Early on in my seminary days, I met a man whose wife was very ill—and in fact she was dying, although he was having a hard time accepting that—and he was asking me what I think are some of the hardest questions that we will ever face as people of faith.
Questions about why God allows good people to suffer.
We say we believe in a loving God who wants good things for us, and yet life isn’t easy. And again and again in our lives we encounter real pain.
So how are we supposed to hold the tensions between those two realities?
What are we supposed to do with all the emotions we feel when we’re hurting. When we see pain and injustice in the world. And maybe most especially when we see people we love who are suffering.
So this man told me about how his mother and his grandmother had died terrible deaths from cancer. And now he was watching his wife diminish day by day, hour by hour. And he didn’t know what to do with his feelings about the way all these good women had suffered.
He didn’t know what to do with his anger, to be perfectly honest about it.
He was angry at God, and he thought that was wrong. He was afraid it meant that his faith wasn’t strong enough. Because we’re never supposed to be angry at God, are we? Or at least that’s what he thought.
So I told him that I thought it was all right to tell God exactly how he was feeling. I told him it was ok to tell God he was angry. To tell God he was hurting. I said I was sure God could take it, and that God probably knew all that anyway. That prayer in the beginning of our service: “from you no secrets are hid.” God knows.
But I think he had a really hard time believing that.
So I was remembering this conversation when I started to look over our readings for this week, and especially the Old Testament reading, where Jeremiah is complaining about the way people have been scorning him for speaking his prophetic message. And even his close friends have given up on him.
He really is angry about the position that God has put him in. and yet he can’t stop being the prophet he is.
You want to talk about being angry with God! When you look at the first verse in Jeremiah, where he accuses God of having tricked him into taking on this role of prophet. He says God enticed him, and overpowered him. That’s what it says in the translation. And there are some commentaries that say the original Hebrew there actually refers to something close to rape. So Jeremiah feels that profoundly abused by God.
And yet ultimately this whole reading is a prayer. It’s an ancient form of prayer called a lament, in which someone pours out their feelings of sadness and even anger. And if you look at the psalms bout a third of all the psalms are prayers of lament, including the one that we read today.
So is it really all right to to be angry with God, and to bring those feelings to God in prayer? I think that if it was good enough for Jeremiah, if it was good enough for David the psalmist, it should be good enough for us, too.
So I want to step back for a moment and say a few things about Jeremiah, to put him in context before I go on to say more about prayer of lament. He’s one of the great prophets, although he really resisted that call from God in the very beginning. And I would say watch out for anyone who’s really eager to be a prophet. There’s something wrong there.
Jeremiah was active around the time the city of Jerusalem and the great Temple were destroyed by the Babylonian empire, and the people—including Jeremiah himself—were taken into exile in the Babylonian Captivity.
And it was Jeremiah’s job to tell the people that this destruction was actually God’s will, because Israel had turned away from God and begun to worship the pagan god of the people around them. It was his job to call them to repentance. And as you might imagine, this was not something that made him especially popular.
And he complains bitterly about that in the lament we just heard. His prayer expresses his pain, his resentment at feeling forced into this role by God and then abandoned by God, and he’s angry about that, and he’s not holding it back.
But he still manages to end with a prayer of praise.
And when you can pray like this, it says something about the kind of solid, honest relationship that you have with God. And it has to be a relationship that’s based on trust.
I can be who I am, and you will still love me.0
And of course that’s the truth of our relationship with God. So one of the commentaries I read said, “Lament is not a failure, but an act of faith.”
And that, I think, is a really important lesson for us.
So what are you praying for these days? What will come to your mind when we get to the Prayers of the People and that invitation to add your own intentions, either silently or aloud?
Where will your thoughts go in those moments when you’re back in your pew after communion? Or right before you fall asleep tonight?
You know, I’m pretty sure we all have plenty to cry out to God about in our own lives.
And I want to say that people talk about the importance of prayers of gratitude, and I think I heard more about that than ever during the pandemic when we were in such isolation, in a very low place. I heard a lot of people talking about the importance of prayer of gratitude, even making a spiritual discipline of remembering to be thankful for specific things we’re grateful for every day.
And I don’t mean you should neglect those prayers of gratitude for all the good things God give us even in our hardest times. I think that’s really important, but that doesn’t mean we can only be happy and grateful in prayer. It doesn’t mean we have to pretend that everything feels good. Because we all know that it doesn’t.
So typically our concern might begin with ourselves and radiate outwards. We might worry about our own health. About our jobs. About the well-being of our families. About the economy and the environment. And about suffering and injustice in the world around us.
And all of that is fair game for prayer. Along with the gratitude.
So yes, remembering what I told that poor man how lost his wife, it is ok to be angry with God.
It demonstrates our trust in God. It’s a way of being in relationship with God. You don’t hold back when you’re talking to someone you love and trust. You say how you’re feeling. You ask for what you need.
So despite also the example of this long prayer from Jeremiah, our prayers don’t have to be long and wordy. You don’t even need to use words at all. Sometimes all we can manage is just to sit there quietly with those feelings we have, holding all our hurts and worries—whatever they are for you—honestly before God.
Trusting that God loves us more than we will ever know—at least on this side—and God is always there with us.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol PA.
 “Lament, an essential spiritual practice for our violent times,” https://revlisad.com/2019/08/07/lament-an-essential-spiritual-practice-for-our-violent-times/, Aug. 7, 2019. Accessed June 23, 2023.