This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Learning the Language of Lament
Mark Vroegop, author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament shares his family’s story of loss and grief when confronted with the death of his unborn daughter, recounting how God used that experience to introduce him to the biblical concept of lament—an honest yet faith-filled way of relating to our pain illustrated throughout Scripture.
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Mark, thank you so much for being with us on The Crossway Podcast today.
It’s great to be with you today.
Painful Personal Experience
So in 2004, you and your wife experienced something incredibly painful, probably one of the most painful experiences a person can imagine. Can you share a little bit about what happened?
Yeah. My wife woke me up early one morning—she was nine months pregnant—and she said, “Mark, I think something’s wrong with our pregnancy.” We had multiple children—three that had been born prior to that time—and nothing had ever gone wrong, so this was a shock. And to make a long story short, after a visit with a doctor determined that our nine-month-in-utero baby had died, my wife gave birth to our stillborn daughter, Sylvia, on February 17, 2004. And that began a lengthy process of grieving. Years after that we had multiple miscarriages, something called a blighted ovum, which is a false-positive pregnancy, and the Lord put us into a season where we learned how to trust him and also what it means to grieve deeply.
In the Wake of Sorrow
And what was the first thought that you had when you heard the news about your daughter from the doctor?
You know what’s crazy about it is there’s so many thoughts that run through your heart at the exact same time. You know, like the hymn writer says, “Sorrows like sea billows roll.” So there were thoughts like, I just I can’t believe this has happened. I can’t believe my wife has to give birth to a dead child. Will she ever be happy again? Will God give us any other children? How do I pastor a church? How do I preach on Sundays? It’s just a barrage. How am I going to explain this to my little kids that a baby in mom’s tummy had passed away?
And the uncertainty of what our future looked like was unbelievable. I had never experienced grief at that level. It was frightening because of the depth of it and the strength of it. And so it was just a moment that I’ll never forget of realizing everything about our life is just radically changed. We knew God was good, and yet we were also really, really scared. And those two emotions just coexisted in our heart at the exact same time.
Dealing with Tragedy as a Pastor
So as a pastor I’m sure there have been many situations where you’ve walked alongside a family or an individual dealing with some kind of tragedy or pain. Was there anything surprising to you as you entered into your own season of tragedy that maybe you weren’t expecting?
As a pastor you have a well-developed theology of suffering, believing confidently in God’s sovereignty. I know the texts, I’ve preached them. And they were true, and rang true, in our hearts during that day. And yet being in the middle of that crucible of suffering and hardship, it takes those things that I believe and it adds emotional pain and trauma along with them such that I was fighting to believe what I knew I believed. Believing that God is good, knowing that hard is not bad, and yet the reality was hard was really, really hard. And I think the long-term lesson that came out of that for me was that those two things are equally true—hard is not bad, but hard is really hard. And going through that season of deep suffering helped me to know how valuable it is to acknowledge that hard is really hard, while at the same time acknowledging that hard is not bad because of God’s goodness and his sovereign plan.
Redemption in Hard Things
Unpack that a little bit. Why is hard not always a bad thing?
Well, we know that Scripture tells us that all things work together for our good. We know that God has purposes beyond what we can see. Job says, “I heard of you with the hearing of my ear, but now my eye sees you.” So suffering has a way of clarifying not only what we believe but also helping us to put our confidence—practical confidence—in knowing that somehow God’s going to work all of this out.
You know, as I look back on my own life I can see the way that the Lord used the death of our daughter in 2004 for really good purposes. Now, I wish she was alive. I wish that wasn’t what God had chosen for us, but I can see how shaping it was. I can see some of the fruit. And yet, there are probably 10,000 things that God has done through that experience for our good and for the good of his name that I don’t even know about. So believing that hard is not bad is a fundamental, theological, Christian, gospel-centered commitment that God has plans for me and no matter what takes place those plans always fit with his good grace toward me. And the cross being the greatest example of that. Good Friday looked like a disaster until resurrection Sunday happened and then, Wow! Now we understand what God was really doing.
The Language of Lament
In your book you talk about the journey that you took in learning to value lament, which is sort of what we’re talking about right now. And you actually write that the Bible gave voice to your pain. What do you mean by that?
Well, what many people don’t know is that a third of the psalms are lament. So one of every three psalms wrestles with really hard questions and hard issues. For example Psalm 13—one of my favorite Psalms—says, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” And the reality is that if a person is a follower of Jesus and they walk through suffering, they wonder that question. When hardship comes there are days when you wake up and you feel, God, have you forgotten me? Have you hidden your face from me?
Psalm 77 would be another great example where the Psalmist asks six rhetorical, very pointed questions, “Will the Lord spurn forever? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Have his promises come to an end for all time?” So I just found that the Bible gave me inspired words to actually talk to God about the struggles within my own soul while at the same time believing that he was going to work this out for my good, yet the challenge of what I felt was really, really hard. And so the Bible gave voice to the fact that there are two things that happen in suffering. I believe that God is good, but this is really hard. And lament is the language of what you pray when you’re in pain that leads you to the point of trust.
Reconciling Lament with Romans 8
I imagine that a lot of Christians—and I would consider myself in this category—sometimes struggle to understand what it is the psalms of lament are doing and relate them to other passages of Scripture, like Romans 8, for example, where Paul is expressing such confidence in God’s goodness in his plan, his sovereignty over all things. How do we bring those two types of passages together in our own thinking?
Well, what’s interesting is that the Bible certainly calls us to come to the conclusion that God is good, that he is trustworthy, and that everything is going to work out in accordance with his plan.
At the same time, the Bible also helps us to see that there’s a means by which we get there or a language that moves us along between the pull of my life is really hard and I trust in God’s sovereignty. For instance, even in Romans 8 what many people don’t realize is that right before Paul says, “We are more than conquerors,” he quotes a lament Psalm. He says, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long, we are regarded as sheep to the slaughter.” People don’t realize that when Jesus hung on the cross, when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He quoted Psalm 22, a lament psalm.
Laments are the language that moves us through our pain—laying out our complaints, asking God for help—and then ending in trust. So there’s a typical pattern: turn to God in prayer, lay out your complaints, ask him for help, and then choose to trust. Laments are the language that move us along the pathway of our grief. No one would argue that we need to rejoice always. Absolutely we need to rejoice. That’s not the question. The question is How do we get to the point that we can rejoice? And laments are the language of God’s people that move them to get to the point where they can sing because God has dealt bountifully with them. And that’s what Psalm 13 does. It starts with complaint, asks God for help, and then concludes, “So I will sing.”
I find that many Christians know they should land in trust, they know they should be thankful, they know they should rejoice. But asking someone who’s in pain or telling them, “You just need to rejoice,” without giving them the language that moves them there is not just unhelpful, it actually causes them to wonder if what they’re supposed to believe at the end is in fact true because they don’t know what to do with the emotions that they presently feel.
Why Lament Is Uncomfortable
Why do you think it is that so many Christians are unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable with the idea of lament?
There are lots of reasons, I’ll just give a few. I think that our understanding of suffering—for most of us in twenty-first-century American culture—is conditioned by our experience and our expectations of what life should be. So there’s always sort of this idea of a new day dawning, a bright day ahead, and optimism of that sort. Not many of us know what it’s like to live in an environment where recession doesn’t go away, or poverty is gonna be a part of your experience for a long, long time, or an ongoing illness is not going to be healed any time soon. So for the most part, twenty-first-century American evangelicals—especially within white evangelicalism—know how to do triumph and triumphalism really well, but we don’t know what it’s like to linger in long-term difficulty. And so in many respects both our sermons and our singing don’t reflect this particular language.
Now if you look at other parts of the world, if you were to talk with our African American brothers and sisters, they understand lament as a category in a much more specific way than the rest of us. The church in the United States has moved in the last couple hundred years, and lament is just a lost language that I think needs to be recovered.
Teaching Lament in the Church
In your book you talk about how, as God was taking you on a journey to discover the grace of lament, you started to teach about it in your church. What happened as you started to talk more and more about what God was showing you in his word?
People came out of the woodwork. Finally! Somebody has identified for me what’s been going on in my soul. It gave them a sense of hope that there was a language that spoke to their heart language. It’s sort of like when you hear a song that just resonates with you because it speaks what you feel, but you didn’t have words or you didn’t have melody for it, and it just touches you so deeply.
That started to happen as people began to identify with this concept of lament being a prayer and pain that leads to trust. It created some great healing opportunities for people who had long-term struggles with suffering or pain and invariably lament—as I taught on it—explained what they walked through. The funny thing about lament is that very few of us set out to study it. We sort of back into it. And then when you’re there you’re like, Oh! This is what’s been happening in my life! T
Lament also helped us to tune our hearts more effectively towards the suffering around us. We spent some time in the book of Lamentations, the longest lament in the Bible, written over the destruction of Jerusalem. We lamented some of the social and societal issues that were right in our backyard, whether an opioid crisis, or sex trafficking, or abortion, or a racial incident. And it gives us a language to help interpret what’s going on with the world. So in that respect it was extremely helpful in reminding our people that Christians know the arc of God’s redemption plan. We know what’s wrong with the world. So whether it’s personal suffering or whether it’s societal suffering, we ought to be able to speak into it with a language that not only has been given by God, but is also able to give us a lot of grace.
Practical Advice for Pastors
What practical advice would you offer to the pastor who’s listening right now who wants to help his people to better understand and appreciate the value of lament?
Take a look at the psalms of lament and preach on them, and begin to let the text drive some of the statements and the themes. Have the tone of the sermon fit the tone of the text. That’s one way.
Another way would be to pray more regularly pastoral prayers that feature lament or lament content in it. To either lament over our sins in a time of confession or to lament over something that’s in the news over the last week.
Also, help people know that there’s a category of language that helps us to address pain. By just identifying that that’s there, you’ve taken a first step in helping people know what to do when the bottom drops out. Because eventually everyone’s going to face suffering at some point in their lifetime and lament should not be an unfamiliar language. Helping people know that in advance is really helpful.
And then finally, it’s amazing to me how many funerals have very little lament in them. Funerals are a great opportunity to be honest about how we feel and yet, for whatever reason, we make them celebrations of life. Now I’m not against that concept or that term, but funerals are meant to be instructive and they’re meant to help us to deal with the pain that we have and point us toward hope and truth. Yet I find may pastors, for whatever reason, are nervous about being too sad and as a result, you’re not acting sad at all. And in the context of a funeral, that can be really hard if you’re there and you are sad. You’re like, Man, am I not a follower of Jesus because I’m struggling with this? So I think there’s a holistic picture and I think our definition and our theology of suffering needs to not just be theological, it also needs to understand the theology of our emotions as it relates to lament.
Pressure to Hide Sorrow
Do you think there’s an implicit pressure in the church to hide our sorrow?
That’s a great question and the answer is Yes. There are two ditches that I have found that people fall into—ditches that I was tempted to fall into.
One is despair. There’s no hope, and nothing is ever going to be good again.
Another far more common one is denial. I’m fine. Everything is good. We go to church, you know, and we have these greetings we say to one another, but we’re not actually being honest about what’s really going on. If someone in a greeting time were to say, Hey man, how are you doing? Oh, not good man. I’m just wrestling with a lot of pain this week. Most people would not know what to do with that. And as a result, church can be a very lonely place for those who are hurting. And then we miss an opportunity to apply the gospel in a robust way to people who are walking through the darkest of dark moments.
Helpful and Hurtful Words
As you think back on your own period of intense suffering and mourning, were there things that other Christians said that you found maybe not very helpful, or in some cases even hurtful?
Yeah, but I want to be careful because these folks meant well. They did and they were trying their best. Again, it’s just like when you’re trying to speak a foreign language and you’re not very good at it—at least you’re trying.
Some people tried to assign purpose to our loss. We certainly would hope that someone would come to faith in Christ because of our loss, but when you’re grieving and somebody says, “You know, maybe more people will come to Jesus because of this,” it’s true but it’s just not helpful in that moment. Or, “Well, you’ve got three kids, so I’m sure the Lord is going to give you another baby.” Well yeah, we certainly would hope that, but that is such a deep fear to have somebody unintentionally kind of trivialize that is really hard.
We are so tempted to try and comfort people by some sort of association with our own suffering, and that’s one of the most painful things. We too closely link our own experience so that we can tell them that we understand because for some reason we’re afraid to say, “I’m sorry. And I don’t’ know what to say.” But that’s actually the right thing to say. In fact, there was a friend of ours who had lost a child—not a stillbirth, but older—and literally in the receiving line at the funeral home somebody told them, “We’re really sorry. We know how you feel.” The grieving couple said, “You do?” And they said, “Yeah, our dog died last week and we’re just really sad.” And it just devastated the family. It makes you just want to say to people, “Shhhhhh. Just say you’re sorry, and you’re praying for them, and hug on them, and say less.” Less. Less is more.
The Struggle to Engage with the Hurting
I’ve noticed that in myself even, that sometimes there can be this natural impulse to try to connect and express some kind of empathy and understanding for someone who is in the midst of such pain and grief. Why is it that we can struggle to know how to engage with people?
Two reasons. One, I think there’s a genuine desire to want to help. And I think that’s commendable. I mean, people want to help other people in their grieving and they just don’t know what to say.
Two, grief in somebody else’s life is scary. I had a friend recently that was deeply, deeply grieving in the midst of a prayer time and just wailing before the Lord with enormous amounts of sorrow and his grief created fear within my heart. It was a crazy thing. I knew what was going on, I had categories for it, I knew how to even help him intellectually, but emotionally, I just wanted him to stop. I wanted him to stop being so sad. That level of sorrow shakes us as human beings at our core because it just screams, Something is wrong with the world! and in the same way that a funeral is a reminder of the penalty of sin, so too sorrow is a reminder that life is really broken. Of course we know the answer and the hope that we have in Christ, but those moments shake us. And they’re designed to. So I think people are scared, they don’t know what to say and as a result they just don’t have a language that can help people when they’re walking through deep seasons of lament.
Practical Advice for Supporting in Suffering
What practical advice would you offer to the individual, or maybe a small group, as they seek to bring some of these principles—and even some of the language you’re explaining here related to lament—to bear on their own experiences of pain and sorrow and suffering as they seek to support people who are in the midst of really grieving for something?
When somebody is really struggling deeply, just simply sit with them in their pain and love on them and pray with them and join them in their sorrow, and don’t try to fix it or give advice. You could pray the promises of God over them, but it’s hard to be grieving and people are suddenly moving into solution mode.
The other thing I think you can do, and I’ve done this personally with folks who are grieving, is to take a lament psalm and just pick it apart using that four-fold structure that I mentioned before: turn, complain, ask, trust. Here the psalmist is praying to God, so instead of being silent he’s talking to God. Where are the complaints in this text? What are we to ask God for? Where do we see a turning to trust? I’ve seen great help when people study a psalm through that lense and then write their own. What would my psalm of lament look like? What would it look like for me to turn to God? What would I say to him in the midst of my pain? What complaint would I offer to God? What do I want to ask him to do in light of his promises? And then what recommitment of trust could I make?
When people see things through the psalms and then pray it, it’s really helpful. It gives tracks they can move their pain along but also creates some great moments of people being able to be honest and to care for one another in a way that ends in resolution toward trust, but also really cares for one another in a really deep way.
You write in your book that “Lament helps us to unearth our idols.” What do you mean by that?
Suffering of any kind shows you who you are. John Piper talks about suffering as a moment when your beaker is bumped. So imagine our lives like a beaker with a clear solution with sediment down at the bottom. Over time the sediment remains hidden. But when you’re bumped with suffering, what was there—your self-sufficiency, the idols that you have—can surface.
But here’s the problem: it’s pretty hard to confront a suffering person because they kind of have the ultimate pass, you know? A get out of jail free card, so to speak. So it’s important for suffering people to realize that hardship can surface what we trust in. So at the practical level, when my wife was walking through the grief of the loss of our daughter, there was a part of her heart that I couldn’t fix. No matter what I did, I couldn’t end her sorrow and one of the things the Lord showed me through that is that boy, my idol of being able to fix things really surfaced when I faced a grief in her soul that I couldn’t fix.
So that’s just one example of many kinds of idols that can surface. Whether our idol is money and a job loss or an uncertain economy suddenly surfaces that. Or our dreams of what our life would be like. You know we had to wrestle with What if we can’t get pregnant again? And with multiple miscarriages and a false positive pregnancy, we had to sort of release that desire to the Lord and realizing that that was a pretty important desire on our part, and not a bad desire, but if that becomes ultimate, then it’s an idol. And so we had to release that to the Lord. So suffering of any kind has an opportunity, if we’ll allow it to, to identify the things that we can place too much trust in.
Potential Dangers in Suffering
What would you say are some of the dangers that we can often face in the midst of deep suffering?
Oh man, there are so many potential dangers and pitfalls. I mentioned earlier the despair and denial. Sorrow can also make you really self-centered. It can create a situation where because of your pain you could justify only being concerned about yourself. You’re in survival mode and so you can be insensitive to other people, unkind. Sorrow has the possibility of showing you who you are, and that could be a difficult and challenging fixture for sure. Suffering can also make you arrogant because you think that nobody else understands, or you even begin projecting your experience on everybody else. It could also cause you to begin to question things that you used to believe in. Is God really good? Is the Bible really the word of God? When your expectations in life collide with what has happened to you. So there’s a lot of ditches and a lot of land mines that are there and yet the hope is that God can help navigate us through them and the language of lament is one of the gifts that he gives us for making our way through that messy terrain.
Hope for the Suffering
There may be somebody listening to us right now who for various reasons is in the midst of a season of deep sorrow. Maybe they’ve recently lost somebody dear to them, maybe someone else that they love or maybe they themselves are suffering with some kind of illness or disease. Maybe there’s a strained or broken relationship that there just doesn’t seem to be much hope for. What would you say to that person? What encouragement would you offer that person when it comes to discovering the grace of lament for themselves?
My encouragement would be that Jesus is the man of sorrows. He was acquainted with grief. He lived among us so that we would know that when we come to him with our pain that we have a Savior who understands.
And Jesus lamented. He poured out his grief in the garden of Gethsemane. He talked to God about his pain while he was even on the cross. There’s an opportunity for us to come to the man of sorrows and the Bible gives us a language that can help us to get there. We can talk to God instead of giving him the silent treatment. We can lay out what our strong emotions are and God knows that they’re there. We can complain to him. We can ask him to help us based upon his promises. We can then land in trust realizing that that isn’t just something you do once, it’s something that you do in all different seasons of life and during the various seasons of suffering.
So my encouragement would be this, that hope for the follower of Jesus springs forth as truth is rehearsed. And as you rehearse the truth of the word, using lament to do it, that’s how you make it one day at a time knowing that God is going to give you grace for everything that you face everyday, and lament just happens to be a conduit whereby God supplies that grace. Lament helps us to not give up. It’s the language that we use when we live in the land between this is really hard, and God is good. Those two things exist and lament is how we make it through the difficulties that God has allowed us to experience.
Mark, thank you for taking some time to talk with us today. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your own story, your own journey to discover the grace of lament. We appreciate it.
It’s a pleasure to be with you. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
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