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Suffering is struggling, for the sufferer and the observer. It seems to open a back door that welcomes in doubts, fears, and frustrations that were not there before. Before tragedy, there was none of that. We were content. Our faith was sure.
That may be what it looks like – that the doubts intrude from the outside – but the reality is suffering is the hand that removes the cloak hiding our weak spots. Fire refining metal is an analogy that scripture often uses for this concept (see, for example, I Peter 1:6). The fire does not bring the impurities to the gold; the gold entered the fire with the impurities. But it is the fire that reveals them – and can burn them away.
Zechariah 13:9 shows us a deeper insight and purpose for this often painful process: “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
For a brief explanation of context, God is expressing His plan of salvation for the people in this section of Zechariah. Jesus’s sacrifice is foreshadowed in 12 and the first verse of 13. After atonement, God begins to purify His people – false prophets and corrupt shepherds are done away with, and the remaining third referenced here are His chosen children that He lovingly purifies.
Look at the order of events here. God’s people were worshiping idols and following the teaching of false prophets. Instead of saying, “The Lord is my God,” the people were saying, “This idol is my god.” So what does God do to save His people from a lie and restore them to Himself? He removes the objects of worship and atones for their sin, saving them from the lie. Then, He restores them to Himself by putting them through the fire. We see the ultimate purpose for this suffering: to lead them to call upon their first love, the God of their salvation and very lives. “I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”
Suffering is struggling, and the purpose is to struggle with the lies to return to the truth.
And sometimes, in that struggle, we will follow the advice of Job’s wife: “Curse God and die.” (Job 2:9)
If challenged on our curses, it’s a common response to say, “At least I’m being honest.” God doesn’t want us to lie, right? He doesn’t want us to pretend everything is okay. And God is not unaware that suffering is struggling; He knows from experience (Hebrews 4:15).
But is honesty in fact truthfulness? When the fire burns, does this allow us to say whatever thoughts and emotions we experience?
Complaints & Laments
Let’s take a look at two groups of sufferers in the Bible – both groups are God’s people being open in suffering, but one is declared righteous and the other, unrighteous.
Parched, tired, exposed, a group of thousands of Israelites are wandering in a desert. But, this isn’t a fruitless wandering – it is a result of their emancipation from slavery. They are in a different season of suffering, a necessary chapter in their new freedom to move from enslavement into the promised land.
But it is suffering nonetheless. And so the Israelites express their pain. “Would we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)
God graciously responds with a test. He will provide daily bread, and they are to only take the bread as He instructs – a day’s portion for 5 days, and two days’ portion the 6th day. Why? “That I may test them,” He said, “whether they will walk in my law or not.” (Exodus 16:4)
God answers their complaint with a small test of trust. A test for God to see? No, but to reveal to the Israelites (and us) their lack of obedience and their dependency on the Lord. A test in which the results are for the benefit of the people being tested. A test that ended up revealing their failure. But we see the same purpose for this test that was seen in Zechariah: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” (Exodus 16:12)
By the time we reach Numbers, we see that this type of complaint was continuous, and became grievous and infuriating to the Lord. Back in Exodus we see something interesting – this complaining was considered grumbling against the Lord and not to Him (Exodus 16:8), and worse yet, testing the Lord (Exodus 17:2, 7). It was counted as sin, and He justly punishes them with a plague in Numbers 11. (Jesus reinforces this as sin when He is found in the desert in Luke 4:12. Where the chosen people of God failed in the desert, Jesus triumphed.)
These were a chosen people acting unrighteously. A people of complaint.
Let’s take a brief look now at three lamenting men.
David was named “a man after God’s own heart” and wrote countless Psalms expressing his suffering. From his bones to his soul, he was well-acquainted with pain.
When Job’s wife told him to “Curse God and die,” Job refused to. And that man was counted righteous by God.
In the New Testament, Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” that, although the exact nature of it is unknown, was painful enough that he “pleaded” with the Lord for its removal.
Why were these men considered righteous? When they were tested in suffering, they denied the temptations they had to complain against the Lord – to sin against the Lord by testing Him (which is a ridiculous notion when you consider who you are and who God is).
What distinguished their lament from the Israelite’s complaint? Let’s look at Job for a moment; specifically, the revealing word of his wife:
“Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die.’” (Job 2:9)
She noticed something in his heart – integrity. Did Job neglect his emotions? Absolutely not (see Job 1:20). But Job had a profound response: “‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job 2:10)
A heart that revered God in His sovereignty, supremacy, and wisdom, and went straight to Him with his sorrow instead of to another.
David did the same. Instead of testing the Lord, instead of cursing God by grumbling to someone else, he went straight to God with his suffering. Paul as well – there is a pattern here of integrity. An integrous person does not complain against someone to another person; an integrous person goes straight to the person responsible for their pain and has a conversation. A person without integrity complains behind their back.
“Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” – Mark Vreogop.
Vreogop points out an important qualifier for what makes a lament and not a complaint. It is a prayer. It goes directly to the One in control. It is not dishonest, it is not hiding or pretending. It displays the pain openly to the One who can heal it, and it is a prayer that leads to trust in the Healer, whether He chooses to grant mercy or not. It is trust that the Healer knows best in season of suffering.
The Lie Of “Honesty”
Going further than sin against God, there is a deceptive element to complaining. “At least I’m being honest!” is the justification for complaining against the Lord, but is this honesty a reflection of truth?
In a sense, yes. It is a fully transparent reflection of the sin a heart in pain is capable of. It is true to the depth of your depravity.
But it is a lie in another way.
“Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me! I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me. They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves; they rebel against me.” (Hosea 7:13-13, emphasis added.)
It is a lie against God.
Just like gossip, complaining spreads falsehoods about the Person you are complaining about. This “honesty” presents God as incompetent, uncaring, a servant to your glory rather than the other way around.
Consider this: the truth isn’t actually found in how you express your feelings, but in the suffering. Are you suffering? Absolutely. But once you recognize you are suffering, you have the choice to respond one of two ways: Curse God and die, or bring your lament to the Lord and bless His name. Your suffering does not necessitate complaint; in Christ, you are free to choose a righteous response.
The suffering is true. Your response can be as well.
This word from the Lord in Hosea reveals something else – the people wail upon their beds, and this grieves God. Even after exhausting whoever else will listen, they go to their pillows before coming to the One who has chosen and loves them.
Which in turn reveals something further: “…for grain and wine they gash themselves.”
In their complaint, God sees that their hearts do not even want God in the first place, but what is from His hand. They complain to receive gifts instead of the presence of the Giver.
David was a man after God’s own heart because He sought the Lord. Job blessed the Lord. Paul rested in the Lord.
And our ultimate example, Christ, profoundly displays the ultimate suffering and the ultimate response:
In the garden, His word to His disciples in suffering, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” (Matthew 26:38). He truthfully expresses His pain, without complaint.
Then to His Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) He submits His suffering to the will of God.
And lastly, as He is dying on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In this moment, the pinnacle of His suffering, he brings His lament straight to the throne of the Father.
And in all this, He was being honest. In all this, He did not sin.
At Least I’m Being Honest?
Perhaps you have been fully transparent about your pain. But in your transparency, did you submit to the character of God and speak truth of His nature? Or did you choose to elevate yourself and gossip behind His back (as if you could)?
God doesn’t ask us to ignore our suffering or suppress the pain it creates. The key differences between lament and complaint rest in the heart. Suffering can expose us, refine us, and through the heart of the Christian, always glorify God.
[bctt tweet="God doesn’t ask us to ignore our suffering or suppress the pain it creates. The key differences between lament and complaint rest in the heart."]
Our “honesty” communicates a dishonest portrayal of God and sins against Him. But like any command, knowledge that is sin directs us to a righteousness that fulfills our purpose, and therefore draws us nearer to God, the One who fulfills us.
“Lament dares to hope when life is hard.” – Mark Vreogop
Complaint ends in resentment and despair. Lament ends in trust and hope.
Be honest before the Lord. Lament, and lament rightly, and the truth will set you free.