Pictured left are a group of Jewish men in Jerusalem observing the annual Tisha B’Av, their national day of lamentation and fasting. I cannot imagine this kind of thing being observed in any Christian circles. Yet lament and sorrow are expressed all over the Scriptures, and is often done so quite dramatically in public with the tearing of one’s own clothing, removal of clothes, sitting in dirt and ash, screaming, wailing, and other displays. In many western churches, worship experiences demand only worship and exclude the very natural and human outpourings of heart-felt grief: we’re told to be happy and only be joyful, ignoring that very simple command in Romans to rejoice with those full of joy and to mourn with the grieving. By contrast, I frequently express heart-felt grief and lamenting sorrow in prayer, and it gets so overwhelming sometimes that I, like the Jewish man in the picture on the left, unable to even sit or stand. Sometimes I can’t even say anything. It is extremely liberating to do, even when it does not reach a prescribed crescendo of prescribed western-culture ‘praise points’.
In fact, I have accepted the fact from what the Bible says and form my own experience that lamentation doesn’t always end in praise points. It can (e.g. Psalm 77, as praise follows lamentation); other times there is no praise or resolution (e.g. Psalm 88, where blame is entirely shifted onto Yahweh, yet the psalter isn’t told to be quiet and stop outpouring; God lets the man grieve). Very often, the prayers of the Psalms actually fluctuate between worship and lament, back to worship, and then back to lament again (e.g. Psalm 31).
One Filippino pastor has written a very helpful article on the expression of grief in church named ‘Preaching Lament’ in the book ‘He Began With Moses: Preaching the Old Testament Today’ (ed. by Dr. Grenville Kent, Paul Kissling, and Laurence Turner, IVP, 2010). In it, he observes that Christians are often too quick to get lamentation out of the way and get to the praise bit, rather than allowing it to take its own natural course. They prefer to belch out cliches such as ‘The Lord giveth and he taketh away … God is in control and all things work together for good. So we should always praise the Lord no matter what …’ and that testimonies with lamentation would not get a hearing in church because it is construed as ‘too negative’ (pp. 64, 65).
We do this in the west too. Why? I think much of this is connected with the fact that:
- western culture is averse to and confused about emotional expression. Largely stoic, British-based cultures (with the exception of the US, to a certain extent) smother emotional expression with the ‘stiff upper lip’. But this is very counter-cultural to the rest of the world. In Asia (e.g. Korea) and Europe (e.g. Italy) and other places, people grieve in ways not dissimilar to the Israelites. I attended a funeral of my wife’s cousin in Korea who had killed herself and I witnessed this first hand. At first, it was unusual, but I got used to it and eventually participated in it myself. It was incredibly liberating.
- people have not been shown or given permission to express emotions of grief. When I share my testimony about freedom from homosexuality, I often publicly weep because I am grieved at my sin (though it is forgiven) and the ways that I have hurt God and others. I also weep in joy at God’s goodness. Many people think I put this on, but it never is: it’s a natural outpouring. And it’s very very cathartic. I don’t wait around for permission to do this. I just do it, and people gravitate to it because it gives them permission to vent their sorrows. Even non-Christians know this, and often wonder why Christians don’t express their sorrows more: little wonder so many of them won’t go to church because they feel it is too artificial.
Not doing this lead to a church that is like the women of the Stepford Wives, who put on fake smiles to hide what’s really going on. But who wants a church like that? Who likes having their grief stifled by Christian jargon? Thankfully the ministry of preachers like John Piper is challenging many emotionally-stunted evangelicals to get emotional and to use their emotions to draw close to God. They’re promising first steps, because true worship is not meant to be outwardly adoring and praise-based (i.e. all mountain top moments as what is constantly idolised in Pentecostal Churches). Nor should it be emotionally flat (i.e. what happens in a lot of Anglican and Reformed circles), but in harnessing lament in both the pulpit and worship experience. Otherwise people will think that God isn’t interested in the aches of their hearts, which is oh-so untrue. The Bible is positive about emotions:
- We can get angry, especially when we have been wronged. But we should never get aggressive or allow the sun to go down on our anger (Psalm 4:4, Ephesians 4:26-27). Give yourself permission to be angry, because Jesus got angry and He openly mourned and expressed Himself emotionally. Ignore the rubbish which churchfolk say, to try and make you feel guilty about being emotional, like “Christians are not supposed to get angry and cry”. That’s not Christianity: that’s worldly western culture and it will damage your connection with God.
- If you find yourself unable or unwilling to get emotional, call it out to God in prayer. Ask Him to help you get emotional and renounce that part of you which wants to shut it all down. Practise it: the more practice, the better you’ll get at this, like everything else. Often when I preach, people ask me all the time how it is that they too can be more emotional in their connection with God. The good news is that it is neither mechanical nor mystic: just do it. Be careful, though, not to be like Job and do it in self-pitying, self-righteousness, and if you’re angry with God, then name it. God invites us not to hide it but to confess it, renounce it, and learn to trust Him in faith. The point of telling God about the anger and lament is not to keep holding it but surrender it so that the heart will be healed and strengthened;
- Find safe places and times to express your sorrow. Do it alone if you must, because not everyone will understand or appreciate it. Do it in your car or spare room. Cry into a pillow and get their frustration out physically in exercise or some other safe way. It will be so worth it!
- Mourn with others who mourn. Be a listening ear: don’t eulogise and blame-shift and guilt people when they’re grieving, like Job’s friends, because you’ll be doing much more harm than good. Don’t minimise pain by comparing it to others by saying, “What are you crying about? Others have had it much harder than you”. By doing this you can use your own pain and healing to pass on blessing to others;
- Read great passages like Psalm 91 for comfort. Pray like the Psalter (139:23-24), where he asks God to test his heart and expose his anxious thoughts for healing. Memorise them;
- Allow the grief and the negative emotions to take you on their journey. The more we fight them, the more painful it will be. Just go with the flow, and pray that God will guide it towards Himself. Just go through the emotions for yourself too. Why not?
- The good comes with the bad. The negative emotions may lead themselves to praise, but they may not. But why is that a problem? Why are we in such a hurry? Give yourself time and permission to grieve and be human. You’re not a robot or a mere animal: you’re made in God’s image, and He too experiences grief (see Genesis 6:5-6) and gut-wrenching pity (see Hosea 11), among other things.
In most occasions in the Bible where lament is prayed, it does result in praise, but it is not confected or forced; it comes because the pain has been surrendered to God and, therefore, the heart has capacity to receive and pass on blessing. I have SO much more to say on this, but this will do for now. Below is Psalm 77 to give and example of how this all works:
I cried out to God with my voice—
To God with my voice;
And He gave ear to me.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing;
My soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered God, and was troubled;
I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I have considered the days of old,
The years of ancient times.
I call to remembrance my song in the night;
I meditate within my heart,
And my spirit makes diligent search.
Will the Lord cast off forever?
And will He be favourable no more?
Has His mercy ceased forever?
Has His promise failed forevermore?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah
And I said, “This is my anguish;
But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the works of Yahweh;
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
I will also meditate on all Your work,
And talk of Your deeds …
In the beginning, the sufferer in the Psalm is confounded and cannot sleep, he is so wracked with sorrow. In the middle, he throws the big questions at God, even accusing Him of not really loving him. YET at the end he remembers God’s saving graces. May it be so for us, that as we give God our aches and pains, He will hear and heal the roots of all that pain. In doing so, we become more full of Him and our hearts are engaged, not just our heads. Then and only then will we be able to truly obey Him and have capacity from the overflow of our hearts to love, bless, and obey God in spirit and in truth.