Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament
Book Review (Mark Vroegop)
This is a book that I had downloaded as a free gift from TGC1, but it wasn’t until a friend shared a sermon, in which the preacher mentioned this as the best book on lament they had read, that I decided to open it up.
Also, I have discovered what I like most in a Tier-2 Christian book. If it’s 2-300 pages, 10-12 chapters, 3 parts, and a mix of theology and practice, with good readability, then I can devour it quickly and enjoyably.
Anyway, on to this book!
The book falls into, you guessed it, three parts. Vroegop begins with his own personal journey into this topic, which involves significant tragedy in life, and then brings us into the topic proper.
Learning to Lament
What’s the difference between just crying about something, and ‘lament’ as a biblical category? The author makes the case that lament is a learned practice, and that:
every lament is a prayer. A statement of faith. Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.
I think that’s a helpful starting place. In these first four chapters the author takes us through several psalms, showing us the four key, repeated elements of lament literature, and how they form a kind of structure or pattern for the journey of lament itself. They are turn, complain, ask, trust.
Here he begins with Psalm 77, and simply put the first aspect of lament is that in pain or sorrow we turn to God. It’s for this reason that lament is an expression of trust and relationship. Only if we believe in God, believe he can do something, and believe that he is good, would we bother to turn to God. It’s why lament psalms begin so often with the appeal to God. What’s the alternative? To turn away from God, to turn to silence, to simply groan without direction. Lament trains us to turn to God and speak honestly and openly to him about our struggles and questions, and to do so in a way that helps work through those in relationship to the God who is good and powerful.
Step 2 is “godly complaint”.
Stacey Gleddiesmith provides a helpful explanation: “A lament honestly and specifically names a situation or circumstance that is painful, wrong, or unjust— in other words, a circumstance that does not align with God’s character and therefore does not make sense within God’s kingdom.”
To hark back to something I read much earlier, lament exists precisely because something is wrong in the world. And it’s the appeal to God in the midst of wrongness, for things to be set right.2 So the complaint of lament is laying out exactly what we perceive to be wrong (even if we are wrong about it). This often includes the interaction between the circumstances of the world, and the character of God.
In this way (the book doesn’t say this, this is just me), lament is kind of working out the specifics of the problem of evil: If God is good, powerful, and this particular evil exists, how can this situation exist?
The author provides some useful advice on how to complain in a healthy way though. This includes coming humbly, using scriptural language to guide us, being honest, and finally not staying in complaint. This was important - the point of lament is to move through these elements, not just to complain to God endlessly. That doesn’t help us, and devolves into grumbling.
Lament isn’t supposed to terminate in complaining, but precisely because it’s an expression of trust, it moves to asking. Vroegop notes here how the psalms so often turn at a hinge point with “but” or “yet”, and an appeal to God’s who. That is, part of the paradox is that God is known as good, faithful, kind, compassionate. So the request portion of lament is predicated on asking God to act in alignment with his revealed character.
One thing I enjoyed in this section is that the author catalogued nine different types of request. Different circumstances call for different requests. The grief at someone’s death occasions a different petition, to that for dealing with the consequences of one’s own sins, or community division, and so on. I also appreciated the emphasis in this section on the boldness or confidence of the request, as well as writing about how often it’s when we are walking with someone else through sorrow that we can boldly ask for what they no longer can.
The last element of lament is the expression of trust. Psalm 13:5 captures this so well, “But I have trusted in your hesed”. Once more, lament itself is an expression of faith, even when occasioned by doubt. It’s a choice to trust, and to practice “active patience”.3
Trust is believing what you know to be true even though the facts of suffering might call that belief into question. Lament keeps us turning toward trust by giving us language to step into the wilderness between our painful reality and our hopeful longings.
In particular, I found it helpful to be reminded that the expressions of trust in lament as anticipatory. They are connected to what God has done, is doing, and will do, and look forward to future praise.
I don’t recall if the author talks about this at all, but one thing I think we ought to guard against is the notion that lament, with a four-step structure, is somehow ‘wonderfully therapeutic’. That is, “do these four steps and you’ll feel a lot better about it”. I do think there is something therapeutic about lament, but it’s entirely possible to lament and not feel any better at all, and that’s okay because this isn’t a psychological tool per se. It’s about holding in tension faith and sorrow, and wrestling with that in honest prayer. That’s what’s healthy about lament.
Learning from Lament
Part two of this book turns to the book of Lamentations to consider the ways in which lament actually teaches us. This includes reflections on how all evil and suffering are, in an ultimate sense, the result of sin and the world’s fallen estate; the uncovering of idols; on the nature and orientation of hope; and the redemptive purposes of God. There’s plenty of good things in this section, but I don’t feel a need to belabour it for you.
Of all the things in here that resonated personally, I think the most profound was drawn from Lamentations 3:25-27, and the notion that “it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord”. The idea that the waiting itself is good is a hard thing to hear, but offers a profound redemptive hope that not only the eventual setting right, but even the waiting for things to be set right, is its own kind of good thing for us.
Living with Lament
Two chapters round out the book proper, in applying lament in individual and corporate practice. There’s some really good advice for how individuals can learn to practice lament, including in different circumstances, as well as corporately in the church and in groups.
From this section I want to share a few of things I found helpful to think about.
Grief, upon death: I think I’ve finally formulated what I’ve been trying to get at in a few posts now. That, on the one hand our broader secularising culture has a deep denial of death, and distancing and partitioning of death; on the other hand, there’s a certain vein of Christian triumphalism that has an over-realised eschatology, that replaces “we grieve, but not as others do”, with “don’t grieve, be happy because resurrection”.
Vroegop quotes Wolterstorff’s poignant lines:
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on mourning bench.”
Lament helps us frame the journey of grief at the death of a loved one, and helps us recognise the wrongness of death, without skipping over glibly to celebrate the life that was or the life that is to come.4
Aloneness: How do you grieve alone, when the world around you is smiles? I appreciate that Vroegop takes some time to think through and write pastorally on this topic. When church is a place of joy, to bring your private sorrows there is a lonely place.
Community: Perhaps this is the other side, but Vroegop also explores quite a few dimensions of corporate lament, but my most encouraging take away was how the context of small groups can give just the right amount of close, intimate support to share and grieve deeply with those in sorrow, as a discipline of grace.
Four helpful appendices round out the book. These include identifying 20 different ‘complaints’ in Scripture, categorizing the psalms of lament, a worksheet for writing and applying lament yourself including ‘worked examples’, and another catalogue of those ‘turning points’ in the psalms.
I’m pretty positive about this book, I think it does what it sets out to do quite well. And, while lament seems to be a ‘trendy’ topic, I don’t think that’s bad because I think the tradition of the Western church for 2000 years has been, for the most part, to inadequately develop a robust approach to emotions, and lament in particular. This is something worth reclaiming for people.
There is gospel and Jesus in this book, but what there isn’t a lot of is “reading this psalm through Christ’s voice”, which I now think is a bit of a deficiency in how to read psalms as Christians. The author tends to move directly from “here is the pattern of lament, now you”, and I think this needed a bit more of a robust, “Jesus laments for us and with us, so that we lament in him and through him”.
I think Vroegop also hasn’t wrestled quite deeply enough with the imprecatory psalms. Vroegop’s line is kind of this: “sometimes we need to pray for justice against our enemies, and just being told to unconditionally forgive people doesn’t cut it”. I half-agree about the forgiveness side of it, but a more robust theology of forgiveness would land him in a place where one can extend a type of forgiveness that (i) upholds justice, (ii) is willing to see judicial punishments, (iii) deals with the problem of unrepentance. I also think that the only way out of the conundrum of the imprecatory psalms is to recognise that they too are spoken in the voice of Christ.
Lastly, this isn’t limited to Vroegop, but I have rarely seen the current crop of writing about lament really wrestle with the New Testament, the apparent absent of lament there, and how this interfaces with the good news of Jesus. I think it’s right to focus the study of lament on OT patterns, but I think truly Christian lament needs to consider what it means to have sorrow in light of the gospel.
The four-steps to lament approach is a really helpful analytic tool. You can take that and pick up a psalm and see how most of them work through that framework. I was reminded that it’s not exactly like one moves through these four ‘stages’ and then you’re done, move on with life. Nor are you meant to dwell in any particular stage. No, each time you come to ‘do’ lament, you ought to work through each step in your own context, turn-complain-ask-trust, and then as long as things remain wrong and broken, you keep coming back the next day or week or year or decade. As long as the paradox of a good and loving God alongside the suffering and sorrow of this world exists, lament is called for.
Just like the Lord’s Prayer is both to be prayed as is, and as a model, I think the psalms do the same - they are to be prayed as is (which is why they are often highly ‘generic’) and they form models for us. So we can pick up, say, Psalm 13 and pray it as it is, remembering that it is also Jesus’ prayer, and we should personalise the pattern, and make it our own.
Lastly, lament is a learned practice, as Vroegop reminds us a few times. We all innately cry, but we learn to do biblical lament as a discipline of trust in God. And as such, it’s also something we ought to and need to teach others, both to lament alongside others in grief, as well as helping others to lament well.
I feel like we ought to finish here with a song:
I think I get this from Brueggemann, possibly via Soong-Chan Rah.
Here the author is drawing on research by Rebekah Eklund.
I wonder if the backwards-looking element is better framed as thanksgiving rather than celebration. And the forward-looking as a joy in the midst of sorrow, not a joy that removes sorrow.