why lament?: how suffering precedes joy

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Great joy often accompanies birth and resurrection. I find it interesting that birth precedes death, and death precedes resurrection. Joy and grief, or life and death, are inextricably tied together, and we can’t fully appreciate one without the other. Expressions of greatest joy in the Bible are often found in stories with themes of birth and resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus and the little girl in Mark 5; the birth of babies, particularly to barren women (barrenness is like a death that precedes birth); and then of course, the birth and resurrection of Jesus. To be joy-filled people, we have to reckon with death. When we have a joy problem, we likely also have a grief problem. 
Last night I attended an event put on by a local organization called Threaded. Threaded helps people, churches, and other organizations with issues related to racial reconciliation. Once a quarter, they have an event called “Reconcile,”where people from all different churches, denominations, races, and ethnicities come together to practice listening to and sharing diverse perspectives. They provided guiding questions that we used in our table discussions. Among other principles, they have a step based on the ideas of lament and confession, but the goal at the end is that it would all lead to rejoicing. Rejoicing is a natural byproduct of reconciliation done well. This is an example of lament as a necessary precursor to rejoicing, just as death is a necessary precursor to resurrection.
We usually think about grief and lament as the result of a loss of a loved one or the loss of some thing, which is certainly not wrong. However, we also need to make space to lament that life is not as it ought to be.* In the case of racial reconciliation, this is an important idea — the acknowledgement that things are not how they were meant to be or how God intended. The book of Genesis describes the garden of Eden, before sin. Revelation 21:1-5 says, 
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” 
With Genesis and Revelation, we see these bookends in the Bible of the way things are meant to be. The world started out the way God intended and will eventually be restored and made new. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has set eternity in our hearts. Deep down, we have a sense for the way things are supposed to be. It’s easy for us to be aware, even if subconsciously, that the world is broken, along with other people and ourselves. Lament is the appropriate response to the discrepancy between the reality versus the picture we have in the Bible and in our own hearts of how God intended for things to be.
As Christians, and especially in the western Evangelical Christian world, we focus heavily on salvation. Individual salvation is exalted as being more important than anything else in the Christian life. This is problematic because it leaves out a full, wholistic picture of the Gospel: way God created the world to be, the fall and the brokenness, and then the eventual restoration when God creates the new heaven and earth.**
Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven and says that it is not some distant future but is now:
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
–Matthew 4:17
I used to be confused about what that meant. Even in the Lord’s prayer, we pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I’m realizing that the Kingdom of God right now points to our work as believers: to allow God, through us, to restore things to the way God intended them to be. That restoration won’t be complete until God creates the new heaven and new earth. However, God uses the time we are born into, our experiences, resources, talents, strengths, and weaknesses to position us in a place where we can be restorers here and now, in very specific ways. That might look like restoring relationships, broken and oppressive systems, physical health, mental health, the environment, or restoring dignity to people who have been marginalized and oppressed. 
The specific ways we are called to be restorers are often tied to the areas of our lives where we have experienced the deepest pain and lament. The things that grieve our hearts the way that they grieve God’s tend to be the areas where we get to be restorers for other people. These are the places where we have the greatest empathy and compassion for others. 

Consider when we hear testimonies from people who have been in really hard places. Maybe they have experienced compete healing and freedom, or maybe they’re still in hard places but have learned how to walk through it with Emmanuel, God with us, and have learned to find joy in the midst of suffering. Sometimes the greatest joy we’ll hear these people speak about is when they get to a point that they are healed enough spiritually (maybe circumstances haven’t changed but they have been healed spiritually) that they get to be restorers and compassionate helpers to other people who are walking through similar trials. Ultimately, acknowledging and working through our own deep pain and suffering can lead to the greatest joy and fulfillment because that’s what we were made for. We were made to be reconcilers, just as Jesus reconciled us to Himself.

*…and yet, undaunted by Paula Rinehart and Connally Gilliam is a brand new book that explores this idea further. You can preorder it on Amazon here

**The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons was hugely instrumental in walking me through this idea and what it means to be a restorer.
Questions to consider:

  1. Where have you been? Think about times of your greatest joy and greatest pain and notice the timing. Do joy and grief seem to go together or is it more of a cycle? Do you see any patterns?
  2. Where are you right now? Are you experiencing joy, grief, apathy? What has put you in that place?
  3. How have you experienced healing, if you have?  
  4. OR what’s hard about right now? If you’re in the middle of it and it’s still raw, make space for yourself to be in that place.
  5. What is the healing that you have experienced and desire most for other people to experience?
  6. What do you notice in the world that grieves you the most?
  7. What are some specific places where you see that? In yourself, a friend or family member, a community? How have you been or could you be a restorer in that situation?
  8. What has given you or would give you the greatest joy with regard to this pain?

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