Faith, trauma and lament - Revd Dr Fiona Haworth

Faith, trauma and lament.

God is first named in scripture by Hagar, the runaway slave of Sarai, who had fled into the wilderness because of her harsh treatment.  An angel of the Lord found Hagar by a spring of water and asked her by name where she had come from and where she was going.  The angel tells her to return and submit to her mistress, and then Hagar is then promised that she will conceive and have a child who will be called Ishmael, ‘for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.’  (Genesis 16:11)  Hagar responds by naming God, ‘El-roi’, the God of seeing. 

It is the beginning of a theme that runs through scripture, the idea that God responds to human suffering and will meet with those caught up in it.  And it begins with Hagar, an outsider, a slave, who discovers that she too is known by God and comforted by him.  It is not, of course, an easy comfort, Hagar is told to return to the place of her suffering, but she does so in relationship with the God who has seen her and come to her in her need.  (Perhaps a good time to remember that the original meaning of the word comfort, is to make strong, to fortify.)

This encounter between God and human suffering is perhaps best given voice in the words of the psalms.  Many of the psalms can be described as songs of lament.  They open with a statement of loss, abandonment, despair. 

‘Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness.’

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
   or discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
   O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.                        (Psalm 6:1,2)

‘Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies.’

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
   How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
   and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?                                       (Psalm 13:1,2)


It was to the psalms that Jesus turned as he was crucified; a deep irony that the one we know as the Word of God, turned to the words of others to encompass his own suffering.

‘Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility.’

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
   and by night, but find no rest.                                                             (Psalm 22:1,2)


The Bible is a rich resource when we are faced with trauma, both personal and collective, because it holds the stories of those who have lived through trauma themselves, as individuals and as a people.  The biblical texts wrestle with famine, slavery, exile, violence, occupation, natural disasters, political threat.  And they bear witness to a God, who however distant God might appear at times, is still present with God’s people.  The reality of God’s engagement with suffering was such that people had no qualms about directing to God their anger, their despair, their grief, their suffering, and demanding a response.  Many of the psalms of lament end, if not with a happy resolution, with a renewed trust in God. 


The Lord has heard my supplication;
   the Lord accepts my prayer.                                                              (Psalm 6:9)


But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.                                            (Psalm 13:5,6)


This renewed trust can be an acknowledgement that God has in fact not forsaken the person crying out, and that even if the situation is not turned around for the one offering the lament, God will offer deliverance for those to come.

For he did not despise or abhor
   the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
   but heard when I cried to him.  …

Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.                                                                  (Psalm 22:24, 30,31)


There are exceptions to this general rule of lament and renewed trust.  Psalm 88 begins in darkness and ends in despair, and Psalm 89 begins positively but ends with berating God for continuing to be absent.  But it is good that these voices are also included in scripture because they assure us that whatever we are going through, God can encompass it and hold us.  God can cope with our anger, our despair, our disbelief.  The psalms assure us that we can be honest about our feelings and do not need to hide behind silence or false piety.

It is also helpful to be reminded that trauma has a physical impact on us. 

I cry aloud to God,
   aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
   in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
   my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
   I meditate, and my spirit faints.                                                           (Psalm 77:1-3)

Trauma is defined as that which overwhelms our capacity to cope with our experience and which breaks connections, to ourselves, to others, to resources, to our frame of reference.[1]  Events such as the Corona virus, and the national lock down in response, are traumatic ones that may feel overwhelming and beyond our capacity to process.  As we struggle to make sense of what is going on, we may not notice the physical impact; the sense of tiredness, the clenching of stomach muscles, the tightness of the chest, as our bodies ready themselves to cope with the source of threat.  Most people will over time process trauma and emerge stronger and with a greater ability to cope.  However, for some, past and unresolved experience of trauma may affect their ability to move on and will find themselves reliving past traumas.[2]      

It is important to recognise what is happening in our bodies, to name our feelings, so that we can care for ourselves. 

For my days pass away like smoke,
   and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
   I am too wasted to eat my bread.                                                       (Psalm 102:3,4)

We may need to make a conscious effort to eat well, to rest more, to take time to do things that are enriching.  Elijah, fleeing from the wrath of Ahab, goes into the wilderness, and lying under a broom tree, asks to die.  God instead sends him food and drink, allows him to sleep, and then provides more food and water to sustain him on the journey to come.  (1 Kings 19)  We need to be kind, to ourselves and to others, especially those we live with as we learn to negotiate our shared spaces.  We cannot support others if we are not in a good place ourselves, and this is especially true if we are to remain in this lock down for some months yet. 

As things stand, we are still caught up amid a still developing situation.  We cannot yet see how this will play out.  We may find it hard to watch the news, or hard to not watch the news.  We may feel helpless as the news cycle tells only of a worsening situation.  We will inevitably know people caught up in some way and will feel anxious and frightened for them.  We may lose people and have no opportunity to say goodbye, or even to attend their funeral.  We are in a place of lament, and it is the right thing to do to pour out our feelings to God, our sorrow, our anger, our frustration, our isolation, our helplessness, our fear.  God can and will hold the worst of our feelings.  God can hold us, hold all of this.

And in time, we will arrive at a place where we can begin to reflect on what has happened and begin the work of making sense of our experiences.  We will find ourselves doing what the people of God have always done, telling our story, and reshaping it in the light of our experiences, discovering where and how God has been with us and for us in this new place.  But until that time comes, we can lament together, and pray with and for each other, and for the world, imploring God to hear our prayers and deliver us. 


Loving God,
hold us in our time of trouble.
Listen to our cries,
do not turn from us.
We are lost and afraid,
unsure of how to live in this strange new world.
Draw close to us,
comfort us,
make us strong.
May we yet trust in your unfailing love,
for you are our God.

[1] Peter Levine, quoted in ‘Working with an embodied and systematic approach to trauma and tragedy.’ Hilary Ison.  In: Tragedies and Christian Congregations:  The Practical Theology of Trauma.  Eds.  Warner, M., Southgate, C., Grosch-Miller, C.A., and Ison, H.  London and New York:  Routledge 2020, p47.

[2] Ibid, p 49