Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Learning the Language of Biblical Lament

Leslie Basham: Sarah Vroegop clearly remembers the day when the thing she feared most happened.

Sarah Vroegop: It was the last week that I thought that I would be pregnant. It was a Sunday night and we had both fallen asleep. It was about midnight that I just woke up. I wasn’t in pain, but something just didn’t feel right inside of my body, inside my heart. I just knew something was not right.

So I got up and I spent the entire night, until about 5 a.m., trying to get the baby to move—just doing everything that I could think of to get Baby to move. By 5 a.m., I was not successful. At that point I began to panic. I had spent a lot of time throughout the night praying and pleading with the Lord.

About 5 a.m. I woke up Mark and I said, “I’ve been up all night. I’ve been trying to get the baby to move, and I can’t get the baby to move. Something does not seem right!”

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Surrender, for April 16, 2019.

We’re not supposed to lament, right? Isn’t that wrong? Aren’t we supposed to be joyful all the time? We’re about to explore these questions with Mark Vroegop. He’s been on Revive Our Hearts before with his wife Sarah, whom we just heard from. Mark Vroegop is lead pastor of College Park Church in the Indianapolis area and a good friend to Revive Our Hearts. Let’s listen.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Mark, as we were listening to that clip that we aired several years ago on Revive Our Hearts, I heard you take a deep breath—just a sigh. I know that brings back unbelievable memories for you. Though it’s now been fifteen years since that experience, you don’t forget it, do you?

Pastor Mark Vroegop: No, you don’t. Someone compared loss like an amputation: It heals, but you have something that’s missing in your life. To hear my wife’s voice and have the recollection of what that moment was like, there’s a flood of emotions—both of gratitude for God’s faithfulness, but also the reality is, life is really hard.

Nancy: And that five o’clock in the morning conversation was the start of a really hard, dark journey for you and Sarah. We’ve talked about it before on Revive Our Hearts, but give us kind of an overview of what happened in those next hours.

Mark: After my wife told me that something was wrong, I immediately fell to my knees and just cried out to the Lord. I said, “Lord, please, not this!” I was just sensing that we needed His help, and also, there was a great level of fear of what might be in front of us.

Eventually, we made our way to the hospital, and it was confirmed that our daughter inside the womb had passed away. She had died. We were just a few days before delivery. Then my poor wife had to go through delivering a child that wasn’t alive but fully formed. Sylvia was her name, and she weighed nine pounds.

That set us into a long journey of grief that was just unbelievable, and yet, also very, very instructive. It shaped our understanding of ministry, of loss, and also what it really means to lament.

Nancy: It was one major part of a series of losses that you and Sarah experienced in relation to childbearing.

Mark: Yes, little did we know that was only the beginning! One of the scariest things about grief is the fear that it won’t go away or that something will happen again. There were multiple miscarriages, a false positive pregnancy, moments when, frankly, we wondered, God, are You mean? What is going on?

And then, all of the emotions connected with that we’re trying to think through, knowing that God isn’t mean. But when you’re in the midst of a dark valley of suffering, there are just really challenging questions that emerge. And then, what do you do with those?

Nancy: Mark, you and Sarah were not only walking through your own grief, your own heaviness of heart, but you’re also a pastor. You were shepherding people who were hurting, conducting funerals. You’re walking with others through their grief. So you’re dealing with your own pain, but also having to shepherd others through theirs.

Mark: Yes, that the was great irony and really one of the most substantial pains—trying to figure out every week how do I care for hurting people, officiate at funerals, celebrate the birth of living children, and also deal with this nagging sense of grief that was just raging within my soul.

Grief is not tame, and it’s not linear. Trying to figure out how to navigate our way through this wilderness was a complicated and, frankly, messy activity for us.

Nancy: I’ve heard you tell about a night when you had a prayer time at your church (I’m not sure I’m describing it, exactly). But you gave opportunity for people to come and share their lament and their prayer of lament (we’re going to talk more about that this week).

That night, it seemed like there were a number of women who were dealing with empty cribs, with empty arms, with unfulfilled hopes or dreams as it related to childbearing. And I think a lot of our listeners can relate to that.

Mark: For sure, yes! I mean, the pains of life are innumerable, but in particular the pain connected to the desire for children, the loss of children. That’s part of our story. As we began to talk about this, people from all walks of life (in terms of pain) came out of the woodwork . . . but especially those who have walked through difficult seasons related to miscarriage and infertility or failed adoptions.

In the context of a prayer gathering with our staff, I invited them to just come to a middle of a circle and to read a lament they had written to the Lord about what kind of pains they were working through. It was a remarkable moment of just candor and gut-level honesty.

For example, one person said, “How long, O Lord, will You forget me? How long will You withhold the blessing of a child from us? How long will we cry to You? How many more days, months, or years will pass with our arms remaining empty? How much longer will we struggle to rejoice with those who rejoice—while we sit, weeping? But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because He has dealt bountifully with me. Thank You, Father!” (parts are taken from Psalm 13)

Nancy: And that’s quite a progression there. We’re going to talk about the progression of lament, as found in many of the psalms. But sometimes I think we have this understanding of Christianity, of the gospel, that it means when we go through these crises, that there’s no place for that gut-wrenching, heartfelt, deep agonizing pain and grief.

And maybe some in our churches are going through that feel like they don’t have a safe place to express that because we’re, after all, supposed to “rejoice in all things.” (see 1 Thess. 5:16) And we have Christ! So, is there, maybe, this unspoken sense that we’re not supposed to grieve or lament?

We’re supposed to “bigger than that.” We’re supposed to be able to have peace in the midst of that. How do you start to reconcile these things?

Mark: Yes, I think that for sure is the experience of many people who are walking through deep pain. They struggle with two ditches: Either the despair ditch, which is, “I can’t do this, and I might not even be a Christian because of the things that I’m wrestling with.” They have a real crisis of faith or denial. And the other ditch is people who just pretend as though everything is okay.

And part of that is just because if a person who is grieving is gut-level honest about what they’re really wrestling with—and even some of their questions about God’s purposes—invariably, most people (at least in my experience) who are not grieving are either very uncomfortable with that or they send pretty clear cues that either: (a) “I don’t want you to talk this way,” or (b) “I’m not even sure it’s appropriate for you to be feeling this.” And yet, the grieving person is feeling that!

And so, there is this undercurrent assumption, I think, within many of our churches, our music, and our writing that we have to be happy. We have to be triumphant.

And, granted, we want to end in a place where we are triumphant and we are rejoicing. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, “How do you get there?” I think not a lot of people understand what that journey can look like biblically.

Nancy: Did you find as you and Sarah were walking through your valley and your loss that there were those who struggled to understand how deeply you felt this?

Mark: Oh, for sure, yes. And I don’t blame them. It’s part of the internal grief—at a different level—when either people move on (which is understandable) and you’re left with this lonely wound that you’re trying to figure out how to navigate through, or there’s this just a foreboding sense that people don’t fundamentally understand. It puts you in a pretty lonely position. But I think the Scriptures can speak into that, and there is a language for those kind of moments if we’ll embrace it.

Nancy: I would think that you and Sarah minister differently to friends, loved ones, church members since walking through this journey, or as you have been walking through this journey, than you did before you had that experience.

Mark: Yes, and in a way, frankly, that at one level I just am profoundly thankful to the Lord for. We’ve often said, “I’m glad the Lord didn’t give us a choice between a living child and all the lessons we’ve learned!” because I know I would have chosen a living child.

Nancy: Of course.

Mark: And yet, the loss of our daughter and the subsequent issues really taught us how to walk with grieving and hurting people and what it’s like just to be silent and be okay with that.

As people understood either our story or our journey, just even our presence was meaningful. The message wasn’t through what we said. It was by sitting next to them on the mourning bench and just being near and being close. I think that’s part of what this grief helped to teach us: “How do you communicate to hurting and grieving people in a way that really speaks to their soul . . . sometimes without even speaking?”

Nancy: I’ve known you and Sarah all these years and watched you not only go through this, but watched God redeem it in your lives and bring beauty out of things that looked like they had no beauty attached to them.

But that really was the beginning of a journey for you and Sarah in this whole thing called “lament.” It feels like a really old-fashioned word. That’s not an everyday word that we use in our Christian language. But now you’ve written a book on the subject of lament.

This is a new book. I don’t know if it’s going to be a huge bestseller (because how many people go online and say, “Oh, I’d like to find a book on ‘lament!’”). But it’s something that at some point in our lives, every one of us needs this concept, this understanding, of lament.

Mark: It is, because life is filled with all kinds of sorrows and pains. If you live long enough, you’re going to suffer. And when you suffer, and if you’re a follower of Jesus, you need to land in trusting God’s purposes and in His sovereignty. But how do you get there?

I think lament is the language that helps you move from the poles of a hard life to trusting in God’s sovereignty. I also think that anybody can cry. To cry is human. We enter the world by crying, but to lament is inherently Christian.

So I think there is not only a place for helping people to know how to deal with their grief, but also realizing that of all the people on Earth who ought to know how to lament, it ought to be people who know the redemptive arc of biblical history and the fact that we’re waiting for the King of kings to come and end all of our pain so that there will be no more lament!

Nancy: Amen! Amen! Let it come!

Mark: Amen!

Nancy: So, Mark help us. What’s the difference between just natural crying in a time of difficulty and Christian lament?

Mark: By definition, “lament” is a prayer in pain that leads to trust. Crying is simply expressing sorrow . . . and there’s nothing wrong with the expression of sorrow. Our world is filled with all sorts of issues where we’re mourning various losses.

But what Christian lament is, is taking that pain and talking to God about it for the purpose of seeing it as a platform for worship, as opposed to a pit of despair that I’m going to linger in. And so, what lament is, it’s a biblical language that allows us to move through our pain while talking to God. We are reinforcing what we believe to be true, and also being gut-level honest about how much this hurts!

Nancy: And the language of lament, as you explain in this book, is drawn largely from the Scripture—the psalms. When we think of the psalms, my first thought is, This is praise. This is thanksgiving. This is lifting up worship to the Lord. And that’s true.

But I wasn’t aware until I read it in your book, that a third of the psalms (that’s approximately fifty of the psalms) are lament psalms. Was that a surprising discovery to you?

Mark: Yes, a surprising discovery to me and to nearly every person whom I talk to about the psalms. Because Psalms is a go-to book for when we’re hurting, or when your soul just feels worn down. You go there and you immediately assume, just like you did, that it’s about praise and thanksgiving . . . and it certainly is.

And yet, at least a third of the psalms that are lament. Some argue that upwards of 50 percent of the psalms have some sort of lament category internal to that particular psalm. It just helps us to see that life is not only filled with hardship. But if we think about it, some of our best moments of worship, some of our best moments of trust, have come in the darkest valleys.

So it just makes sense that the Bible would speak into the darkest of dark moments. When you see that is there, it helps you to know what to pray, how to pray, and gives you a great deal of hope. It explains what it was that you were going through that, at the time, you probably didn’t have a category for.

Nancy: One of the earliest psalms of lament in the psalm book is Psalm 13. I wonder if you’d just read that psalm for us. We’ve probably heard it before, but it’s probably not the first one we go to when we’re hurting.

I think it illustrates so beautifully and poignantly the freedom we have to (and maybe the duty) in our times of dealing with injustice or pain or things not being right in this world to be honest with God as the psalmist was. So this is a prayer; it’s a prayer of lament. Just to give us a feel for that category of psalms in the Scripture, would you read that for us?

Mark: I’m happy to. It’s one of my favorites.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; [lift] up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Ps. 13:1–6).

Nancy: That’s Psalm 13, and in just the space of six verses there, we go from—count ’em—one, two, three, four, “how longs?” “How long, O Lord?” That’s this crisis of faith; this, “I don’t know if I can endure this any longer! When are You going to do something about this situation?”

You read about sleeping the sleep of death, enemies prevailing, foes rejoicing, being shaken. That’s the crisis. And then it turns the corner and, before he’s done this prayer, he’s come to trusting in the steadfast love of God.

Tomorrow we’re going to unpack some of the ingredients, the components, in these psalms of lament. But I think, just for the moment, to point out that these things—this honest crying out to the Lord and this steadfast hope in the Lord—can coexist, that they can be in the same heart and in the same prayer.

Mark: They not only can coexist, they should coexist. Because in their coexistence, they actually platform something really beautiful about Christianity, which is: in the midst of the darkest moment, there are equal truths that simply exist next to one another.

“Hard is really hard!” And yet, hard is not bad. “My life is not what I expected it to be!” And yet, God is so incredibly good! That’s why the word “but” . . . every lament turns on a word like that: “This is all true . . . but God is good!” “This is really hard . . . but God is faithful.”

Nancy: What happens if we skip the, “This is really hard” part? What happens if we try to just force ourselves or others to jump to the, “I trust in Your mercy, Your steadfast love,” but we don’t take time to voice the lament part? What does that do to us?

Mark: I think that it makes the level of trust that we’re really able to experience shallow compared to when you’re able to plumb the depths of your pain and to realize that, “Every depth of what I’ve felt, God is able to meet me there! There’s no place that pain can lead me that Jesus can’t show up in!”

I think the more honest we are . . . and, frankly, those aren’t surprising words to God. Our honesty doesn’t take Him by surprise, doesn’t inform Him about anything, but it reminds me, “God can go the distance with me in my pain!”

That’s one of the things people want to know. Is there hope not just for today, but is there hope for the next number of years? Because what happens if this happens again, or what happens if this gets worse!? By going to a point where we are able to really voice the depth of our pain, we’re able to find that even then God shows up and can meet our needs. We can trust Him!

Nancy: You’ve called your book on lament Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament. The “dark clouds and deep mercy” concept came from a book about lament called Lamentations, there in our Old Testament.

And you see the two, the dark clouds and the deep mercy, juxtaposed together—even as you do in this psalm. Just talk about in your own experience how the dark clouds and the deep mercy come together.

Mark: The beautiful thing about the book of Lamentations is that it’s a memorial that is meant to remind us that, even when the worst-of-the-worst happens . . . When in Israel’s case Jerusalem is sacked, the temple is ruined, the people have been put into exile, when those dark clouds loom, that’s when Jeremiah pronounces, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam. 3:22).

And in this case, in Lamentations, it’s not only circumstantial or grief that’s been caused unrelated to people’s sin issues. In Lamentations, it’s actually a direct connection—the brokenness of the world, the brokenness of the nation, has now created this moment.

Even when we’ve created our own grief, when we’ve created our own calamity, even still God’s steadfast love, His mercy, never ceases! That’s where that “dark cloud, deep mercy” juxtaposition is really important for us to think about as we make our way through difficult moments.

Some of these moments have been caused by our own sinfulness, some of which are caused by the sinfulness of the world, and some of which are just part of what it means to be a human being living in a world that’s tragically affected by the consequences of sin.

Nancy: And yet, that is being redeemed by a God of deep mercy.

You may find yourself today in a place of dark clouds and not sure where to turn, how to cry out, how to express the pain you’re feeling. Or you may have friends or family members, church members, people in your workplace who are themselves under dark clouds, and you’re not sure how to minister grace to them.

This is a really helpful resource. It’s a topic we don’t talk enough about, and I want to encourage you to read Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy and to discover the grace of lament. We’re going to talk more about that on the next program, how lament can be a means of grace in our lives.

We’d love to send you a copy of Pastor Mark’s book on lament as our way of saying “thank you” when you make a donation of any amount to supportthe ministry of Revive Our Hearts. Day after day, part of our ministry is helping discouraged or distressed believers experience the deep mercy of God. And your support at this time helps to make that ministry possible.

You can make a donation by giving us a call at 1–800–569–5959, or you can visit us online at ReviveOurHearts.com. When you send your gift, be sure and tell us that you’d like to have a copy of Pastor Mark’s book on lament.

As Pastor Mark learned, lament is a journey, it’s a process, and as we read the psalms we find that there are components, or stages, of lament. Be sure and join us tomorrow for Revive Our Hearts when we talk more about that journey of lament.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is helping you learn how to handle trials. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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