Yesterday I posted two articles by my hand from the 1981 Gospel Advocate. These were my first atttempts, at the age of twenty-three, to write (even publicly speak of) the loss of my wife in 1980.
Reading them again after so long–I don’t think I have read them or perhaps even thought of them in over ten years at least–was an enlightening but also painful experience. As I have thought about the personal, theological and spiritual shifts in my life during my twenties, I was not surprised to see some dimensions of my soul appear in these articles. My comments below are intersubjective and do not intend to address anyone who holds the views articulated in the articles; I am reflecting only on my own experience.
The articles have a distasteful air of triumphalism as I read them today. There are hints of arrogance which I see in the words “proper” or “properly.” I write as if I have it figured out; at least it appears that way to me, knowing my own journey and heart at the time. There is a presumptuousness that understanding providence enbales one to overcome grief.
As I look back on my twenty-three old soul, I give myself lots of grace. It was a soul burdened with grief, reeking with anger against God, and spiritually sick with rebellious feelings. But you didn’t hear that in the article, did you? Well, of course not. It could not be spoken; I would not have spoken it. It would not have been printed. I did not speak it to anyone. I was too ashamed of my feelings, too afraid of judgment by others, and too sick to truly know myself.
I was too much of the hero…playing the hero…to speak such things. I knew what I thought others expected of me, and what I expected from myself. I was supposed to be the hero. It had been my role for some time, and I did not know what to do with my feelings of anger and grief other than feel guilty about them. So, I stuffed them, put on my “theological” face and wrote two relatively detached articles about providence and human life.
I still substantially agree with the articles. I have a high view of sovereignty and trust is a way to healing. I don’t like the distinction between miracle and providence so much anymore, but would rather speak of God’s constant activity. 1 Corinthians 10:13 does not provide the comfort that it once did (or seemingly did in this article)–not sure what is going on with that (it does not “ring” true in my experience). I do believe that God is in control; and he lovingly rules his world for the sake of his people and his creation. While the idea of “divine compliment” seems appropriate, I don’t think of it so much as a “compliment” anymore. Perhaps it is a means by which God garners witnesses in his world to his love, grace and care, but “compliment” is not a healthy word for me now.
The articles leave the impression that I have won. I have overcome. I trust. And everything has settled down. But that is far from the truth. My life was a mess at that moment. I was pursuing my Ph.D. at Westminster, living alone in a one-room studio in Ambler, PA, and making some terrible personal choices. Those choices were the outworkings of my anger and rebellion. Even now shame and guilt surge forward when I think about it even though I know those moments are long forgiven and erased from the heart of God.
What the articles lack–and what I lacked in my life at that time–was a deep sense of lament. I had not learned to lament. I did not know what faithful lament was. I did not know I could be angry with God, even complain and question and doubt, and yet at the same time remain faithful and beloved. I did not learn that (as much as I could “learn” it then) till the summer of 1981 when a friend turned my attention to the Psalms and then Job.
My approach to Job in these articles is about faith and the divine compliment. I had not processed the material between Job 1-2 and Job 42; it was not part of my world. I only “theologized” about sovereignty, the trial of Job, the faith of Job (“Blessed be the name of the Lord”) and God’s “reward.” The laments, bitterness, complaint and horror of Job’s experience had not yet connected with my own. Job 3-41 was terra incognita.
My articles in 1981 are heroic and triumphalistic. They contain much that I still believe, but they are only true if balanced with Psalmist and Jobian laments. They are only true if we excise the arrogance and presumption. They are only true if we remove the detachment and place those truths in the world of lamenters–those who deely feel the injustice of life and the seeming abandonment by their God. Job and Psalms became my Bible after I discovered their laments.
But I give myself a break here (though I find that difficult to do at times). I did not know the laments; I had not experienced the laments of Scripture. I had not learned to pray Scripture. I did not know how to grieve, and in some ways I have only learned to truly grieve in the last year (if even now). I only knew how to project my heroism; and I played it well. I give myself credit for that. 🙂
So, as Don commented yesterday, we need the combination of learning (theology) and suffering. I only see theology in these articles, but I knew the suffering was present in my heart. Now I–and at points in the past I have to some degree–intend to “do” theology with the honesty of a suffering heart. That is part of what I have done on this blog in the past year.
That is what is lacking in those articles. I did not know how to do that then; I did not know what to do with it. The articles are good as far as they go, but they are too detached to resonate with hearts that are angry, grieving and abandoned. Those articles did not tell the full story of my heart in 1981.
They need a significant dose of biblical lament. We all need that and let us not deny it to those who feel lament; let us give the hurting full opportunity to speak their hurt even if our ears burn and our theologies are offended.