In a messy world marked by untimely death and stillbirths, racial injustice and relational ruptures, we all wrestle with the problem of evil and suffering. Does God mean anything or a pastor have anything to say in such situations? Eugene Peterson thinks so.
Among other things pastoral work is a decision to deal, on the most personal and intimate terms, with suffering….The biblical revelation neither explains nor eliminates suffering. It shows, rather, God entering into the life of suffering humanity, accepting and sharing the suffering. (113-114)
With this strong statement, Peterson continues his work in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by engaging with the brutally honest book of Lamentations, the third of the five scrolls of the Megilloth. Within the context of suffering, loss, and carnage, Peterson describes Lamentations as “a funeral service for the death of the city” (115). Each year, the people of Israel remembered the Fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile with a fast on the Ninth of Ab. The fast looked fixedly both at the suffering resulting from the ruin of Jerusalem, but also the sin that caused that ruin. Learning from this, Peterson writes:
Pastoral ministry [deals] with the suffering in such a way as to direct the despair that ordinarily accompanies guilt toward God and not away from him….The task of pastoral work is to comfort without in any way avoiding the human realities of guilt or denying the divine realities of judgment. (117)
The book of Lamentations is a series of five acrostic lament poems that serve to chronicle the breadth of suffering from start to finish, from A to Z. Such an intentional and deliberate work “organizes grief, patiently going over the ground, step by step, insisting on the significance of each detail of suffering. The pain is labeled…arranged” (122). For pastors this helps us walk alongside others both chronicling their grief fully, without minimizing it, while also pointing to the reality that there is an end to the grief. At a practical level, Peterson encourages pastors to listen to those suffering, but also to provide boundaries and limits to it, through set appointments that, in a sense, remind the sufferer that suffering does not control reality or have endless power of their life.
There is no question in Lamentations about not taking suffering seriously…Finally, though, it says ‘Enough.’ Evil is not exhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention. (124)
The challenges of suffering are rooted in historical realities. For Israel this was the fall of Jerusalem, but for us it may be a wide range of experiences. Lamentations helps us see the importance of tracing suffering toward its historical roots.
When a pastor encounters a person in trouble, the first order of pastoral ministry is to enter into the pain and to share the suffering. Later on the task develops into clearing away the emotional rubble and exposing the historical foundations: all suffering is triggered by something. There is a datable even behind an act of suffering—a remembered word of scorn that sounded, a describable injustice causing injury, a death with a date on it pinpointing the hour of loss, a divorce decree giving legal definition to a rejection. (126)
The pastor explores this historical foundation of suffering so that healing can come. We do not pry into personal lives for curiosity’s sake or to merely open up wounds again. No, pastors explore the history “to pin it to the actual and so make it accessible to the grace that operates, as we know from biblical accounts, in the historical” (129).
As with Israel’s remembrance of the Fall of Jerusalem, this often leads us into an encounter with the anger of God. Today, many pastors debate the validity of God’s wrath or anger, but Peterson is strong on its biblical and theological importance:
The moment anger is eliminated from God, suffering is depersonalized, for anger is an insistence on the personal—it is the antithesis of impersonal fate or abstract law. (131)
The God of the Bible is deeply personal and relational. His anger reinforces this reality, P. T. Forsyth says: “God cares enough for you to be angry with you” (133). Lamentations brings focus for the pastor to how human wrestling with suffering relates both to God’s care and God’s anger. Pastors help those suffering grasp how their pains find meaning within the context of “the immense backdrop of a majestic salvation” that also leads into God’s “immediate companionship” (135).
It is because of this that Peterson reacts against the contemporary tendency to approach suffering from a merely therapeutic framework. Instead, he calls pastors to “neither attempt explanations of suffering nor mount programs for the elimination of it” (139). Instead, letting go of mere technique, we invite people to pay attention to God and grace in the vulnerable experience of suffering. “Encouraged by Lamentations, the pastor will have the strength to do far less in relation to suffering and be far more” (141).
Lamentations also teaches the pastor that encountering suffering should not merely be a personal journey. Instead, it is a community journey. We enter into personal counseling, but lament communally. The individual does not really surface in Lamentations until chapter 3. The predominant approach is corporate lament and common prayer. We raise our voices and we weep together, and this, at least in part, is where healing arises. Such work slows us down to experience comfort only after truly facing into the suffering, not just on our own, but also with others.
Pastoral work patiently listens and enters into suffering, traces the contours of the history that brought the pain, and invites the individual and community to respond not in hurry and trite platitudes but deep engagement. As Peterson reminds us, quoting Nietzsche, “Only where graves are, is there resurrection” (148).