The Psalms are a gift to us. We read them, study them, pray them, sing them, and often cry over them. Sometimes we cry tears of joy; other times, we cry tears of sorrow. Either way, the response is right and even encouraged by the Lord. The inspired Psalmist writes, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8). While the Psalms have many praises and moments of joy, nearly 65 of them are categorized as Psalms of Lament. The Psalmist, via the Holy Spirit, penned such a large amount of his songs to be about sorrow because this is the norm for the Christian life. After all, Paul exhorts us to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). We rejoice because we have a savior in heaven, a great intercessor, a good king, a holy God, a mighty fortress, and a great friend (1 Thessalonians 4:16, Romans 8:34, Revelation 1:5-6, Isaiah 6:3, Psalm 18:2, John 15:13). We are sorrowful because in this life we still face the pangs of death, we see tragedy, and we know heartbreak. We are also sorrowful, for we know the state of those who do not know the Lord, so we labor for the glories of Christ and weep in times of weeping and rejoice in times of rejoicing.
The Christian life is not pretty. Many would have you believe that if you follow the Lord, you will face no sorrow. The non-Christian sees hard times on a Christian, and scoffingly says, “Where is your God?!” How we respond to sorrow and tragedy is an opportunity for us to express the faithfulness of God and His goodness despite hardship.
The entire book of Job is devoted to how one should rightly respond when faced with the difficulties of living in a fallen world. The beauty of the book is the rich theology and the practical example it provides for us when we walk in the valley of the shadow of death.
I once heard it said that when Calvin was preaching through the book of Job, he said, “It’s a great thing to be subject to the majesty of God.” I have no idea if that quote is true, but I like it. It is the epitome of the book of Job and the crux of how the rich theology encourages our weary hearts in times of deep sorrow.
The opening of the book reveals to us that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people (Job 1:1). The righteous man, Job, was allowed by God to be tested by Satan (Job 1:6-12). This, in reality, is of the most importance, for it demonstrates that God is not ignorant or far from us even in our darkest days. In fact, God is using the darkest of nights to draw us unto Himself. James signifies further teaching on the testing that we face as Christians when he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). This teaching clearly articulates that our suffering, which is the normative, is meant for us to be tested as if we are gold to be purified. Paul even furthers the beauty of the battle in darkness by offering up one of the Lord’s greatest promises across the Scriptures in Romans 8. He declares, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). The NASB emphasizes God’s sovereign work in this action, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28 NASB1995, Emphases mine). The message is clear, even the worst of days is in accordance with God’s sovereignty so that the saint may be sanctified for the glory of God.
Of course, Job illustrates this reality as well. After Job has lost nearly everything and his friends and wife have called on him to curse God and die, the Lord reveals Himself to a broken Job saying, “Where were you…” (Job 38:4). What follows throughout the chapter is a litany of the great workings of God and Job’s absence. The teaching is clear and precise; can the clay say anything to the potter? Do we know better than God? The obvious answer to both questions is no, yet the Scriptures do not call us to have a “shut up and trust God attitude.” Instead, the Scriptures seem to give us a license to cry out and ask God why. The work does not stop there, though; after asking why we must then be reminded by God of His faithfulness. Job received a first-hand account of this picture; he asked God why he scorned him, and the Lord reminded Job how great he is. Joseph’s brothers also provide a different experience of the same truth. They fail to recognize that their evil actions were for good. Thus, Joseph reminds them that God is sovereign and good and reveals how their failures were used by God for the ultimate good (Genesis 50). The book of Lamentations probably provides an even more realistic application for lamenting and asking God why and how we are to answer the question ourselves. As the people go through sorrow, Jeremiah laments on their behalf. Then he responds to the lament with Scriptures that recall God’s faithfulness. In many ways, this is how our laments look and is a safe way to cry out to the Lord. We ask God why, we weep, and then we rest in the promises of His Word.
So how does theology impact our suffering? First, it reminds us that we serve a sovereign God who is working all things for the good of His people. Second, it reminds us that we are, in fact, in a fallen world and that this place is not our home. Third, it draws us to deep rest and dependence on God, who is our strong tower in the storm.
How to Sorrowfully Sojourn
Inevitably, good theology always applies from an intellectual standpoint, and a high view of God should always lead us to rest in Him, no matter how horrific or saddening our days may be. Nevertheless, there are some more practically applicable ways for us to be sorrowfully sojourning in this life. Whether it is a loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, a chronic illness, a lost job, a cancer diagnosis, or simply the trudging through day-to-day life that comes with being in a fallen world, I believe the following practices are helpful tools in hiding in the great and mighty God.
I do not intend to reiterate what has already been said, but I find it necessary to emphasize the necessity of running to the Lord in prayer. When the night is darkest, we should call out to the one who is Light (1 John 1:5). The best way to do this is by praying the Scriptures back to Him. I often find that when I am at my lowest, I do not have the words to pray, but the words of the Psalmist rightly reflect my soul’s longing for worshipping God in the darkness. Of course, Psalm 23 is worthy of our prayers, but I would also encourage praying through Psalms 3, 5, 22, 51, 54, 109, and the Psalms of Ascent in chapters 120-134. These final Psalms are steady reminders of God’s faithfulness to His people throughout the ages.
Remember the Promises of God
Another way we can practically sorrowfully sojourn is by remembering the promises of God. This can be done in several ways. First, remember Bible stories, more emphatically, the Bible’s main story. The meta-narrative of the Scriptures is about God’s glory and His rescuing of a people for His own possession. Genesis to Revelation reveals how God is accomplishing and will accomplish this goal through the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Thus, the main story you should remember is the gospel. Remember your own story in the full story of God’s ransoming of His people and how you have been chosen and loved from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:3-14). One of the best ways to remember other Bible stories, other than simply reading them in the Scriptures, is by reading children’s Bibles. Often these editions of the Scriptures are meant to emphasize God and His greatness in the lives of fallen people facing the hardest of times.
Another important way to journey throughout the dark days is by memorizing Scripture. When we are at are lowest, it can be hard to get in the Word at all. Yet, it is also during these times that the Scriptures we have memorized are recalled to us. I encourage single verses and passages for the trying times of the day so that you may be reminded of God’s goodness in sorrow. Psalm 23 is a great place to start when it comes to memorizing passages for the hard days. I also encourage Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28-30, Romans 8:31-39, and as of late, I have found comfort in knowing David’s words after the death of his first son with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:23. The memorization of Scripture is not an easy task, but it is a rewarding one, for it is often in the darkest moments that God draws our minds to the Scriptures and uses them to have us rest in Him.
Be with God’s People
Paul exhorts, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” in Romans 12:15. The author of Hebrews calls us to not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). These are steady reminders that we are not to sojourn in this life alone. One of the most practical ways that we can sorrowfully sojourn is with others. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring illustrates this well. Frodo, the ring bearer, does not bear the ring alone. Rather, he is given a fellowship to journey with. Even in the end, when he has separated from the Fellowship that left Rivendell, he has his faithful friend, Sam. This is a picture for us that we do not have to go on this journey of life alone, and in fact, the only way we run the race is with others. Thus, we should not neglect God’s people and the faithful friends he provides for us. This means we should seek friendship in the local church and intentional discipleship that allows us to have others around us who can weep with us in times of sorrow and rejoice with us in times of joy. The togetherness of sojourning also emphasizes the necessity of Scripture memorization, for you never know when the Lord will use you to encourage a brother or sister with His Word.
Music for Resting
One final way to sojourn well in the fallen Word is by listening to and memorizing songs. Even secular songs can often provide the words for us that rightly describe the sorrow and despair that we feel. While I do not recommend them for practical worship, I do believe secular music can be redeemed and used by God to draw us to rest in His promises. If that can be said of secular music, it must be even more so said of songs that are rooted in the Scriptures. It Is Well With My Soul by Horatio Spafford, who penned the song after losing his children in a horrific naval disaster. In tragedy, he sang of God’s goodness. Another personal favorite is Thou You Slay Me by Shane and Shane. I prefer the YouTube edition that features a snippet of a John Piper sermon. This is a song about declaring God’s goodness despite feeling as if He is not there. A final soul encourager comes from 20 Schemes Music, Look Again. This song describes the need for us to daily look to the cross and rejoice that death has been defeated, and despite what may be thrown at us, we can rest in God’s goodness.
When sorrowfully sojourning, it can be hard to remember to apply these. Yet, I believe that if we are willing to be disciplined in praying the Scriptures of lament and joy, remembering the stories of the Scriptures, memorizing passages, spending time with God’s people, and putting songs about God’s faithfulness and goodness into our hearts that we will see God’s face shining upon us in the midst of our darkest night.
A Prayer for the Sorrowful Sojourner
We turn to you, Lord God, Father Almighty. And with pure hearts we offer to you our best and truest thanks, as much as we can in our weakness.With all of our hearts we pray for your exceeding kindness.
In your good pleasure, stoop down to hear our prayers, and drive out the enemy from our thoughts and actions.Increase our faith, guide our understanding, give us kingdom thoughts, and lead us to your spiritual joy-through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.1
Further Resources for Sorrowfully Sojourning
Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy- Mark Vroegop
When I Don’t Desire God- John Piper
A Grief Observed- C.S. Lewis
Suffering Wisely and Well– Eric Ortlund