“Everything happens for a reason.” “God’s got great things in store for you.” “God has a plan for your life.” These well-meant phrases were the bane of my existence when my husband endured an extended period of unemployment several years ago. I know when we say these things our hope is to point to God in the midst of disappointment, but in reality we minimize the person’s sorrow and eliminate their freedom to lament.
I’ve thought a lot about those years of endless upbeat words in the last few weeks, and wondered: Do Christians have a hard time expressing negative emotions?
Even the idea sounds a little bizarre to me, since a good chunk of God’s Word is dedicated to psalms of lament. As some of the most intense verses of biblical poetry, these prayers cry out against the fallenness of our world. Yet at some point, those who believe in God started to label those negative feelings as “unChristian.” We started to think that in order to be faithful to God and appreciative of the grace we’ve been given we have to be happy all the time.
Enter COVID-19. A few weeks ago, schools here in Pennsylvania closed for the rest of the year. I knew this was coming, but still found myself mourning what we’ve lost. For the foreseeable future, my children won’t be in the same room as their teachers and classmates. My son will miss his kindergarten carnival, my daughter her spring field trip to the Children’s Museum.
In my own world, my cozy home office has now been invaded by three other people. My quiet Wednesdays, which were once for writing and reflection, are now filled with homeschooling my kids, figuring out my fractured work schedule alongside my husband’s, and trying to locate groceries for the coming week.
I miss being with my friends at church and leading my little Imagine Dwell group. I miss seeing and hugging my extended family. I miss going to stores and roaming aimlessly. I miss going to restaurants and watching patrons gawk at my kids’ amazing behavior. (They really are the best little restaurant-goers!)
And some days I can’t even allow myself to feel grief for all of these things because there is so much loss and death in our world right now that these momentary inconveniences seem trivial.
How does a happy-all-the-time Christianity allow us to lament these losses?
The Worship Sourcebook describes the lament psalms as a vehicle for us to express grief and frustration at our fallen world, explaining, “These biblical laments witness to God’s desire for honesty in worship. No experience in life is too difficult to be brought before God. A lament is an implicit act of faith in which the community of faith turns to God as its only source of hope and comfort.” (Faith Alive 2004, p. 111).
The practice of lament gives us permission to grieve the fallen state of our world in a way that points to God and his coming Kingdom. When we stare just at the cross of Jesus Christ and try to ignore all of the brokenness it saves us from, we lose some of the beauty of the gift of salvation.
And yet, our instinct is to rush through lament so that we arrive more quickly at hope. Sadness hurts, so this makes sense, but mourning is something that takes seasons, not days. In Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner describes how Jewish mourning marks not just the days after death, but also the months and years, explaining, “This calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast-food society can easily accommodate” (Paraclete Press 2008, p. 33 ).
When I refuse to take time to lament, and instead rush feelings of hope and happiness, I find that my forced hope feels shallow and false. It’s only when I wade through the heaviness of lament that I can come to a true realization of hope and more perfectly recognize the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice.
As we continue to navigate COVID-19, perhaps our goal should be simply to sit with our friends and loved ones in this difficult season—simply to be present in the midst of hardship without an agenda to make things better. Embarking together on this slow journey through these trials will bring us to hope in Christ, but we must wait for him to bring us there, and resist the urge to force our own paths to happiness.