Have you ever wondered what the opposite of pain is? If you type the question in to the wonderful world of Google, you will read a variety of answers including: pleasure, getting high, bliss, good health, wellbeing, and joy. I’m not going to harp on most of these definitions, but I do want to query the idea that opposite of pain is joy – not because it is likely driven by the Rob Base song “Joy and Pain” (sunshine and rain), but because I think this idea sets up two different concepts as opposites: lament and praise.
While lament seems to be a difficult concept for the modern church, it was a common Hebrew expression of faith. We see this in the proliferation of lament psalms used in Hebrew worship. Most modern psalters and hymnbooks, however, use only pieces of these psalms. The tendency is to neglect the honest portrayal of pain, confusion, and struggle in favour of what is all too often called the “praise resolution.”
Psalms of lament generally have four parts (they can be broken down further, but these are the basic components): an address, in which the author names the person he is speaking to; the complaint, in which the author honestly, and often vividly, describes his painful circumstance; a request, in which the author asks for specific assistance from the person whom he is addressing; and an expression of trust, in which the author states his confidence in the one he addresses. What we so often do is skip over the more difficult bits, chop off the “expression of trust,” and use that as a song of praise.
This approach, however, does not really result in praise. The psalmist reaches that “expression of trust” through his circumstances – whether or not they are changed. When we divorce praise from the real contexts in which we live, we foster a weak, circumstance-based, superstitious religion in which our praise is dependent on whether or not things are going well. That is a façade – not a faith.
Allow me to use a personal example. I am currently, as mentioned in a previous post, struggling with the possibility of infertility. Viewing lament and praise as opposites would lead me to believe that because I am currently in a state of lament, I am therefore unable to praise. Viewing praise as part of lament, however, allows me to lay my soul bare before God (i.e. yell at him for a while), and also to rest in my confidence in his goodness and power. If I didn’t believe that praise is a part of lament, I would fall in one of two directions: I would sink into despair; or I would feel unable to express the depth of my anguish, and end up wearing a mask. Instead, my lament draws me into the presence of God (because that is who I am addressing); it allows me to express the full extent of my suffering; it prompts me to ask God to change my circumstance, knowing that he is able to do so; and it allows me to push past my circumstance and into praise as I focus instead on the character of God, and his presence in my life. My heart breaks at the thought of not being able to bear a child – but no matter what happens, I know that God is good. I know he will help me to work out my calling toward motherhood in one way or another. That is the basis of my praise: not whether or not he does what I want him to do. And I could not honestly reach that place of praise, unless it was an integral part of the lament my heart is currently singing.
So no, praise and lament are not opposites. And neither are joy and pain. No, the opposite of pain is comfort. We are not called, as Christians, to live a comfortable life. Not in this world – not if we are called to participate in the transformation and redemption that Christ began and finished and will finish. We are not called to a life of comfort, a life free from pain, but we are called to a life of joy. We are called to a life of deep painful joy in which we see the truth of God’s character alongside the suffering of the world.