The Primal Yowl of Suffering
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
A few weeks back I wrote about a book I was currently reading: Hurting with God, by Dr. Glenn Pemberton. For multiple unforeseen reasons, I’m not done yet. I have four chapters left, and I’m loving the journey.
Many days, I’ll read and then just walk it off. When those days happen I’ve found God in the text, and the two of us just have to end the reading in a silent prayer.
For those of you I’ve piqued your interest, when I get through the final four, I’ll write out my review. Right now I want to talk about something I truly believe he missed.
When you know, you know...
As I was reading I felt he got the point, but more like a cancer doctor having found cancer in someone else. He knew where to look, and what it looked like, but there was always this hint of something being missing.
In my mind, the answer will always be found in Psalm 137.
Psalm 137 is the most uncomfortable Psalm in the entire Bible. If you don’t know why, let me let the Psalm speak for itself: (CEB)
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
5 Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
7 Lord, remember what the Edomites did
on Jerusalem’s dark day:
“Rip it down, rip it down!
All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
8 Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,[a]
a blessing on the one who pays you back
the very deed you did to us!
9 A blessing on the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!
Have you ever really been physically hurt? You broke a bone, you closed your finger in a car door, you accidentally amputated a body part? Did you notice how people reacted to your reaction to pain? For me, who has done all but amputate a body part, my screams were met with support and love. Why? Because, as a people we get physical ailments. Well, I’ll walk that back a little, we don’t always get physical ailments, but we know the reaction to them, and look for that as a sign someone needs help.
Meanwhile, spiritual and mental needs do not get the same reaction. I’ll walk that back a little. Many parents can hear those mental and spiritual screams from their kids, and know when they are screaming, “I hate you, Mom!” they don’t really mean those words. We allow it for kids, because we justify it to ourselves. It’s because they are young. They are speaking from raging hormones and a shortsighted worldview. We use our kid’s scream to set the parameters for what we will listen to.
Instead of treating the spiritual and mental scream as a sign that the person needs help, we tell them to “Grow up!” Or, we throw platitudes out like it’s somehow going to cover it over so we can move on. “Everything happens for a reason.” “It will only make you stronger.” Maybe the worst of them all, “You really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Reading Pemberton to get to Psalm 137
I often think ahead on a book. In the genre of fiction this is not a good thing. I have a very active imagination, and my story is usually more compelling than what I eventually read. I might be better just putting fiction down ½ way through reading, and just play out my own endings.
In non-fiction, thinking ahead is like understanding the notes that must follow in a musical piece, and preparing for the rise and fall of the linguistic music. When I know the piece is garbage, I try to find something redeemable in the writing. When I love and agree is when I dig in and tear apart.
That’s what really makes my words a difficult read. We live in a world sectioned off into absolutes. We no longer critique our colleagues. This has made our arguments weak; brittle. It has given the most poorly formed arguments a false sense of correctness. I push against the voices I agree with, to strengthen those voices and, ultimately, myself.
Pemberton had three possible solutions to seeing Psalms like 137 in the Bible:
Before you rage quit. This is right, in the same way a cancer doctor talking about cancer is right. It’s missing the biggest number that was never given.
To know God gives space for the primal yowl of true suffering.
When we cry out in pain, it’s not about the words, but what those words mean. I sometimes think the creation of books has made us miss the many levels of language. Visual language. Inflection. Action. Sounds other than words. All of these things speak, but we only pay attention to the words themselves.
When I was 19 my dad accidentally hit a dog. We pulled over. The dog was barking and biting at us. He was very hurt, and dying. Those sounds and bites were the dog not understanding what was happening to him, and telling us he was hurt. I don’t condemn the dog for speaking sorrow and pain and that manner.
Why do we condemn the same thing from one another?
When Pemberton ends the chapter saying this was about having words to pray for the suffering, I say no. They can never be the words of someone who isn’t living in that pain. Think of all those moments where we scream out in pain. Would you want someone imitating that to show solidarity? No. If you’ve lived it, you know. You can read Psalm 137 and understand the primal yowl. If you haven’t lived it, it is space to understand the language in a new way, and see 137 as a primal yowl.
I let this Psalm speak- not because I believe the words, but because I see the suffering beyond them and let them publicly cry out in that pain. You are loved. God sees you. God hears you.