It was late. So late, it was almost early. I’d been pacing my terminally dusty floor for about a quarter of an hour. I was sobbing.
That day, I’d come face-to-face with human trafficking. In the country where I was serving, it’s called child marriage. There were no authorities to call. No way to save her. She was gone.
I was seething with helpless rage, but I was also terrified. This was a level of depravity I’d never known, and my faith had no answer for it. And I was a missionary, for (quite literally) God’s sake! I’d come to South Asia to share the gospel, and here I was barely managing to believe it for myself.
A few days later, I shuffled into my mentor’s office and stammered out what she thankfully recognized as a cry for help. I met with my organization’s member care team, who diagnosed me with situational depression and set me on the path to recovery.
In short, that night wasn’t fatal, but I’ve learned since that it also isn’t exceptional. Our communities are drowning in unspoken suffering. We desperately need biblical language to bridge the gap between the sorrow we feel and the God we know, and that’s what Mark Vroegop—lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, and TGC Council member—has given us in Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.
Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament
Lament is how we bring our sorrow to God—but it is a neglected dimension of the Christian life for many Christians today. We need to recover the practice of honest spiritual struggle that gives us permission to vocalize our pain and wrestle with our sorrow. Lament avoids trite answers and quick solutions, progressively moving us toward deeper worship and trust. Exploring how the Bible—through the psalms of lament and the book of Lamentations—gives voice to our pain, this book invites us to grieve, struggle, and tap into the rich reservoir of grace and mercy God offers in the darkest moments of our lives.
Learning to Lament
“Lament,” in Vroegop’s words, “is a prayer in pain that leads to trust” (28). He begins by tracing this prayer language of “turn, complain, ask, and trust” through the psalms (29). The first movement in lament (turn) is simply to choose to keep praying. Even if all we can manage is to stumble to Christ’s feet and collapse in a sobbing heap, that in itself is an act of faith. But we need not turn to him with fawning platitudes, for the second motion (complaint) “give[s] us permission—even encouragement—to lay out our struggles, even if they are with God himself” (48).
Pacing the floor that night, I wondered if a God who would allow sexual slavery to masquerade as marriage was a God worth praying to. I wondered, along with the psalmists, how my God could abandon his people (Ps. 10:1), forget their affliction (Ps. 44:23–24), and allow freakishly wicked people to go unstopped and unpunished (Ps. 94:3). What I didn’t know was that I had the right to say so.
Lament requires us to remember who God says he is, and then to hold fast to that truth.
There is space in Scripture to humbly and honestly tell God when he appears to be falling down on the job. More glorious still, there is space to request that he get up and do something. In Vroegop’s words, “Pain has a way of awakening us to our need for God’s help” (60), and lament is a place to ask for that help, and ask boldly. The psalmist appealed to God for justice (Ps. 83:16–18), for mercy (Ps. 51:1), for restoration (Ps. 80:3), and for vindication (Ps. 35:23–24)—and we have the privilege to do the same.
While we have the right to ask God to act in accordance with his character, we also have the responsibility to believe that he will. Lament requires us to remember who God says he is, and then to hold fast to that truth. “Trust” is the fourth movement of lament, but it’s not the final one. Pain is and will be an ongoing fact of life until Christ’s return, and “we must enter into lament again and again so that it can keep leading us to trust” (74). Vroegop does not offer a 12-step program or an artificially biblicized grieving process, but rather an accessible vocabulary for living in the meantime, in the space between the pain of our world and the promise of glory.
The framework Vroegop proposes is remarkable for its sheer versatility. Anytime we feel the tension between the world we inhabit and the world we’re promised, we can turn to lament. It can shape our prayers in the wake of tragedy. It can shape our conversation amid conflict. We can use it to cry out for forgiveness amid our sin, or for justice amid someone else’s. From a bad day at the office to the downfall of nations, there’s no pain too great (or small) for lament. Every complaint is validated, and every ache, pain, and tragedy becomes an opportunity to glory more fully in the gospel of Christ.
For Vroegop is careful to root our trust, not in some kind of karmic payback within our lifetime, but in the ultimate hope of eternity. While God certainly can and does redeem our sorrows in beautifully obvious ways, there are things that nothing short of the death of God can repay, and nothing short of his resurrection can redeem: the breaking of a marriage, the abuse of a child, the suicide of a grandparent.
From a bad day at the office to the downfall of nations, there’s no pain too great (or small) for lament. Every complaint is validated, and every ache, pain, and tragedy becomes an opportunity to glory more fully in the gospel of Christ.
Lament allows us to transpose our pain into the symphony of cosmic redemption, for “lament is the language of a people who know the whole story—the gospel story” (150). Lament provides ample space to acknowledge the immensity and profundity of our suffering, but it also reminds us, over and over, that the love of Christ is deeper and wider still. And in so doing, it “helps us dare to hope again, and again, and again” (112), as we wait in eager expectation for Christ to make all things new (Rev. 21:5).
Lament is perhaps even more powerful as a communal practice. After all, Lamentations was written in the wake of God’s judgment on the nation of Judah for their idolatry and rampant injustice, so what better biblical text to guide a community coming to terms with its own brokenness?
“Lament,” Vroegop argues, “has the potential to provide a first step toward uniting people when hurt and misunderstanding are in the air” (184). When “the issues are so complicated and the pain so raw,” he observes, pastors and laypeople alike are all too easily frightened into silence, for fear of saying the wrong thing (185). But lament allows us to break that silence with honesty and compassion. It empowers us to maintain solidarity with our community while acknowledging the guilt we bear together. And it points us to the truth that God can redeem us, just as he redeemed the sinful people of Judah.
Vroegop suggests that churches use lament to open eyes and hearts to cultural issues such as sexual abuse, human trafficking, and abortion (131–32). He encourages believers to “talk to God about the challenges of generational poverty, divorce, teen pregnancy, racism, unemployment, drug addiction, and any other social ill you can remember” and to “allow lament to soften your heart to the problems around you” (132). Lament, he suggests, can propel us out of indifference and through compassion to action on behalf of our communities: “Be moved to lament; be moved to pray. And be moved to act—to make a difference” (132).
Vroegop notes that lament is insufficient for resolving complex systemic evils and reminds us that “[t]here is much work to be done in listening, understanding, addressing injustice, and fostering hope” (186). But it can provide a “starting point . . . a God-given means for vocalizing complicated and loaded pain” (186). And perhaps most importantly, it grounds our hope, not in policies or procedures or politicians, but in the infinite power of God, who alone is capable of doing the impossible work of redeeming rebels.