When pain almost strangles us, and darkness is our closest friend, what should we do?
For years, I thought the best response was cheerful acceptance. Since God uses everything for our good and his glory, I felt the most God-honoring attitude was to appear joyful all the time. Even when I was confused and angry. Even when my heart was breaking. And especially when I was around people who didn’t know Christ.
But I have since learned the beauty of lament in my suffering. Lament highlights the gospel more than stoicism ever could. Hearing our authentic, God-honoring lament can draw others to God in unexpected ways. I first noticed the power of lament in the book of Ruth.
Naomi’s Trust in God
I had long seen Ruth as the undisputed hero of the book that bears her name, and Naomi as the grumbling character with weak faith and a negative attitude. But having walked myself in similar shoes now for a fraction of her journey, I have a new respect for the depth of Naomi’s trust in God. Ruth was an eyewitness to Naomi’s faith. She saw her faith hold fast, even in horrific circumstances. And behind Naomi’s faith, she saw the God who heard Naomi’s lament and didn’t condemn her for it, even as Naomi spoke frankly about her disappointment with God.
Lamenting to a god would have been foreign to Ruth. Ruth’s first god, the god of Moab, was Chemosh. No one would have dared lament or complain to him. Pagan gods were to be appeased; there was no personal relationship with any of them, especially not with Chemosh, who demanded child sacrifices.
But Ruth sees a completely different God as she watches Naomi. Naomi trusts God enough to tell him how she feels. Though she says, “The hand of the Lord has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13), Naomi doesn’t walk away from God in anger. She stays close to him and continues to use God’s covenant name, Yahweh, asking him to bless her daughters-in-law. Naomi doesn’t stop praying; she believes God hears her prayers.
Naomi’s trust is further evidenced by her determination to travel to Bethlehem alone. If Naomi felt that God had truly abandoned her, she never would have begun that journey. She would have stayed in bed, pulled the covers over her head, and died in Moab, bitter and angry at God. But she doesn’t do that. She acts in faith, trusting that God will provide for her.
Naomi’s trust is extraordinary given the tragedies she has endured. She and her husband had left Israel for Moab with their two sons in search of food. While they were there, her sons and husband died, and she was left alone. A widow. A grieving mother. A foreigner. With no means to support herself.
I understand why she felt that the Lord’s hand had gone out against her. In my own pain, I have cried out to God, “Why do you hate me?” I have retraced my life, wondering why God had turned against me.
Naomi’s Honesty with God
But to my regret, I’ve always been very private about my pain. I have hesitated to voice my anger and fears, concerned about what others might think. Lament can be messy, and I want my life to look neat. And I foolishly think my bleached prayers somehow make God look better.
Naomi is achingly honest. When she goes back to her hometown, she doesn’t pretend everything is fine. She doesn’t cram her pain into a closet and shut the door. Rather, she invites others to peer into the dark corners of her bitterness and frustration. She asserts that God has dealt bitterly with her and has brought calamity upon her. She admits that she is empty.
Her words may have made the townspeople uncomfortable. Laments often do. But her humility and utter honesty also would have drawn people to her. They could grieve with her. And they could grieve their own losses too, without fearing God’s disapproval or the judgment of others.
Naomi’s words are raw, but she speaks truthfully about God. She acknowledges that he is in control of all things, and everything is ultimately from him. Her theology is profoundly God-centered and God-honoring. Underlying Naomi’s lament is a deep trust and understanding of God. She is not resentful of God, and has not turned away from him. Quite the opposite, Naomi is moving towards God with honesty. She has returned to Bethlehem, to the people of God, and is realistically presenting what happened to her.
Lament That Glorifies God
It is in the midst of Naomi’s pain and lament that Ruth comes to know God. Ruth gives up everything to follow Naomi and her God, the God whom she has come to know personally as Yahweh. She sees his faithfulness through Naomi, a woman who has experienced unspeakable tragedy, yet continues to follow God, talking to him honestly and authentically. This is a God worthy of worship.
Our authenticity draws others to God as it enables them to be honest too. God welcomes our lament to help us hold to him. He knows that our tendency is either to pretend everything is okay (while we suffocate on the inside), or walk away from God, believing he doesn’t care.
Lamenting keeps us engaged with God. When we lament, we invite God into our pain, so that we can know his comfort, and so that others can see that our faith is real. Our faith is not a façade we erect to convince ourselves and others that pain doesn’t hurt. Rather, it is an oak tree that can withstand the storms of doubt and pain in our lives, and grow stronger through them.
Godly lament does not repel people from the gospel, but instead draws them to our Lord; it strengthens rather than destroys the faith of others. When we live authentically, we naturally draw others to God’s grace. Naomi’s pain and bitterness could have pushed Ruth away from God, as Ruth saw Naomi struggle with God’s goodness. But instead Ruth saw that Naomi’s hope — even through catastrophic loss — was in a sovereign God who was loving enough to hear and respond to her lament.
And we can see that God did hear Naomi’s lament and respond to it. He gave her Ruth. He gave her Boaz. He gave her a grandson, Obed, who was in the line of Christ. And he gave her himself, for that is what her heart needed most.
As Jesus promised us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).