In Ruth chapter 1, upon the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons, her daughters-in-law request to continue living with her. But Naomi urges them not, saying, “No, my daughters, for it is more bitter for me than you that the hand of Yahweh has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). In light of this scene, Paul Miller comments:
Naomi makes us, with our Western cultural roots, a little nervous with her seeming disrespect of God. Yes, her life is hard, but should she blame God? Her open passion sends shivers down our stoic-tuned religious sensibilities, and we instinctively clamp down with our theology and say, “Naomi, God is orchestrating this. He’s in control. Don’t blame him.” Her grief and anger unsettle us and open doors to unbelief in our own lives. We’d rather quiet her with good theology. We think we’re comforting her, but maybe we’re trying to keep our own demons in place.
How does God respond to her accusations? In the context of the whole book of Ruth, Ruth’s love is God’s response to Naomi’s lament. God often uses human agents to show his love. So God weeps with her: “Then they lifted up their voices and wept again” (Ruth 1:14).
I remember many years ago at a pastors’ conference, a pastor opened up his heart and shared his struggles with cynicism and unbelief. He lamented, “What about me? What do I do with my heart?” The other pastors began offering advice—all except one missionary. He was so troubled, he interrupted them and said, “Our brother doesn’t need advice; he needs someone to weep with him.” Then he burst into tears and prayed for the struggling pastor. It transformed the conference.
What can we say to Naomi’s lament? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We just weep with her. That is good theology, to weep with those that weep. God does not lecture Naomi. Nor should we lecture those who are grieving. It is a striking example of Jesus’ command to “judge not” (Matt. 7:1). Oddly enough, good theology drives Naomi’s frustration with God. She feels anguish precisely because she believes God is in control. In contrast, paganism resigns itself to the hand that fate deals us.
It is easy to have the wrong kind of resignation to suffering. Years ago, our daughter Kim would pace in the early morning because of her autism. My wife, Jill, would yell at Kim to go back to bed, and I would ignore Kim, just trying to get some sleep. On the surface, Jill’s yelling seems less spiritual than my silence, but the opposite is true. Jill was passionately engaged with something that wasn’t working. I shut it out. God can work with the former, not the latter. He can work with something that is moving, but not when our head is (literally) under the pillow. In fact, it was only because Jill yelled that I finally began to pray with Kim regularly.
In the West, we’ve lost the practice of lamenting. In contrast, the ancient Hebrews were constantly in God’s face. About one third of the Psalms are laments:
“Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1)
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps. 22:1)
“How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Ps. 35:17)
“O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?” (Isaiah 63:17)
Such honesty seldom characterizes our praying. Our inability to lament is primarily due to the influence of the Greek mind on the early church. Greek Stoicism believed that the emotions—anything that interrupted the goal of a calm and balanced life—were bad. The passionate person was the immature person. Balance was everything. Naomi’s brokenness feels unbalanced, so instinctively we want to correct her tilt.
A lament grieves that the world is unbalanced. It grieves at the gap between reality and God’s promise. It believes in a God who is there, who can act in time and space. It doesn’t drift into cynicism or unbelief, but engages God passionately with what’s wrong.
Several pages later, Miller writes about Naomi’s complaint to God found in Ruth 1:20-21, where Naomi says, “Do not call me Pleasant; call me Bitter, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and Yahweh has brought me back empty. Why call me Pleasant, when Yahweh has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
In each stanza Naomi uses a different picture to convey her grief. In the first she compares herself to a clay jar; she left full and came back empty. In the second she uses the image of the law court, saying, “Yahweh has testified against me.” Not only is the Almighty her Judge, but he also witnesses against her. What recourse does she have when the court is stacked against her?
How do we sort this out? First, Naomi is being real, authentic. If she puts on a spiritual mask with God, she will be a hypocrite. God would no longer be accessible because the real Naomi would no longer be encountering the real God. Second, her faith in God drives her frustration with God. Because she believes that he is both good and powerful, she is in agony…
The church has not been particularly good at hearing laments from its broken people. Personally, I don’t like listening to laments. They are disorderly, unnerving. I like things tidy. Laments break the pattern of seemingly appropriate politeness to God. They feel out of balance.
When Jill and I were first married (we were eighteen and nineteen), she realized within six months that something was wrong with me. She wasn’t sure I was a Christian. Neither was I. I remember her lying in bed pouring her heart out in a desperate prayer for me. I hated her prayer. I recoiled from her outpouring of passion. Two years later God quietly changed my heart. God heard Jill’s lament.
Jill responded to my poverty of spirit with her own poverty of spirit. That’s what a lament does. That’s why I recoiled from it. The very thing I needed, poverty of spirit, was the shape of Jill’s lament. A lament puts us in an openly dependent position, where our brokenness reflects the brokenness of the world. It’s pure authenticity. Holding it in, not giving voice to the lament, can be a way of putting a good face on it. But to not lament puts God at arm’s length and has the potential splitting us. We appear okay, but we are really brokenhearted.
A lament functions like a mirror of the world. What is broken or out of balance is not the lament but the world. Motivated by clear seeing, a lament reacts to the mismatch between hope and reality, between heaven and earth…
Listening to a lament is a powerful way of loving someone who is suffering. By being present, by not correcting them or even offering our own unique brand of Christian encouragement (“It’s going to be all right–God’s in control.”), we give those who are grieving space to be themselves.
That doesn’t mean that Naomi’s judgment of God is correct. God is good and just. He will answer her frustration with more goodness. Naomi was interpreting God through the lens of her experience. She stopped in the middle of the story and measured God. A deeper faith waits until the end of the story and interprets experience through the lens of God’s faithfulness. Is this something we tell Naomi? No. It is what we tell ourselves. Good theology lets us endure quietly with someone else’s pain when all the pieces aren’t together. It acts like invisible faith-glue.
A lament fits God’s heart perfectly. God’s loves an open, honest heart, no matter how broken by life, even if theologically incorrect. How else could Jesus invite everyone who was weary and heavy laden to come to him for rest? He invites us to come as we are–all messed up–with our grief and our emotions. God not only did not condemn Moses’s and Elijah’s laments, but recorded them as part of Scripture (Ex. 5:22; 1 Kings 17:20).
Paul Miller, A Loving Life, (29-31, 47-9)