those who search for hope and find none, desperately choosing death by suicide.
In rural Southern America (places like Sparta), comfort and peace can be cultural idols. We sometimes worship peace, even though it is often superficial, shallow, and fake. Many people retire to our community to experience this ideal and flee the suffering and pain of their lives. We, in small communities, hate turmoil and difficulty and will avoid it ferociously. So when it comes to a crisis like the season of COVID-19, Christ-followers and rural churches are tempted to downplay the severity of such a pandemic. Leaders can do this by attempting to placate those around us with slogans and slavishly returning to a comfortable and expected way of doing things. We are tempted to ignore a global economic collapse, a world that has been ravaged by this disease, and the carnage that is left in its wake. We will traffic in conspiracy theories and political science equations; meanwhile, we neglect the very means by which God desires to comfort us. By distancing ourselves from the pain in our world, we can experience a form of fluctuating peace, but what we need is a peace that is one that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7), and can only be found in the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6)!
In one of my favorite quotes by G.K. Chesterton, he writes, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” I think that Chesterton was on to something there.
We will get through this horrific time in our world and nation, but not by minimizing the reality of its awfulness. People know that it is awful. Christians will triumph in hope when we hold up a big God who is good, wise, and sovereign over all things against the backdrop of this global crisis. We give hope to our community, not by pointing them to an upcoming political election, showing them the green arrows on the stock market ticker tape, or by pacifying them with a watered-down pop psychology that claims to be truth. We give hope to ourselves and the Upper Cumberland when we proclaim that this earth is not our home (1 Pt. 2:11-12). We remind them to count all trials as joy (Js. 1:2), to share in Christ’s suffering (1 Pt. 4:13), and to look forward to an eternal glory that makes this pain pale in comparison (2 Cor. 4:17). Let us lift high a resurrected King Jesus (Jn. 11:25-26), the Man of sorrows (Is. 53:3), who will one day return on a white horse that will tread in the blood of His enemies up to the bridle (Rev. 19). The Good Shepherd loves us and walks with us through these trials (Ps. 23); He gives grace to us that desperately depend upon Him (Js. 4:6). Jesus Christ, who has heard all of our laments as our perfect High Priest and has lamented to God the Father on our behalf (Heb. 7:25-28), is coming back. Tell the world about the Christ, who will be the very One to make all things right (Rev. 21:5) by crushing Satan under foot (Rom. 16:20). He will wipe away every tear and sorrow shall be no more (Rev. 21:4). Let that be our message, a hope that is not a what, but a Who!
I love you and am praying for you! Keep making much of Jesus, FBC Sparta!