On a hot summer night in 2012, I tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep. I was angry and frustrated. The year before I’d been fired from a large church for “not being a good fit.” After blaming the church leaders failed to satiate my anger, I turned to blaming God. If God was omnipotent and loving, why didn’t God prevent this from happening to me and my family? I’d committed no great sin; there was no moral or ethical failure that led to my dismissal. Yet, within just a few weeks of being let go, my family and I moved out of our house and headed to a duplex on the other side of the country.
As we settled in to our new place, we became quick friends with the couple renting out the other half of the duplex. He was a mechanical engineer from Switzerland and she was a nurse from New Jersey, both in their mid-forties. They’d moved to Oregon from Nashville only a week before us. As we got to know them, we danced around the topics of faith and religion. They knew I worked at a seminary in the area. I learned that he was an atheist and she was a lapsed Catholic. Both were angry at God and religion.
See, she’d been battling breast cancer for a long time. A few years prior, it had gone into remission (again). Then, in 2010, she lost her house in the Nashville floods. All the church could offer her for why bad things kept happening to her was an paltry, “It’s all part of God’s plan.” She decided that God was a jerk and that she’d done nothing to deserve the tragedies that seemed to follow her around. She left church and never returned. The reason they left Nashville and moved across the country was to try and make a fresh start, to leave behind cancer and chemo and flooded houses and Christianese.
Less than a year after the move, she learned that her cancer was back. She had to quit her job at the hospital and become a patient in it. She underwent round after round of treatment, losing large amounts of hair and weight. That restless summer night in 2012, I’d just had a conversation with her husband who confided in me that things were looking bad.
As I tried to go to sleep that night, I was angry. I was still being angry with God for what had happened to me and my family, and now I was angry that God allowed our neighbor’s cancer to return. These friends already shouldered more sorrow than was their fair share. So I tossed and turned, anger welling up inside me and, for the first time in over a year, I prayed. It went something like this:
“Who do you think you are, God? You call yourself ‘Love’? There isn’t anything loving about this. What we’re dealing with here isn’t fair. It’s not right. But I don’t want you to do anything for me. You want to do something? Heal HER. Destroy her cancer. Give her hope. Or maybe it would be better if you just left us all alone.”
I waited for the lightning to strike.
And I felt a little better.
We have lost the art of lament and it is killing our faith.
Western, affluent, success-oriented Christianity is so focused on blessing and praise that it doesn’t know what to do with tragedy or pain. In a weak attempt to offer consolation and hope, we sputter out platitudes about what God’s motivations must be (“God needed another angel in heaven”), what the grieving person should do (“just trust God’s plan”), or what we’ll do on their behalf (“I’ll pray for you”). At our core, though, we have no idea what to do with anger and tragedy and grief, so we do or say whatever we can to put some distance between us and it. In doing so, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to lament.