The Lost Art of Lament


I'm going to admit something right off the bat... I stink at titles!  So my blog title today is from a book by my friend Michael Card (we're friends, really.  I gave him a book a few years ago at a conference here in Fredericksburg. If I give you a book we're automatically friends.  Actually, if I lend you a book we're probably friends because I really value my books, and I generally assume if I lend a book I'm probably never going to see it again, so I don't do it a lot.  Btw, Michael will be back in town this fall for another conference.  If you haven't been to one before, you should definitely go!).  So, the book is called A Sacred Sorrow - Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament and there is a great CD (one of my favorites) that sort of goes along with it called The Hidden Face of God.  So there's my plug for my homeboy (seriously, we follow each other on twitter, we're like brothers).

Also, my sermon title this past week was from another book, this one by John Piper (we are not as close as Michael and I.  I was close enough to touch him once but I thought that might be kind of creepy).  His book, When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God – and Joy, tells the story of several saints from church history who struggled with lifelong depression.  It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.  So there's my plug for one of my theological heroes.

So, this past week I mentioned that I have seven reasons why we need to lament.  I didn't have time to share them Sunday, so here they are.

Seven Reasons We Need To Lament

1. The World is Fallen

     To put this another way – the world laments.  A few years back I started a blog (which has long since gone away) called The Tears of the World (again, title stolen from one of the songs on Michael Card's album mentioned earlier).  There wasn't much to it.  It was basically just a list of news stories, mostly from twitter, about tragic situations around the world.  It was intended to drive home (for whatever 2-3 people probably ever viewed it) that our experience in 21st century America is not the norm.  The world laments; in fact, the whole creation laments according to Paul in Rom 8.22 "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."  So we too should lament, we should lament for creation, we should lament for the world, we should lament for ourselves.

2. We Are Fallen

     In the first service this week the worship team played a song during the offering called Did Christ Over Sinners Weep by one of my favorite groups, Indelible Grace.  You can hear the song here.  These are some of the lyrics:

Did Christ over sinners weep, 
And shall our cheeks be dry?
Let flood of penitential grief, 
Burst forth from every eye.
Burst forth from every eye.

Behold the Son of God in tears,
The angels wondering see.
Hast thou no wonder, O my soul?
He shed those tears for thee!

     There is perhaps no more personal reason for us to lament than our own fallenness.  In our hearts we still remember the garden and we long to return.  We long to come out from the bushes, remove our fig leaves and find that we are naked - and unashamed.  We have seen glimpses of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, we know where we are headed and we cannot wait to drink from the river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  If we do not lament our own sin we have no true understanding of it.

3. It's Good For Us 

In his science textbook Exploring Creation with General Science, Dr. Jay L Wilethe explains, "tears you cry when your eyes are irritated... are chemically quite different from the tears you cry when you are upset!  Tears produced by strong emotions contain chemicals that do not appear (to any great extent) in tears produced by eye irritants.  These chemicals include manganese (a chemical depressant), leucine-enkephalin (a chemical that helps control pain), and the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (a chemical produced by bodies under stress). When you get rid of those chemicals by crying, the net effect is to make you feel better.  By releasing those toxins, then, the tears serve to chemically and physically make you feel less depressed!  Thus, it really is true that you tend to feel better after a good, long cry." (p 377)  So lamenting is actually physically and emotionally good for us.

But it isn't just that crying is good for us physically and emotionally.  Lamentation is also spiritually good for us.  In Ecc 7.2-4 the teacher tells us in three different ways that lamentation has spiritual benefits.  "It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.  The heart of the wise in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth."  So would you be wise?  Then lament.  Would you have your heart made glad?  Then lament.

It's not just the OT either; Jesus himself tells us in one of his most well-known discourses, the Beatitudes "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Mt 5.4).

4. The Bible Supports/Commands It

     At the most basic level we should lament because the Bible tells us to.  The OT has a multitude of examples of God commanding lamentation.  In the Torah God commands Israel to set aside certain days to "afflict" themselves (Lev 16.29-31; Lev 23.27-32; Num 29.7; Dut 16.3) which while not lament per say, would have undoubtedly involved it.  In Joel 2.17 the Lord commands, "Between the vestibule and the alter let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, 'Spare your people, O LORD...'"  While such support is not as common in the NT at least one passage seems to suggest that we ought to.  "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8.23).  So, while not a command, it is certain that we who live between the cross and the second coming are expected to lament.  For a more decided command, Rom 12.15 tells us to "rejoice with those who rejoice," and "weep with those who weep."  So it is clear that even NT saints should lament.

5. The Saints in Heaven Lament (Rev 9-10)

     We all know that the Bible promises that God will wipe away ever tear and that in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no more sorrow or sadness.  But evidently that is not the case in the afterlife between now and then, because the book of Revelation indicates that even the Saints in heaven lament.  "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Rev 6.9-10).  Notice that the saints cry out, this sounds like lament to me (of note, this is also an imprecation (remember, that's a prayer of curse) which at least suggests that this is not just an OT thing, but that's for another blog).

6. Jesus Lamented (Mt 23.37; Jn 11.35)

The last two reasons may seem redundant, but there is a slight difference.  When I say that Jesus lamented I mean that as the Son of Man, in his humanity, he lamented.  I'm not separating his humanity and deity, but I am making a distinction.  Here I am getting at the fact that Jesus, as the second Adam, the ideal human, wept.  In Mt 23.37 he laments over the hard-heartedness of Jerusalem.  In Jn 11.35 he wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, the pain of his beloved Mary and Martha and perhaps over his own impending death, resurrection and the reality that even that would not convince his people of who he was.  No personal fall to account for, therefore no distortion of his affections, his reason, his will, his emotions or his physical body - and he wept, he lamented.

7. God Laments (Rom 8.26; )

Jesus, in his humanity, lamented, therefore leaving us an example to follow.  But more than that, God himself laments.  There are those who would take issue with this, I won't try to defend it at this point though I have done so elsewhere.  I would simply point out that two NT scriptures indicate that the Holy Spirit laments.  Eph 4.30 warns against grieving the Holy Spirit, which indicates that it is possible to do so.  More explicitly, Rom 8.26 tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in prayer with "groans that words cannot express."  Someone may wish to argue that this is not talking about lamentation, but given the context of vs 18-25 where the concept of groaning occurs two other times with reference to the creation and we ourselves and clearly indicates some degree of sorrow and grief it is only reasonable to assume that the word used here in reference to the Holy Spirit possesses the same significance.

So there are seven reasons why we should lament and lament often.

Stuff from Sunday

There were a few other things I mentioned Sunday.  Among those was my analysis, if you will, of the book of psalms.  If you remember I suggested that the dominant tone of the book of Psalms is one of lamentation.  I offered some percentages.  Keep in mind these are not scientific stats, just anecdotal, but I figured I'd offer my findings in case anyone wanted to follow up on it for themselves.

I suggested that by a conservative estimate 22% are dominated by a tone of lament.  I also mentioned that that estimate left out at least 29 other Psalms that I would consider laments, bringing the total percentage to 41%).  So here are the psalms of lament I included ( ) and here are the ones I left out ( ).  You can add or subtract from those, and look around for the others I mentioned that aren't laments as such but which clearly address those experiencing some sort of suffering, sorrow or distress.

Finally, I mentioned the album Beauty Will Rise by Steven Curtis Chapman and the story behind it.  I also mentioned an interview that Larry King did with the family and said I'd include it this week, so here it is.

Final Thoughts

I want to reiterate something I said Sunday.  Lamentation, with or without hope ought not be the dominant melody of the Christian's life.  Even when it is the dominant harmony, as I suggested it ought to be, we should still need to strive to praise God for his covenant love and faithfulness because that is our hope in suffering just as in success.  But we cannot glorify God with our hearts till we have grieved our losses with our mouths.  We cannot enjoy God forever until we have cried out to him in this life.  So let's rejoice in suffering, but let's not forget that there is room for suffering in our joy as well.  These two can go hand in hand in our lives because they went hand in hand in the life of our Lord as well.  As I said in closing Sunday, we will suffer in this life, but we will never suffer alone.  He is always with us through his body, the church, and through his Spirit - and shared suffering is endurable suffering.

Counselors or Spiritual Friends?

I wanted to be a counselor. The term held a certain attraction. If I was a counselor people would respect me. They would maybe even stand in some degree of awe of me as I deftly diagnosed their problems and provided them with biblical solutions. They would walk out of the office amazed at my insights into both people and Scripture. In time I might even gain some hero worship. Worship - deep down that's what I really wanted. 

What's this spiritual friend stuff? That does not sound professional or impressive. It doesn't have any clout and it definitely doesn't communicate any sense of authority or superiority. I did not want to be a spiritual friend. 

That's how I felt as I entered my counseling program. I was far more interested in myself than I was in others, but that was changing even then. It's funny, today I reluctantly use the word counseling and counselor simply because it's what people are familiar with. I'd much prefer the term spiritual friend. I like my friends much more than the professionals I deal with. They tend to be far more valuable to me, and often more helpful as well; Spiritual Friend, soul care provider, even spiritual director - anything but counselor. 

The change in my attitude came about in a funny way.  While I was attending classes for my degree in biblical counseling I often stayed with a friend of mine up in Northern Virginia.  On one occasion, after I had returned to his house from class, we got to talking about something going on in his life.  As we talked I began employing some of the skills that I had been learning throughout my course work.  At one point he stopped and looked at me and said, "are you counseling me?"  I didn't really know what to say.  The truth was, yes, I was counseling him, if by that you mean I was using the things I had learned to seek to assist him in working through this aspect of life. But I wasn't trying to be a counselor, I was honestly just trying to be a good friend - a better friend than I'd ever been before.

I found this same thing happening with Rhonda now and again, and I believe she asked the same thing on at least one occasion.  Again, I wasn't trying to counsel, I was trying to be a better husband by taking an active interest in what she was saying and applying the things I had learned to that point in order to better serve her.  It was at that point that I realized that I'd really rather just be a good friend and husband, since that is what God has called me to in those relationships.

So what's the difference? Does it matter? What's in a name? 

What is a counselor? 

Generally, a counselor has a significant degree of training, usually a master’s degree or higher.  Outside the church counselors are "professionals" and are held to certain ethical standards established by the state or professional agencies.  A counselor usually maintains a certain degree of detachment from the "client" in order to retain professional objectivity.  The counselor is generally only available during business hours and then usually only by appointment.  If a person needs help outside of that time they must have some other support system.  There is also usually some degree of hierarchy to the counselor/counselee relationship.  The client has a problem, the counselor has the answers (at least that's the way it often seems).  The counselor speaks into the counselee's life, but the reverse does not happen, generally.  This is much like a doctor/patient relationship.  This may look somewhat different in a church, but some of these aspects of the counseling relationship will be necessary even there.  If a full time biblical or pastoral counselor were to avail himself of all those he sees at any time day or night he would likely be overwhelmed and if he had a family, would be unable to properly invest in them.  

What is a spiritual friend? 

A spiritual friend is just that, a friend.  That really may not sound impressive or even confidence inspiring, but the fact is it should be.  There have been studies that show that the counsel of friends is just as, if not more effective than that of professionals.  This doesn't mean that the spiritual friend has no training or experience, however.  A spiritual friend could have just as much as or more education and experience than a professional counselor.  If the person is involved in an official ministry of the church they will,  ideally, have at least some training in how to care for others through a church or para-church ministry.  But not all spiritual friends will be part of established ministries.  They may be Sunday school or small group members; they may be a next door neighbor or a best friend.  What probably most distinguishes a spiritual friend from a counselor is the relationship.  This isn't a one-up relationship.  It is two peers sharing life together.  The spiritual friend will share her own experiences, without turning attention onto themselves, if it will help the relationship or the other person grow.  (If you didn't catch it, I demonstrated spiritual friendship at the beginning of this post by disclosing my own struggles with pride and desiring human affirmation which initially surrounded my decision to get into counseling.)  The spiritual friend will probably be available at odd hours and without an appointment.  You may have their number or email address.  In fact, the entire relationship could flip-flop in just a few months or years if circumstances are reversed.  In a perfect world, spiritual friendship would be a characteristic of each and every member of the church as we engage in genuine one-another ministry.

What does the Bible call us to?

So, does all this mean spiritual friendship is better than counseling?  Not necessarily.  Each has its place.  Maybe a better question is, what does the Bible call us to?  Some in the church will be called to be dedicated counselors (for the record, all counselors will not look the same.  There is greater overlap between the two ideas than the current discussion suggests).  The history of dedicated counselors dates back to the early periods of civilization and even the church.  Examples of this in scripture would include people like David's counselors (Ahithophel, Hushai, and Nathan) and the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel).

Most Christians will not be called to this kind of ministry, but all are called to spiritual friendship of some sort (as implied earlier, there can be different degrees of spiritual friendship).  Elders (and possibly deacons), for instance, are clearly called to be skilled in spiritual friendship (Ex 18.13-27; Num 11.16-17; Tit 1.9; Jas 5.14).  But other scriptures make it clear that we are all called to be spiritual friends at various times (Rom 12.15; 2Cor 1.3-4; Gal 6.1, 2; 2Tim 2.2).

Final Thoughts

God has provided everything we need in Christ and in his body.  He has blessed his people with various offices or ministries/ministers in order to equip his people.  Among those he has given the church are "shepherds" (Eph 4.11) which would include dedicated counselors.  But he has also joined the body together and gifted each of us with spiritual gifts so that he might, according to Paul, make "the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly," grow "so that it builds itself up in love" (Eph 4.16).  In our next installment we'll consider the two major divisions of biblical counseling/spiritual friendship and how those further break down.  In the meantime, watch for opportunities where you might be able to be a spiritual friend to someone by actively investing in their lives, listening to them or even just practicing the power of presence (just being with someone).

What do you think about the idea of spiritual friendship?  Does it sound attractive to you or do you prefer the traditional "counseling" paradigm?  Does this concept make "counseling" seem more accessible? Have you ever had a good or bad experience with either of these?  

Share your thoughts and experiences.

Foundations of Biblical Counseling: The Whole Life of Man

Foundations of Biblical Counseling: The Whole Life of Man

Last week we expanded our working definition of biblical counseling to include: viewing people, problems and solutions through the narrative of Scripture, and then looked at the whole counsel of God in terms of the Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation narrative of redemptive history. This week I want us to look together at what we mean by the whole life of man. What we're asking here is, what does it mean, biblically, to be human?