Processing Our Pain in the Presence of God
Many of the psalms in the Bible are prayers of people who are processing their pain in the presence of God. Sometimes this pain is caused by others. Sometimes life has just fallen apart. In most cases, the pain is compounded by the reality that God hasn’t done anything to help them; they feel abandoned by God. The suffering person of faith puts the situation well in Psalm 22:
“My, my God, why have you forsaken?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress? (v.1)
The person goes on to complain that she is crying out for help, but God doesn’t respond; all of which is making for many sleepless nights (v.2).
What we discover in these psalms is that the only way to get beyond the pain is to name it in the presence of the one who can take away its debilitating power eventually: “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30.6).
My mother did not have anyone with whom she could process her pain. I wonder if having no one to listen to her precipated her psychological breakdown when I was 23. As my late dad described it, “One night she woke up in the middle of the night screaming that people were out to get her.” From that point on, she lived in another reality. I wonder if leaving this world for another was the only way to get beyond her pain.
If we don’t process our pain, we will pursue unhelpful ways to numb the pain. Some of us will self-medicate with sex, drugs and alcohol. Some of us will engage in endless activity to distract ourselves from the pain. Some of us will focus on all the great things that have happened to us in an attempt to deny the pain. None of it will work. If we don’t process the pain, we will be forever enslaved to its power.
Unfortunately, my mother did not have anyone with whom she could process her pain. My dad, for all his admirable qualities, did not have the capacity to listen to her pain. Part of the problem was my mother herself. Because she had not faced the pain in her own life, including the trauma of her dad’s sudden death when she was 17 and a brother who probably abused her, she was incapable of giving us the permission to face our own pain. Acknowledging our pain would have forced her to acknowledge her own pain and that was just too threatening.
If we don’t give voice to our pain, we will never get beyond it. Some of us will need a therapist to do this; some of us will simply need a friend who knows how to listen. Most of us will need to discover again and again that expressing our pain is the only road to freedom.
We need to bring our pain and heartache to others, but we also need to bring it to God. Here are two suggestions for how you might bring you pain to God. First, choose a lament from the psalter and make it your prayer. What if you prayed Ps 22 as if it were you? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You might discover that like the psalmist you also have felt abandoned by God. You might become aware that like the psalmist you are also wondering why God isn’t responding to your cries for help. Secondly, you might try writing your own lament to God. If you do so, try to be honest with God about how you really feel. Don’t sugar coat anything. You may be surprised what comes up inside of you.
The extraordinary thing about the psalms is that with one exception (Ps 88), the one who laments is also the person who eventually gives thanks and praise: “ I will declare your name to the my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (Ps 22.21). This isn’t a magic formula for feeling better. It is a way to bring ourselves to the God who can take our pain and transform it.