How to Suffer Well—aka The Art of Lamenting
“I don’t do suffering well,” I told my mentor Tim at our spiritual booster-shot meeting. “I endure it for a while, but when it becomes long-suffering, I get impatient. Bitter. Angry.”
Tim leaned forward and listened as I complained about the string of recent health issues that had crept up. A battle with COVID and a rotator cuff injury from shoveling snow kept me up at night with sporadic fits of rage.
“I think I’m becoming a grumpy old man.” I laughed. “Just ask my wife and the dog.”
“It sounds like you need a good lament,” Tim said.
“A lament? What’s that?”
Tim sat back in his chair and stroked his chin. With a wise-owl look on his face, he taught me.
The Art of Lamenting
Lamenting allows us to bring our sufferings, disappointments, and failures to God. When we do, we gain wisdom. We discover the healing power of hope and love.
When we lament, we don’t deny or get stuck in our emotions. We name our emotions honestly—regardless of how raw they might be. We then bring them to God and watch as the Creator transforms us.
Jesus lamented over Lazarus’ death. He wept when the inhabitants of Jerusalem rejected him. He perspired blood when asking the Father to take away the cross.
In his book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, Mark Vroegop writes, “God calls us to lament, to give expression to our pain and sorrow, which in turn leads to authentic hope, healing, and health.”
This Is How We Do It
In the Book of Psalms, David followed this pattern of lamenting:
Naming his complaint
Crying out to God for help
Enacting the solutions God provided
Psalm 10 is a good example of a three-part lament.
First, David complains, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” David shakes his fist at God, asking why the wicked man prospers while the good suffer and are crushed.
Call for Help
Next, David seeks God’s help by pleading, “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.”
Finally, David remembers God’s promise of divine protection. He proclaims, “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.”
I tried on the garment of lamenting as I continued the conversation with Tim.
“The pain in my shoulder won’t go away, especially at night. I’m trying to be patient, but I reel out of bed at midnight shaking my fist at God, demanding, ‘How long, O Lord, must I endure this?’”
“That’s a good start.” Tim nodded. “You’re not stuffing your anger. You’re allowing yourself to place your complaint at the Creator’s feet.”
“I then sit up in bed holding my arm in a makeshift sling. I rock back and forth singing Kumbaya, My Lord like a child sitting on Poppa’s lap.”
“That’s your cry for help.”
“Then I ask God, ‘What are you trying to teach me through this pain?’”
“That’s the third part of the lament. And what do you hear in your heart from God?”
I told Tim I heard God’s gentle whisper tell me he didn’t cause the pain, but he was working with me through it. I realized the comfort I sought was found in God. An emotional healing balm spread like an ointment upon my jagged nerves as I looked at the cross on the bedroom wall and realized God understood pain. He endured it. And while God isn’t typically a hocus-pocus kind of deity who waves a magic wand and takes suffering away—just like he didn’t take the crucifixion away from his son—in our Gardens of Gethsemane the Father provides us with the reminder he is here with his strength and will never abandon us. That night as I sat in bed, I also heard God tell me I was resilient. This pain would pass and I would endure it with God’s grace. And then I heard him nudge me to call my doctor and seek medical advice.
“You lamented,” Tim said as he slapped me a high-five. “That’s how we suffer well. And in the midst of that suffering, we learn to listen and hear God’s wisdom comforting and guiding us.”
Lamenting: A Spiritual Practice
Life is filled with paradox, and the grace of lamenting is the timeless gift God gives us whenever we encounter pain, suffering, or confusion.
Lamenting contains the grace of inner growth. Transformation. It opens our hearts to divine wisdom and holy healing.
There’s an old Buddhist saying made popular by Haruki Murakami: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
The season of Lent—as well as any season of physical or emotional pain—allows us to rediscover the ancient spiritual practice of lamenting. Through this practice, we learn how to suffer well and gain inner strength and wisdom as we do.
The next time life throws you a physical or emotional curve ball—or both—try on the garment of lamenting. It’s the cloak that fits suffering well.
brian j plachta