CCHF | Solutions

H & D

Giving Voice to Our Pain

Healthcare workers stand at the gates to life and death. We welcome newborn babies into the world and assist at the bedside of someone dying. We are frequently present when suffering and pain occurs in the lives of those under our care.

In the Bible, people who experienced great suffering and loss somehow held onto their faith and hope in God. Their intimate conversations with God in times of grief, anger, and doubt offer help to us today.

Specifically, the lament or complaint psalms give voice to questions many of us ask today, “How long, O Lord?”. How long will suffering in children’s lives continue? How long will families and friends suffer from the untimely death of a young mother? 

The psalmists did not abandon hope in the face of grief and pain. They directed their questions and sorrows to the God who hears, is present, and is worthy of praise. Known as biblical lament, this offers an example of crying out to God in one’s grief.

A regular rhythm of lament can assist us in coping with grief and prepare us to continue to care for the hurting with God’ s strength and hope. Psalms 6 and 13 offer examples of laments especially useful to healthcare workers. The words of these psalms give us permission to cry out to the God who sees, hears, and is known for his unfailing love.

Lament is a deep expression of pain translated into words, something specifically directed to God. Lament contains one’s raw emotions and response to God in a time of trial and can be spoken when someone is suffering physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Lament is offered when a person not only realizes her own sorrow but brings her sadness, complaint, and request to God.

We need to cry out and give words to our grief. We are intimately present with people who are seriously ill, suffering, and dying. We experience sadness and anger as we witness people being treated unjustly; people who have been abused or treated poorly due to their level of income, place of residence, age, or ethnicity. Our care involves more than just the physical tending of wounds. We care for the whole person whose bodily experiences cannot be separated from their emotions, beliefs, and thoughts.

We journey with our patients during some of the most “holy” and critical times in life, when a woman first learns that her unborn baby is dead or when a young man receives his diagnosis of HIV+. We indeed bear a burden that is difficult to measure.

It is not easy to be near the pain of others because it opens us to pain. One cannot enter this space of suffering with another and remain unchanged. Yet if we are not able to cope when entering into the patients’ suffering, we will not be sustainable as an effective caregiver. We need to find heathy ways to cope with grief in order to continue caring.

Learning to manage one’s grief is a crucial yet underemphasized skill for those working in healthcare. The beginning of managing one’s grief is the ability to put the grief into words.

Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice from the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School state in their book, Reconciling All Things, “Lament is not despair. It is not whining. It is not a cry into a void. Lament is a cry directed to God. It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world’s deep wounds...It is the prayer of those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are”.

There is a need for a rhythm of lament in our lives, to put words to our grief, questions, and pain. The biblical example of lament found in the Psalms gives us an example to follow in conveying our deep sorrow to God. Biblical lament is a gift to all who resonate with its words. 

The laments of affliction found in scripture are more than complaining. Complaining is often seen as a lack of character or sign of weakness. Biblical lament is a complaint that is a desperate cry for help and relief. Ironically, it requires a strong character to turn toward God and the community in hope rather than retreating into isolation and despair.  (Bruckner, J., 2010)

The words of biblical lament can propel forth one’s own questions and emotions and can be used when one has no words to express personal grief or anguish. The psalms of lament give us a place to begin, a conversation to enter. As one reads and prays the words of biblical lament, private emotions resonate with those of others who have prayed these same words.

Psalm 6-A Cry For Mercy

Psalm 6 is classified as a “lament of the individual” as it is spoken from the perspective of one person; it’s also described as a psalm of illness. Illness may be used metaphorically for disaster and misfortune as the text does not communicate with certainty that the reference to sickness is to be taken literally. 

The psalm begins with a description of the person’s distress:

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. (v. 1)

The psalmist pleads for deliverance from God’s anger. He’s aware that he is in a place to be disciplined and deserves punishment. Yet he gives a cry for help.

Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. (v. 2)

The psalmist asks for God’s mercy to trump his anger and wrath. He describes his own frailty and need for healing as his bones, the very framework of his body, are weak. Since disease and misfortune often was connected with sin in ancient Israel, the healing that was sought most likely included forgiveness. 

The cry for help continues:

My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long? (v. 3)

The question of “How Long?” is frequent in the psalms of lament. Note that the pain experienced is physical (v. 2), psychological (v. 2-3) and spiritual (v. 3). Healthcare workers can easily connect with this verse as their pain of grief is more psychological and spiritual than physical.

The second set of petitions in this psalm focuses on rescue, asking that God will “turn, deliver, and save”. The petitions give a reason for appealing to God.

Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” (v. 4-5)

The psalmist feels the absence of God in his suffering, asking God to turn from his anger toward the sufferer. He reminds the Lord of his unfailing love, calling upon God to intervene for the sake of the bond of his covenantal love. We need to be reminded that God has a covenant with his people, and this covenant is based on his unfailing love. The second reason the psalmist appeals to God is that he feels close to death; if God does not intervene, God will lose a worshipper and the psalmist will lose God.

The psalmist continues by describing his current state, which gives God further reason of the need for deliverance. 

I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. (v. 6-7)

Next, the author turns to wishes and curses upon those who do evil.

Away from me, all you who do evil, for the LORD has heard my weeping. (v. 8)

Although many lament psalms end with a vow to praise God, Psalm 6 ends with assurance that the psalmist will triumph through God’s intervention. The affirmation of trust is seen in many other psalms of lament.

The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace. (v. 9-10)

Psalm 6 can be used as a lament for many types of pain today. A person will resonate with this lament if he is crying out for mercy and feeling God has abandoned him. Perhaps we could speak the words of this psalm when having to witness others’ suffering. We may have been witness to evil and the toll it takes on our patients. We may plead for mercy from God’s punishment, reminded of God’s unfailing love. Psalm 6 reminds us that we’re not the first to experience great pain and grief. Feelings of isolation give way to hope as we are reminded that others have felt as we do and yet can say with assurance, “The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:9)

Psalm 13-How Long, O LORD?

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. (v. 1-3a)

Again, the psalmist’s distress is based on feeling God has abandoned him. The mentioning of “hide your face” denotes God withdrawing his blessing as an act of displeasure. This is in contrast to the priestly blessing, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:24-25).

The psalm continues with a cry for help.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. (v. 3b-4)

Grief, illness, and trouble dim a man’s eyes while strength, restoration of health, and God’s presence make the eyes bright. Healthcare workers using this psalm call out for God’s presence and strength to renew their battles against the destruction and death the tries to snatch those under their care. 

The psalm closes with a shift of emotion. This may have been due to an actual healing or in response to an oracle of salvation, but the most common thought is that even before deliverance or healing, the psalmist is expressing his trust in God’s true love, allowing him to rejoice even in suffering.

That expression of trust in God is pronounced in verse 5:

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

The unfailing love described in this verse is an utterly dependable sort of love that exists between persons in a covenant relationship. One praying the words of this psalm is expressing an intimate relationship and commitment to God.

Psalm 13 closes with a vow to praise God:

I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me. (v.6)

David believes God will deliver him and that one day he will again sing and rejoice in God’s goodness. A person praying this psalm notes that being able to imagine a better day ahead is vital in finding hope in the midst of suffering. Healthcare workers praying this prayer imagine a day when there is no feeling of bitterness or grief. We can trust in God even while feeling the weight of evil in the world after caring for yet another victim of illness or violence. Although God seems absent, we’re able to express to God our wrestling thoughts and our questions of “How long?”. Even when consumed by sorrow, we can know deep within that God’s unfailing love will prevail. We know with certainty that one day we will again praise God.

Conclusion

There is something significant about speaking aloud one’s thoughts and emotions. Verbalized pain loses some of its sting. Hope arises when suffering is no longer kept silent and when what was personal agony is brought into the light. 

The biblical accounts of those who have suffered and yet sustained their faith and hope in God provides hope today. We can gain strength to speak while using words spoken by countless followers of God before us and around us, making the words our own. When speaking words from a heart that feels pain and has experienced loss, we bring our story into the ancient words. When we cry out, “How long, O Lord?” we complete the question with our own distress.

Because God knows us, sees us, and hears us, we have the assurance he will answer. We can call out with hopeful assurance, “The LORD has heard my cry for mercy; the LORD accepts my prayer” (Psalm 6:9)

Renee Lick serves as the Student Ministries Director of Nurses Christian Fellowship. Her nursing experience includes working in an intensive care unit in a Native American community and clinic nursing in the city. She currently works per diem at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago. Renee has a Master's Degree in Christian Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary with an emphasis on faith and health.

She has served in campus ministry with nursing students for 9 years and loves seeing students gain a vision for ministry on campus and in healthcare. Renee is part of the launch team for a multiethnic church plant in Chicago and enjoys distance running, sometimes even in the Chicago winters.

Healthcare workers stand at the gates to life and death. We welcome newborn babies into the world and assist at the bedside of someone dying. We are frequently present when suffering and pain occurs in the lives of those under our care.

In the Bible, people who experienced great suffering and loss somehow held onto their faith and hope in God. Their intimate conversations with God in times of grief, anger, and doubt offer help to us today.