I sit on a black leather couch next to my husband, Kevin, in our grief-counselor’s office. A box of Kleenex rests on a small coffee table in front of us, and one of those framed pieces of coffee-shop art—a black and white photograph of rough-hewn hands holding coffee beans—hangs on the wall above us. Coffee and Kleenex, this office seems to say, will solve the world’s problems. If only.
We’re here because we’ve had a crazy last few years. In 2015, we opened the doors to our church plant, Renewal Church. Then—the very same week—I woke up inexplicably unable to walk. I couldn’t put any pressure on my legs whatsoever. Assuming it was a running injury, I tried the old faithful: rest, ice, compression, elevation. No improvement. After a short hospitalization, I was able to walk again, thankfully. But this surprising illness-visitor has evolved into a long-term tenant. I now experience new health issues so disruptive that Kevin has, on more than one occasion, had to carry me around the house.
As if that’s not enough, there’s also the unresolved search through Crater Lake, Oregon, for a loved one, my cousin and dear friend, Cameron. Park rangers find remnants, clues. But not Cam. We held his funeral in an airport hangar. Photos in lieu of a coffin. Unanswered questions instead of resolution.
And still this: our youngest son’s developmental issues. His spinal-cord surgery and ongoing aftercare. His life-threatening allergies. Weeks at Lurie Children’s in Chicago, months of therapy, and years where my mama-fears have morphed from molehills into mountains.
Of course, I know the life lesson—that joy comes with sorrow, bad comes with good. But frankly, that balance, that paradox, well, it’s all a bit too much to manage, contain, or make sense of right now. It feels like hell and heaven are having coffee together in my kitchen, no—in my soul, and they’re secretly laughing about some inside joke. I have no idea what’s so funny.
And I’d like to tell you that in the face of adversity, I rise above. I overcome. I more-than-conquer. I do all the things Christians are “supposed” to do in their grief. Truthfully, I’m exhausted. But even that doesn’t feel quite right. Because exhaustion implies that at one point there was a commodity of energy to be used, and that there is hope for rest again in the future. But with my illness, along with the grief and fear that I currently carry around, I can’t foresee rest anytime soon. It’s not that I’m exhausted. It’s that I’m done, numb, running on empty.
Life has become this thing I never thought it would. In my youthful naiveté, I believed that hardships were supposed to be the exception to life, not the rule. But suffering is not an exception, after all. It’s not a surprise. It’s not the interruption to an otherwise easy life. The older I get, the more I realize that no person is untouched by some level of pain and heartache, big or small. Get to know anyone deeply and you’ll find their wounds.
Yet even though I know this fact—that everyone suffers—what’s become especially apparent throughout this season is that there’s some voice in my head, some combination of pastor/parent/professor/platitude that says I need to handle this suffering and handle it well. Learn whatever lesson God is trying to teach me so that I can graduate on to the next stage of spiritual maturity. Be brave. Be strong. Be an example to others. Keep that chin up. Pass the test. Choose joy. Fake it ’til you make it. Smile.
So I try. I strive.
The problem is that no matter how hard I try to stay positive, my best efforts at “perky” can’t mask the fact that what I really long for are answers, reasons, meaning. But even that longing is conflicted and complicated because I also want to pretend like none of this is happening. I want to tie up my pain in a pretty little package. I want to place my suffering in a vacuum-sealed container and hide it under the bed with my skinny jeans and old journals—things I’m desperate to ignore.
But grief won’t be contained.
Grief won’t stay hidden.
Though I know this, I try anyway—try to contain pain with pith. Every cloud has a silver lining. Everything happens for a reason. Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before. These are things I tell myself and anyone else who will listen.
I am mulling over all of this when my grief-counselor breaks through my reverie and offers this: “Aubrey, I’d like you to think of suffering as an invitation. You have two choices: Continue to pretend like it doesn’t exist, which clearly isn’t working, or accept the offer.”
To accept comes from the root to grasp, to willingly take what is offered. It’s the willingness part I wrestle with. I am currently unwilling to take this cup, mostly because I have a lot of questions about it. What precisely does this particular invitation mean? How difficult will it be to accept? I feel a bit like C. S. Lewis, writing to his friend and minister, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
Eventually, I come to understand the invitation of suffering.
Suffering is an invitation to stop pretending.
Suffering is an invitation to lament to God.
What is lament?
For those of us who follow Jesus, we live with down payments on the “Already” of God’s Kingdom on earth. We see glimpses of God’s healing power, his love, and his victory over evil. But we also live in the “Not Yet” of a broken, sinful world.
It is in between the Already and the Not Yet where we wait expectantly for the return of Jesus, who will one day make all things right, whole, and complete. Thankfully, we experience glimpses of gospel hope every time we see bits and pieces of God’s reign and presence and power at work. But that final redemption—God’s Kingdom arriving in full, all brokenness redeemed, all evil thwarted, all suffering ended—is our ultimate hope.
Lament, a crying out of the soul, an impolite plea to God, creates a pathway between the Already and the Not Yet. Lament minds the gap between current hopelessness and coming hope. Lament anticipates new creation but also acknowledges the painful reality of now. Lament helps us hold onto God’s goodness while battling evil’s evil at the same time. God has given us the biblical language and practice of lament as a way to express our pain and survive our suffering.
When the days are hard—when grief weighs as much as gravity, when we can’t live any minute longer with the pain, when we’re angrier or more disillusioned than we ever thought possible, when we can’t find the right words for our difficult emotions, when our gnawing questions become too much to handle—through lament, God’s Spirit draws us back, time and time again, to the presence of God.
And this is how, somehow, even in our darkest, most grievous laments, there’s hope—because we don’t lament to a void. We lament to the God who wants our laments. As we lament, we join in the chorus of those who have gone before us—those who have wrestled with suffering’s reality and come out, not unscathed, but still proclaiming God’s goodness.
Lament can lead us back to a place of hope—not because lamenting does anything magical, but because God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song of resurrection, renewal, restoration, and re-creation. Lament helps us to listen for God’s louder song and to believe that one day, we will hear it above the noise of our pain.
Can I accept the invitation of suffering?
In our pain, communal and personal, God invites us to express our grief about the unraveling of life. At the same time, we are invited to unabashedly, unashamedly declare that we want it back.
After this counseling session, I grab my journal and pen and write a prayer, a shaky attempt at lament. For the first time in my grief journey, I’m ready to acknowledge how hurt I actually am. And though it’s certainly not a finished lament, this feels like a start.
Father God, the Eden you and I have existed in for some time seems to be crumbling before my very eyes. You’re not walking with me or I’m not walking with you—I can’t tell anymore. I feel naked and ashamed, vulnerable. Chaos has ensued. Darkness hovers here. My world is formless and void. Do you see me? My family? My marriage? My children? Can you hear our cries? Creator God, please create again. Maker of heaven and earth, remake this brokenness into something new, something better. Help me hear you, help me listen for hope. Help me endure.
Friend, in God’s careful hands, grief is a messy scribble of a trail that transforms our greatest pains into songs of hope. It is the honesty, the vulnerability, the openness, the authentic lamenting to God that makes it well with your soul.
If you are grieving, will you go before your God, the one who knows and understands your pain more than anyone else, and speak to him through the cries of your soul?
There you will find healing. There you will find relief. And there you will find his song of hope, louder than any pain you will endure, sung over you.
An Excerpt from The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament (Navpress, 2019) by Aubrey Sampson. Used with permission.