Posted by: Keith Clark | June 25, 2012

Book Review: Hurting with God by Glenn Pemberton

“Our response to storms, literal or metaphoric, reveals much about us…. When a problem or crisis erupts, we want an immediate fix. We speak of ‘getting through it,’ ‘getting past it,’ and ‘seeing the light at the end of the tunnel’ from which we will emerge stronger and better for the experience. So we pray for healing (now) and respond to those who are ill by asking if they are feeling better (yet). We share the American dream of being able to triumph over any obstacle and live above every circumstance. And all this self-talk is fine as long as we really do get better or find a happy resolution.

“But what if we or those we love don’t get better? What if the storm never lets up? What if the issue is not about how to ‘get through it’ or ‘getting to the light at the end of the tunnel’ because this tunnel has no end point short of death? What if God chooses not to answer our prayers for healing, for a better marriage, for a way to pay the bills, or for a way out of the mess that is my life? What then? In my experience, when there is no end to the pain or the loss, we simply do not know how to respond to ourselves, to others, or to God. And, in these cases, even the most well-intentioned and sound theological-philosophical explanations about why bad things happen in God’s world don’t matter because they do nothing to help me live now; they do not stop my ain or teach me how to live within circumstances that do not change. At least for now, I don’t care why this storm is flooding my life. I just need someone to teach me how to swim.” (22)

These words from the opening chapter of Glenn Pemberton’s masterful Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms speak to the hard reality of life that many, if not most, streams of popular Christianity seem to deny. In this climate of stone-faced declarations of “the sovereignty of God” on one end of the spectrum and smiley-faced encouragements to live “your best life now” on the other end of the spectrum, Pemberton takes an altogether different approach. Even as he writes out of what I would call a holy dissatisfaction with the church’s failure to equip Christians to deal with the hard reality of life, compassion and empathy are apparent in every word.

At times Pemberton sounds like a pleading pastor: “I’m concerned for well-intentioned churches whose assemblies of praise and triumph only know how to pray for and celebrate healing but ignore the chaos raging all around them. Must it be that, because we affirm that God reigns, we have to pretend that everything must be okay or will soon be?” (24).

At times he sounds like a passionate prophet: “In our rush to be positive and enthusiastic, we isolate even further those who are hurting. I don’t need a church that ignores my pain or glibly tells me everything is going to be alright–I know better. If we really want to attract people to the gospel, we first need to practice the gospel in our assemblies–reaching out to the sinners, the outcasts, and the lepers instead of choreographing a command performance for those who experience life as whole (unless, of course, who we really want to attract are the wealthy young families with potential)” (196).

At times he sounds like a trusted teacher: “We need to recognize [a] danger that we tend to overlook, a danger as ominous to our relationship [with God] as a lack of respect [for God]…. When we think of God only in terms of a sovereign king and judge, we become yes-men with endless affirmations for what God chooses to do; we limit appropriate speech–especially compared to how I might speak to my spouse or friend. Unless we are careful, our reduced set of metaphors for God leads us to an unstated set of assumptions for what is appropriate instead of the witness of Scripture leading us to what God wants in this relationship. The question we should be asking is what does God dare us say, not what we dare to do” (150-151).

Deftly weaving together personal testimony of his own rides on life’s chaotic sea with his scholarly insight into the psalms (his detailed explanation of the contours of lament in chapter four and his treatment of the imprecatory psalms in chapter nine stand out), Pemberton makes a compelling case and offers practical suggestions for the reclamation of lament as a vital part of the church’s corporate language and the individual life of faith. Hurting with God is a triumph precisely because Pemberton remains completely true to his vocation as an academic, not compromising his approach to the text one bit, while communicating in a manner that is not only accessible but preeminently practical.

As such the book is a prime candidate for use as a teaching text in a church’s education ministry, as a resource for discussion within a small group, and as a means for equipping individual Christians for personal spiritual development. Not only is the book of immense value for its ability to promote the reclamation of lament, it also is certain to stimulate the spiritual formation of readers in a variety of other ways, including the way they approach corporate worship, the way they read scripture, the way they think about their interactions with others, the way they conceive of the nature of sin, and the way they feel about trouble in life and the world. I cannot recommend Hurting with God highly enough.

Disclaimer: Thanks to ACU Press for a review copy. I was not obligated to write a positive review.

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