“The greatest dignity the church can give people who suffer is to tell them that their cries of anguish are worthy of God’s ear.
The most shameful thing the church can do is tell people who suffer that there is something wrong with them for suffering.”
—Matthew Richard Schlimm.
Some things that I learned from reading the entire Old Testament (rather than selected readings) was that:
First, It is important to realize that tragedy and loss strikes everyone.
Second, A core lesson of the prayers preserved in the Old Testament is that honest prayer includes sharing with God your pain and anger and sorrow and that honest prayer is needed to communicate with God.
Third, The result of honesty is a communion with God and a faith that can survive tragedy and loss.
In reading the Old Testament you will find many, many prayers that express suffering and loss. Consider the Book of Lamentations. Or realize that sorrow and loss constitutes almost a third of Psalms. It is a major theme of Habakkuk and Jeremiah. If we miss that, we are missing a significant lesson that the Old Testament has to teach us.
Consider the Book of Job, when Job complains and God validates him as speaking what is right (Job 42:6-8).
After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
That is significant, because the last thing Job has to say to God (before his friends start justifying God–the dialog that God is condemning) is:
I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.
21 You turn on me ruthlessly;
with the might of your hand you attack me.
22 You snatch me up and drive me before the wind;
you toss me about in the storm.
23 I know you will bring me down to death,
to the place appointed for all the living.
God validates the honest pain of Job’s heart.
In looking at scripture and modern religion (especially the prosperity gospel) it seems that there are two approaches.
One is to deny tragedy and loss. It is to say that pain and loss are always deserved punishment which means there is no tragedy and pain and loss are not things that the Church needs to worry about. In my experience, including dealing with a chaplain with a doctorate who was in a chaplaincy residency, that approach leads to a religion and faith that is inadequate to adversity, inadequate for real life, inadequate for the tragedy and pain and loss that come to all. It fails to describe reality and fails to allow honest prayers to God about honest conditions. It is the advice and approach of Job’s friends that God rejects.
The other approach I have found is to read and remember the scriptures as giving honest voice to the pain and grief that people truly feel when there is undeserved tragedy. It is to see in the scriptures an honoring and an expression of that pain and grief in prayer to God. It includes an acknowledgement of the scope of adversity and randomness in this world.
1 The words of the Teacher,[a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
Eclesiastes gets grimmer: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+4&version=NIV;CEB;KJV;NVI And grimmer after the link.
That other approach I have seen, what I call the second approach, includes acknowledging that “time and chance happen to them all” and that into each life tragedy, loss and sorry enter, allows us to be honest. The second approach includes acknowledging the honest life includes a journey which includes finding honest communication with God which includes the truth of our hearts, our sorrows and pains, our joys and our triumphs, but always, the truth of us.
That honesty is what makes possible an honest hope.
For that is also a lesson of the Old Testament. An honest hope can sustain faith in tragedy and loss when a shallow hope that does not reach honest reality cannot.
Or so I believe, that each of us needs to have an honest life, honest prayer and an honest hope. The alternative is a Church that tells people that there is something wrong with them for suffering, which is the most shameful thing the Church can do.
What do you think?
How does the Old Testament with its honest prayers of grief, anger towards God, pain and loss affect your feelings about what is proper in prayer?
Have you ever felt as did the author of Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
2 O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.
6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8 He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts.
10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.
11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.
13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.