This post is an excerpt from John Mark Hicks’s book Anchors for the Soul, Chapter 1, “My Story.” He writes about his own story of suffering and leads us along the way to discovering what it means to truly lament, and to have joy alongside our laments. He believes that we all have reason for faithful lament. Times of wondering why? come, and when they do, what will our response be?
Men cry out under a load of oppression, they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful. But no one says, “Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?”
— Elihu to Job (Job 35:9–10)
Watch John Mark Hicks’s story via video here above or read his story below.
I married on May 22, 1977. I was young, only nineteen, and even though I had already earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible and Ministry at a private Christian college, I was incredibly naive about the world’s evil and pain. I had not experienced the pain of personal suffering, nor had my understanding of God been radically challenged.
Suffering, I had thought, does not come from God and is not in any way connected to God—only good is connected to God, which to my mind was the absolute absence of suffering.
However, 1980 shook this vision. My innocence was shattered, and my naive and simplistic belief in God’s providential goodness was tested. On April 30, 1980, Sheila, my wife of less than three years, died suddenly and unexpectedly at home due to a complication while recovering from surgery.
You see, we had hoped for children in the near future. In fact, because she had significant scoliosis, Sheila underwent back surgery so she could carry a child to full term without experiencing extraordinary pain. We had planned to pursue a missionary career in Germany, where we hoped to minister in the Eastern Bloc.
We had planned, prayed, and pursued so much, but on April 30, 1980, all those dreams crashed to the ground. The pillars of my faith were shaken by her death, and cracks began to emerge.
Had we not dedicated ourselves to God’s service? Had we not prayed for health and protection?
Why had God not empowered us for a future ministry in Germany? Why had God not preserved the life of my spouse? Did God not hear our prayers? Where were those blessings now? Why wasn’t her life spared?
I wrestled with all of these questions. After a while, at the suggestion of a friend, I renewed my study of Scripture, especially the Psalms.
Could Scripture speak to my aching heart?
I also studied Job and Ecclesiastes and reread the biblical narratives. It was as if I had never read that literature before—and, in a very real sense, I had not. I was not the same person I had been.
Before Sheila’s death, I had not empathized with Job. Before my suffering, I had not understood the intense emotions of the psalmists. Now, I too had experienced unspeakable loss, and it opened up the possibilities of an empathetic reading of Scripture, a way to empathize with the anguish of these writers.
This awakening opened up a world I never knew existed. I discovered one can read accounts of suffering empathetically only if one has already suffered or is gifted with a heart to share suffering with another. No amount of textbook exposure can generate that genuine empathy except by the work of the Spirit in one’s heart.
Before Sheila died, I can remember believing that such a world of suffering could not exist in the believer’s life. I remember thinking that the world is God’s good creation. God is good, and therefore, as a believer, I could expect good, especially in the light of the resurrection of Jesus. There was no room for despair in a world where God had eliminated it for believers.
I believed we should always rejoice and never lament.
Christians should always wear a smile, I thought. Now, as I read Psalms, Job, and other stories of lament in the Bible, I found I could relate to them. I had encountered and entered a new world, the world of faithful lament.
Faithful lament was a new category for me. How can lament, with its accusations, bewilderment, doubt, tears, and frustrations, express faith? Prior to my wife’s death, lament was unknown to me. Christianity was all about joy, celebration, and hopeful anticipation. I had learned to rejoice, to look forward to the future, and to celebrate God’s victory through ministry.
My worldview was dominated by that kind of triumphalism that says God’s army will conquer. We will set the world aright. We will establish the perfect church. My outlook had no room for lament (and little room for failure) since such would accuse or fault God for suffering. But my own loss forced me to lament because the believer, who continues to believe, can only lament in the midst of suffering.
Lament expresses the sufferer’s faith amidst the confusion and hurt.
Lament does not disown God. Rather, it calls upon God to do something, to help, and to rescue. It cries, “My God”—a cry that fills the prayers of the Psalms (3:7; 7:1; 13:3; 22:1, and many more).
By God’s grace, however, those early years of lament turned to praise because God renewed my joy through another marriage in November of 1983. Our union also brought into my life a fifteen-month-old ball of fire named Ashley. Since then, she has always filled our home with love, excitement, and unpredictability.
In 1985, God blessed us with a son we named Joshua because we had a vision for how he might one day serve God like the Joshua of old. And then, in 1987, God blessed us with another beautiful girl, Rachel. The biblical name reflected our prayer that God would use her in God’s service as well. During this time of divine refreshing, God blessed me as all my dreams, hopes, and expectations were fulfilled. My family and my ministry were my joy. Suffering seemed to be a thing of the past.
Yet, even as I gave credit to God for the joys of my new family, I still wondered about the meaning of the suffering I had endured.
Should God get credit for that as well?
As I now look back upon the heartbreak of losing Sheila, a genuine sense of gratitude arises within me. It may sound harsh, but I confess with the psalmist, “It was good for me to be afflicted” (Ps. 119:71). Of course, affliction is never good in an absolute sense (death is God’s enemy), but sometimes it is good in a relative sense.
The relative good of the psalmist’s suffering is related to the waywardness of life prior to their affliction: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Ps. 119:67). While all suffering cannot be so categorized (as, for example, in the case of Job), I identified with the psalmist’s perspective in my own particular situation at that time.
God afflicted me in faithfulness (Ps. 119:75) …
… and I still understand that past moment in my life as an act of God’s faithfulness to me.
Sheila and I were planning to spend several years on the mission field, but in my heart, I was also planning to study there and return to the States triumphantly. I would have a European Ph.D. in one hand and the glory of missionary experience in the other. I thought with those two accomplishments no Christian college would deny me the opportunity to teach.
I was arrogant in my beliefs and understanding of the Bible as I knew what was right, preached maliciously against error, and chastened everyone who left the “old paths” of my tradition. I had sided with the right wing of my heritage.
My entrenchment was typified by how closely I associated with a journal editor, who also published my first book and was himself a leading speaker among conservative churches. He epitomized these values. He published my articles, and I invited him for speaking engagements. My spirit was contentious, my attitude was arrogant, my “theology” was perfect, and my goal was self-serving.
Of course, at the time, I would have never admitted these things. Indeed, I did not understand them about myself, and probably very few, if any, recognized them in me. I did not see myself for who I really was. I had many blind spots. I know my twenty-two-year-old self better now than I did then. Hindsight is always better.
I can only imagine where I would have ended up had something not happened to change my direction.
Sheila’s death changed me. The Bible’s stories and prayers of lament changed me. My encounter with God changed me. I was gently transformed as I experienced the Spirit’s comforting presence and power through my season of grief. This profoundly affected me. I once thought I had God so pegged that I knew what to expect and I could plan my life accordingly.
My experience, however, taught me that surrender and submission are the most important virtues of faith. Humility must replace arrogance, submission must replace pride, and gentleness must replace contentiousness. In other words, God’s glory must replace my selfishness, and I must trust God. Without that experience—at that moment—my heart may have hardened and my path may have been set.
God used Sheila’s death to change me. But was that fair? Why should Sheila suffer for my good?
Why her instead of me? I was the problem, not her!
I was filled with pride, but she was not. I wanted to move up the hierarchical ladder of my church, but she just wanted to serve God. I wanted to be noticed, but that did not consume her. Why her instead of me?
These questions have often plagued me. They are difficult questions, and in lament, faith asks all those questions. I have no answers to them even now. But no matter how I try to answer them, I am grateful for the change God worked in my life. Through that dark season in my life—whatever its origin and reason—God worked powerfully to affect good as my heart was opened to the Holy Spirit’s transforming presence.
Despite the questions, I confess with the psalmist that it was good for me to have been afflicted. My sense is that if I had not been tried by suffering, my heart would have continued down its selfish, prideful, and arrogant path. My life would have been very different. Now I praise God for that affliction and I thank God for the change wrought in me. That change came in the context of prayerful lament over Sheila’s death. But how can I thank God for the death of one I loved so dearly? I am not grateful for her death, but I am grateful for what God did in me in the aftermath of her death.
This is an excerpt from Anchors for the Soul by John Mark Hicks. Learn more about this book and order it here.
More Lament in My Story
Since 1983, I have constantly thanked God for renewal through Ashley, Joshua, and Rachel. However, late in 1990 calamity again entered my life. Joshua had always been a strong, strapping, and energetic boy, although he was hyperactive and always getting into trouble. He enjoyed breaking things, was constantly disruptive, and was quickly expelled from the Pre-K program of a local Baptist church. Even though his behavior was never malicious, it was destructive, and we were worried about his future.
We knew there was a problem, but it took several years before we knew what it was. Joshua was developing slowly, and he was extremely aggressive. He never said more than one sentence at a time, and his sentences were never more than four or five words. He could never color between the lines, never learned the alphabet, and could rarely do anything that other four- and five-year-olds could do. He was developmentally delayed and socially dysfunctional.
We began to seek remedies because we doubted our parenting skills. We took Joshua to a child psychologist. We tried medication for hyperactivity. Nothing seemed to work. Instead of progressing, Joshua began to regress. He began to lose what communication skills he had. He returned to wearing diapers at the age of five (he was only out of diapers for a single year during his life), and his aggressiveness increased.
Eventually, at the suggestion of a nurse who happened to be visiting the worship assembly of a congregation where we also happened to be visiting one Sunday, we took him to a pediatric neurologist. He immediately recognized that our son had the features and characteristics of a rare genetic disorder.
That day we discovered that our son would never get better, and in the first few months of 1991, we learned that his genetic condition was terminal. Joshua had Mucopolysaccharidosis IIIA (Sanfilippo Syndrome A), a genetic disorder. He was missing an enzyme that breaks down the storage of carbohydrates in the cells. The condition destroys the brain and debilitates the body.
Joshua got to the point where he could no longer communicate verbally, could not walk by his own strength, and was eventually bedridden. Joshua left us when he was sixteen, after a slow mental and physical degeneration.
Heartache had once again entered my life and the life of my family. It attacked one of my children. And once again, I identified with Job. His children were his joy, his spiritual concern, and his investment in the future, but he lost them to death. Now my joy, one of my investments in the future, was gone; my only son was dead. He would not be the leader among God’s people for which we had hoped and prayed. He did not even play little league baseball, much less for the Chicago Cubs (one of my vicarious dreams), and we never heard the words “I love you” from his lips.
However, I had not learned to grieve as well as I thought I had. I thought that my days of lament and frustration with God were part of my past and that I had been transformed to a faith that would no longer question God the way I had previously questioned him. My anger toward God returned, but I mostly tried to hide it.
Instead, I “chose” to play the “hero”—keeping my grief and tears private. I even hid them from my wife. I put chose in quotation marks because in one sense I did not choose it. It was my role in the world—so I thought. Consequently, I did not allow myself to fully grieve Joshua’s death.
Dealing with a child with a terminal illness, making ends meet, and being available and present as a husband and father while playing the role of a “strong Christian leader” and hero was challenging, and I failed. My marriage suffered and ultimately ended. Perhaps the grief was too much for us, but the hiddenness of my own grieving self and the pretensions of my façade contributed to the demise of my marriage. I was not emotionally present for my wife in our grief because authentic presence would mean facing the reality of my broken self, and I did not want to do that. It was too painful.
In that brokenness, I contributed to the death of my own marriage and created more pain—not only for me but also for my wife, my children, and my family. Moreover, that brokenness became a breeding ground for addictive behaviors. I am a workaholic.
I sought, as I had in the past, to fill my emptiness and avoid my pain by immersing myself in tasks and busyness.
But it didn’t work. The pain became too big to be soothed by something as ultimately superficial as “success” (which, for me, was recognition and approval).
Death, divorce, and addictive behaviors have shaped my life. I have told that story in another book, Meeting God at the Shack: A Journey into Spiritual Recovery. I have retold the story here to provide a context for what I will offer in the following chapters.
I have suffered great personal loss about which it is difficult, even now, to speak. I do not speak of it lightly. I am an insider to suffering rather than an outside observer. I speak as a sufferer, and I hope that gives my words some credibility, even when I address some difficult topics.
My name is John Mark, and I am powerless over suffering and the brokenness of life.
The Questions Remain
I have experienced two kinds of joy: joy without having had previous lament (life with Sheila) and joy after lament. I have come to believe that both demonstrate God’s blessing, especially the joy despite lament.
Joy with lament is rooted in the experience of “seeing” God as we sit on the trash heap (see Job 42:5). It is a confidence that comes through experiencing God’s presence in the sanctuary (see Ps. 73:17).
The Psalms and Job point us to this kind of lament through which God gives songs to the heart. Elihu, as quoted at the beginning of this chapter, pointed Job toward the God “who gives songs in the night” (Job 35:10). God can give joy in the midst of lament. God can give a song of praise in the middle of suffering’s darkness.
Lament gives way to joy, as it gives way to praise, even when lament never disappears entirely.
Elihu pointed Job in the right direction. When Job finally “saw” God, he found a song of praise, even during his night of suffering (Job 42:2–6).
Nevertheless, it is still lament. We still question, wonder, despair, cry, and doubt. Lament often turns to praise, but sometimes lament needs time to complain, question, and plead.
Had not Sheila and I sought to serve the kingdom of God through work in the Eastern Bloc? Had my second wife and I not prayed for Joshua’s health? Did we not ask God to raise him up as a leader among God’s people? Why did God deny us this joy? How can Joshua serve God in the grave? Couldn’t my marriage have survived to become a testimony of faith in our community?
The questions remain, and the laments continue. But the laments are not born from a lack of faith but from a believing, though hurting, heart. And yet there are also “songs in the night.” How can both exist together? Scripture and experience have taught me that God gives songs of praise to faithful lamenters who experience the night, and God does it in unexpected and surprising ways.
This is Chapter 1 from Anchors for the Soul by John Mark Hicks. You may also be interested in the Anchors for the Soul Video Course and the companion workbook, Journaling Through Anchors for the Soul.
JOHN MARK HICKS has taught in institutions affiliated with Churches of Christ since 1982, including Harding School of Theology from 1991 to 2000 and Lipscomb University from 2000 to the present, where he is currently a Professor of Theology. He has authored or co-authored twelve books and contributed articles to several books and periodicals, both academic and popular. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife Jennifer, and together they share five living children and two deceased. They also have six grandchildren.