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Beyond Complaint: When Lament Leads to Praise

Before experiencing a personal tragedy, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff had abstract answers to one of the hardest questions of faith: why do God’s people suffer? But the abstract answers he worked out in philosophical proofs were of little use to him when his own adult son, Eric, died in a tragic accident. Wolterstorff writes in his book Lament for a Son, “The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question.”

Theodicy is a philosophical notion to describe what believers do in the face of suffering: we try defending God’s goodness. But if we’re honest with ourselves, it can be hard to reconcile God’s love and our pain. Wolterstorff’s questions for God are as old as Habakkuk’s. Why don’t you answer us when we pray? Why don’t you deliver us from trouble when we ask? How can you be good and let evil prevail?

In many ways, Habakkuk’s complaints belong in the long tradition of the prayers of lament preserved in the book of Psalms. In chapter 1:5–11, we hear the first of God’s answers, although we quickly learn that they do not settle Habakkuk’s doubts. The prophet poses more questions, offers more complaints. And never does God scold him for his doubts or fears.

“The righteous person will live by his faithfulness,” God assures the prophet (2:4). Habakkuk’s wrestling with the problem of evil, in this case that “the wicked hem in the righteous” (1:4), and his honest conversation with God reveal an unexpected quality of faith. Faith isn’t the absence of doubt, as we might think. Rather, faith is the practice of honestly and persistently moving toward God in the dark. We don’t get more faith in order to pretend that we don’t doubt; we get more faith to grow closer to God.

Apply the Word

Like Habakkuk, the psalms of lament move from complaint to praise. If you are struggling with doubts or despair in this season of your life, spend some time reading the psalms of lament. (A few examples are Psalms 13, 22, 42, 69, and 88.) It can be deeply reassuring that we can pray as honestly as these prayers in Scripture teach us to pray.

BY Jennifer Michel

Jen Pollock Michel is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. Her first book, Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith, is published by InterVarsity Press. Jen earned her BA in French from Wheaton College and her MA in Literature from Northwestern University. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and five children, and serves on staff at Grace Toronto Church.

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