I cry more than most people, men and women alike, more than some children. Lately I’ve been crying even more than I used to. It’s not senility… Umm, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I cry a lot. It seems like the only thing one can do about all the sin, sickness, and suffering in our world. Human history has probably always been this tragic and I just didn’t notice it before. To be honest, I didn’t really want to notice. It’s not that I’m depressed about it or thinking about leaving the faith or anything. I think something has begun to break loose inside, something good and maybe something bad. I have to say that in tandem with this sorrow, stemming from some deep place inside, there’s a joy and a trust that I can certainly take no credit for or attribute to employing some lost and recently found spiritual discipline. It just is, and I’m grateful for it.Not all tears are created equally. They come in an assortment of stripes and during a variety of situations. There are attention-getting tears and tears of self-pity, neither of which are the best of tears. I’ve cried enough of them myself to know that they don’t yield their desired results. Then there are tears of repentance and others of joy. I recommend both of those at their appropriate times. Still there others shed in grief, uncertainty, confusion, fear, and best of all, empathy. Though are clearly modeled and recommended by the biblical poets and prophets as both therapeutic and effectual.
Last time I spoke of the weeping poets. I want to come back now to a prophet, the prince the lament, Jeremiah and his bucket loads of tears.
Babylon had brutalized the Jews, left their capital in a pile of rubble, kidnapped all the best and brightest and left behind the children, widows, and sick so they couldn’t rebuild. Along with his calls to repentance and hopeful predictions for a better future, Jeremiah’s laments were fitting, personally therapeutic, and nationally redemptive. His weeping was neither self-pity nor capitulation. He felt what God felt and he wept in pain for the pain of others.
Jeremiah lamented his own losses, but more so the losses of his people. This kind of sadness is called “compassion,” which has been defined as, “Someone else’s pain in my heart.” “Let me feel what you feel, Lord!” is not at all a safe prayer. A.W. Tozer said, “If you want to be happy never ask for the gift of discernment!” We might begin to actually feel something of what God feels and, apart from his help, not be able to cope.
I believe that with all our triumphalist talk and super-faith spirituality these days we’ve lost the art of lamenting and thus damaged our capability for Christ-like compassion. If we lose touch with our happy thoughts and replace them with tears are we showing that we don’t have the right kind of faith, and then God, in disgust, will refuse to intervene? If we started weeping with those who weep would we lose our joy? It’s impossible to have both joy and sorrow at the same time – right?
An emotionally healthy person (and church) is one that knows how to grieve at the appropriate times over the right things. Given the chaos and suffering in the world it is, in my opinion, disrespectful to have permanent Pollyanna grins on our faces. In the same way it would’ve been nothing less than disingenuous denial for Jeremiah to express nothing but victory and gladness in the midst of his nation’s disintegration.
I believe that we Christians tend to rush too quickly to joy. I’m quite aware of the verses that teach us to rejoice in our sufferings, but they don’t map out the entire itinerary on the journey toward joyous triumph. We’re permitted, even commanded, to take brief (if not prolonged) detours into lament. In our effort to keep our churches upbeat and positive, I believe we skip an intended leg of the journey. Of course we want to be as cheerful and optimistic as possible but we mustn’t blow past sadness on the way there. I’m not a naturally melancholy person. I like happiness as much as the next guy. But more and more I feel compelled to join in harmony with the Spirit and the creation that groan (Romans 8).
The prevailing prosperity narrative is not only unrealistic, but is a slap in the face of a God who grieves over the pain of those for whom “success” is as distant as the stars. Lamenting is telling the truth that the world is in trouble and that we can’t fix all its problems. If we don’t lament over the innocent victims of terrorism, disease, and poverty; who will? Should we leave it to those who don’t yet have the “Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” living inside them? Of all people we should be the ones to grieve over racism, over trafficking victims, over aborted babies and their mothers. How can we not weep with the abused and abandoned children in our own country and the orphaned children in Syria, Afghanistan, Honduras, Brazil and beyond? We sing our happy worship songs – and we should! But to fail to lament over those who have little to no chance for a happy life is unhealthy and inhumane.
Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound. Proverbs 25:20
They say that we have to learn how to grieve our losses for our own emotional health sake and that if we fail to keep moving through all the stages of grief we’ll tend to get jammed up inside. Does it seem to you like our nation is stuck in a state of anger? We’re angry about a bad economy, the threat of terrorism, corruption in government. You name it; we’re pissed about it! All of these issues and more beg for an angry response. If we’re not righteously angry about how our country and much of the world is spiraling down morally and spiritually, there’s something wrong with us. But even though our anger is justified, it’s out of proportion, and worse, it’s the only emotion some people ever feel. They’re stuck in anger and I think one reason is that they skipped over sadness. We’ve lost the art of the lament and the Church doesn’t seem to be able to do much better.
To be honest, I prefer feeling angry to feeling sad. Sadness makes me feel weak. Anger, on the other hand, gives me a sense – albeit a false sense – of power. Weeping like Jeremiah can be confused with weakness and powerlessness. The fact is, I am powerless to fix the world. I can’t even fix myself, let alone the big bad world! That realization in itself is a healthy thing – yes? I wonder if we’re so pissed off because we fail to identify with the world’s sorrows and the sorrow in God’s heart over the world. We skipped sorrow and got ourselves stuck in surliness.
I think we preachers are to blame for much of the shortage of lament in our churches. As I look back on my pastoring days I have to admit that I was less than enthused about lamenting in our gatherings lest people be less than enthused about coming back the next Sunday! Too much weeping over the state of the world might discourage people and spell a loss of membership. Pretty spiritual, right? We church leaders tend to want to keep people happy so they’ll keep coming back, continue giving, and man the machine. Letting seriousness and sadness in once in a while might derail the forward-moving train. Whether aware of it or not, this is wrong thinking and keeps the Church in a juvenile state. The Body may grow in size, but it will never mature without ever feeling anything but happy and triumphant.
I’ll say it again, I’m not suggesting that we live and worship in perpetual sadness. Once in a while I sneak a look at the back of the Book and remind myself of how it all turns out! God’s story has a good ending. We can and must sing and shout in hopeful joy of that ending! I’m not saying that we should stay in our sorrow over our broken world forever, but we do have to stay there long enough to let it cycle through and possibly morph into a more mature faith. Maybe our faith for world change is as thin as it is because we’ve not let ourselves grieve humanity’s failures and repent of them. Sometimes a good cry can cleanse the emotional palate and rid us of our hopelessness so we can see a little more clearly what God sees.
Tell me what you are thinking about this subject. Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Barney, you’re bumming me out, so could you please stop it?
Unless a critical mass of you beg me to stop, I’ve got more to say about lamenting. Next time I’ll address the utilitarian advantages of a good healthy lament. Until then…