I believe one of the most important things we can have as believers is a biblical theology of suffering. No matter who we are we are going to experience pain, trials, and difficulties in this life. This is the reason why I was delighted to interview Aubrey Sampson. She recently wrote a great book called “The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament.” I hope you enjoy the interview…
Hi Aubrey! Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
My husband, Kevin, and I are church planters in the Chicagoland area. We have three hilarious sons, ages 12, 9, and 7. We love our city, our neighborhood, and love praying through what it means to “gospel” in our city. I am a graduate student at Wheaton College and an author/speaker- so we are usually balancing a lot. But we are so grateful for the opportunities.
In your book you mention how you are struggling with rheumatoid arthritis. How are you feeling these days?
Thank you for asking. I am feeling very good and I am praising God for that, as it’s been a very difficult last three years. Although, as most people with autoimmune diseases experience, I still have daily pain and sometimes odd issues now and again (sometimes I randomly can’t open a door because turning a doorknob is too painful). But overall, my disease is at bay. As one of my friends said, “I am in the process of experiencing healing.” I’ll take it.
I loved the story in chapter one of going to a concert and how you discovered the power of a louder song. Would you mind explaining what happened at the concert and how God was using it to teach you a valuable lesson about suffering?
That is actually my favorite story in the book! I won’t explain too much because it will spoil the book. But here is a little peek:
During a very difficult few years which I write about in The Louder Song, my gnawing questions about suffering and God’s goodness became too much to handle. My usual spiritual disciplines were no longer helping me to feel connected to God. And honestly, for the first time in 30 years as a Christian I began to wonder if I was praying to the ceiling fan…is God even real? Does God even hear me? I asked the questions we all ask in times of crisis, right?
I know God is not the author of evil but I couldn’t’ make sense of God not stopping evil form hitting my life and the lives of those I loved. My relationship with God—which was at once thriving, and beautiful and lovely, became this small, unrecognizable thing. Ultimately God no longer fit into the box I had designated for him and I had no idea what to do about it. What I didn’t realize is that God was about to blow the box wide open and reveal more of himself to me.
One night, in God’s perfect timing, a friend invited me to a concert—and I needed a night out, so I went with her….to this little theater in the round….we walked in, grabbed our seats, the lights dimmed and a screen descended from the ceiling with a trigger warning—the screen began to show disturbing images of pain, starvation, poverty, oppression. And I was thinking, “What is happening? Why are we here?” Then this choir in dark robes walked on stage and started singing this ancient funeral dirge–low, slow, and depressing. And as you can image, the mood- in the audience shifted. We were initially excited for the concert to start, but this moment kind of took the wind from our sails. I turned to my friend- and was about to suggest we leave–this was just too much emotion for me to handle at the time.
What I didn’t realize was that another choir was actually planted in the audience, surrounding the entire theater, posing as audience members. Suddenly they stood up and started singing over us this hopeful, joyful, triumphant song. It was startling but not scary; they sang over us like they were performing life saving surgery. The dirge was still being sung. The suffering images still being displayed. But the hopeful song was growing louder….and that song began to overpower the dark heavy song in front of us…and suddenly, from within the deep places of my soul that had been so grieving, so hurt, feeling so betrayed by God, avoiding hiding…, I felt God say, “Aubrey, this is what I do. I don’t pretend like evil and pain and suffering don’t exist and you don’t have to either. But I sing a louder song over them – a song of hope and joy and renewal and restoration and healing.”
I sat there and bawled like a baby–finally releasing my fears and worries and sadness to God.What I didn’t realize at the time is that concert was a LAMENT concert and it was the first time I was exposed to the spiritual discipline and biblical language of lament. And from that night on- for the next three years, really, lament became the language, the disciple, the experience that God used to move my heavy heart back to a place of hope.
And now- three years later- I don’t have many clear cut answers- but I understand that there is a mystery to suffering- that if we allow it, can actually draw us deeper into intimacy with our God.
In your book you talk about the tendency we have to act as if everything is OK and hide what is really going on in our hearts. What can churches do to create a safe environment where people know it is OK to admit that they don’t have it all together?
That’s such a great question. I think, especially in the west, we tend to want to see the VICTORY! The MOUNTAIN TOP! The TRIUMPH, The SERMON APPLICATION! We want to get to Easter and skip over Good Friday. And of course, it’s a good instinct to live into our hope in Christ. But sometimes we do this at the expense of acknowledging and honoring our pain and the world’s pain. I’m totally guilty of wanting to slap a Band Aid on and pretending like everything is okay. For real transformation and healing to take place, church leaders need to model vulnerability. We certainly don’t have to share our whole messes with the whole world, but we can practice authentic vulnerability in the midst of struggle, so that our folks can learn what it means to endure in the messy middle—not just on the other side.
I also think it’s important not to try to “balance the scales” for people’s suffering. What I mean by that is, sometimes we want to say to our people, “Yes, you’re suffering this incredible thing, BUT, look at all of the wonderful things that will happen because of it. Look at the testimony it will be! Look at how many people will be encouraged!” I think that is a super kindhearted instinct, but when folks are truly grieving, it’s often more loving to simply sit with them on their mourning benches, or climb down into the pit with them and grieve with them. We have to be less awkward around other people’s pain—we can declare hope without invalidating or “fixing.”
You point out that in the bible there are more lament songs than there are praise songs. Why do you think it is so important that Christians learn the power of lament in everyday life?
When Christians lament, we do so to a God who lets us. Our cries—even our cries of doubt and despair—fall on his loving, listening ears. In fact, what’s remarkable about Christianity is that we have a King who is also a steadfast, loving Husband and Friend. He not only permits lament; he gives us the language of lament. We have a God who desires and deserves our wholehearted praise. But he is also a God who wants an authentic, meaningful, intimate love relationship with us. We have a groom who gives his bride a voice.
I actually believe lament is a powerful evangelistic tool- because even if our lament is impolite, raw, or bitter, even if we express sorrow or verbalize anger, even if we make demands, as we lament, we actually preach to the world (and to ourselves) that it is possible to have a fearless, deeply intimate relationship with God. A God who not only is worthy of our thanksgiving and our joyful worship but also wants every part of us—not just our “pretty” selves, but our sharp edges, our sin struggles, our suffering, and our sadness.
On top of that, if we never acknowledge our pain to God, we will never truly know what it means to praise him on the other side of suffering. It is in our honest crying out to God about our pain that our worship of God grows more authentic. It is in this kind of relationship, this kind of honesty with God that our walks with him become real. Lament is part of the rhythm of a deepening relationship with him.
Lastly, lament, especially communal lament, helps open our eyes to the sufferers around the world. We have brothers and sisters experiencing persecution and oppression everyday. We can and should be lamenting with and for them.
In chapter 11 you talk about “the end of all laments.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
For this question, I’ll leave you with a direct quote from the book, if you don’t mind:
“Here’s the hope of all laments: Generations after the events of Lamentations, Jesus left the comfort of heaven and entered Jerusalem’s long years of suffering. He willingly, voluntarily became both the object and subject of lament. In taking upon himself the consequences for all of our sin, the penalty for the world’s idolatry, the power of death—and in taking on the principalities and forces of darkness—Jesus didn’t hesitate to expose himself to the worst any person could face. Instead, he willingly bore the full weight of it all on the cross. After years of longing, after generations of lament—through the suffering of their very own King—the Israelites were, as we are, healed.