The slanting rain pounds the window incessantly; it’s been one of those days, where it rains the whole day. We awake to rain, we school to rain, we share dinner to rain, we head to bed to rain. The rain is good, so needed after our long, dry winter here in South Africa. It cleanses the air, it waters the soil and life within, it washes the dirt and dust away. It also reflects my heart today.
Since the passing of my nephew four months ago, I have spent a lot of time processing my pain in prayer. In the earliest days, when the prayers were more like moans, all I could offer was oh God, oh God, oh God, tears mingled with desperate cries of help them, help us.
On the very long, lonely trip back to the US, I copied Psalms into my journal, having no words or emotional capacity to form prayers of my own. A liturgy sent to my by a friend from the new Every Moment Holy Vol. 2 became my prayer for the next weeks:
Be nearer, O Christ, than I have ever known… comfort us, O God, in these hard and early hours of loss. Be to us a strength and light, for we are shocked, numbed as children spilled into cold seas… how can I make sense of this? Make peace with this? Have words for this? Though I scarce have words to pray, O Spirit of God, still let my tears, my groans, and my wounded silences rise as an incense of perpetual prayer, reminding you of my need… carry me. Carry all of us who grieve…
The last few months have found me awakening in the mornings to the Psalms, for a long while Psalm 77 in particular. I have noticed in a fresh way the honesty of these psalmists – the crying out to God, the questioning and deep doubts, the remembering of God’s faithfulness, the turning toward hope again. And this structure, commonly seen in laments throughout Scripture, has given me a way to pray through my own pain.
Crying out to God // In pain, the natural temptation is to turn inward: no one understands me or I’m so alone or everyone has moved on. It is an act of courage, then, to take the first step of turning to God and acknowledging his presence, which alone can conjure more pain. God is here, and yet this happened? In Psalm 77:3, the psalmist says, “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” It is not easy to acknowledge God in the midst of our suffering and grief, because in his omnipotence, he did not prevent this painful circumstance. And yet, we also realize in his omnipresence that we have never been, and truly never are, alone. He has been with us through the whole of our pain. It is courageous to turn to God in the midst of pain.
Voicing of complaints // Once we have turned our attention toward God, the pattern we see in Scripture is a vocalizing of questions, of complaints to him. We do not need to jump straight to hope, but rather honestly pour out our hearts to him. All of those disappointments, all of those questions, all of that pain – he is aware of it already, but like a knowing parent who waits patiently for his child to come to him, intimacy builds through honesty. “Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time?” the psalmist writes in 77:8. Well, that’s not very biblical, you might be thinking. And yet, biblical laments model for us a holy complaining, a pouring out of our hearts to our Father who wants us to.
Remembering God’s faithfulness // Once we have poured out our hearts to God, we recall how he has been with us throughout our lives, through the joys and pain of the past. Has he failed in his promises to me? Some laments at this point frame a request to God; Psalm 77 turns to remembering: “I will remember the deeds of the Lord, yes I will remember your wonders of old” (77:11). It may be that the goodness of God is obscured at this present moment, but I can recall his faithfulness in the past. Never once has his love failed; never once has he left me. Rather, he has been a shield for me and the lifter of my head (Ps. 3), my refuge and my strength (Ps. 9 and 18), my rock and my fortress and my deliverer (Ps. 18), the strength of my life and a very present help in trouble (Ps. 27 and 46), the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Ps. 73). This is what I know to be true of God.
Turning toward hope // This intimate honesty and remembering leads my heart to be renewed in hope. Through the tears, through the pounding rain, the relentless pain, my eyes again can look up to Jesus in deep hope and anticipation for his restoring work in my life and in the world. Recalling Israel’s exodus and Red Sea crossing, our psalmist declares, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock…” Even when God’s way seems hidden to us, we trust his hand is guiding us, as he was guiding his people then, and has for all time. We turn our eyes again to the light, and we wait in hope, for him to make all things new, as he has promised someday.
The rain is still pouring down, my heart is still heavy. And so I will turn again to God, and in so doing, reject the narratives of my aloneness or the uniqueness of my suffering. Instead, I will join with the saints of old, the writers of Scripture, who have modeled to us how to pray through our pain. Give us courage, Father, to turn to you again today.
++ a book I found helpful on this topic is Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop.