Lizzie died when she was thirty-seven.
She was the first member of our immediate family to be snatched away from us.
My wife Edrie’s eldest sister had struggled with illness from birth. She’d been born in the 1940s, when hospitals did not yet understand just how devastating maternal deprivation could be. So when she first showed signs of diseased kidneys, she was taken into hospital and isolated from her parents. They could only look through the glass in the window of her ward. Not surprisingly, she didn’t recognize them when she eventually returned home.
The shadow of failing kidneys haunted her all her life. But inspired by her faith in Christ, she never surrendered to bitterness or self-pity. I well remember her courage and her wonderful sense of humour. Lizzie refused to let her illness define her—and she had to battle through long years of it.
But in the end, she lost her battle.
Edrie resembled her sister in both looks and personality. The loss of her sister hit her hard. It was during the months that followed Lizzie’s death that I discovered that Christians are not always as sensitive as they should be. I think of Tony (not his real name), who after church one Sunday came to “comfort” Edrie:
I just want to tell you that I know how you feel. My wife died last year. She is with Jesus. I have never shed a tear for her. Why should I? And don’t let me find you weeping for your sister. Only a selfish person would want her back. So buck up, and don’t let the side down.
Yes, he really did say that!
I’d like to tell you that he was the only one. But over the years, I have encountered similar sentiments. “Christians should be stoic” is the underlying narrative. This raises a whole host of questions.
Do we need permission to grieve? Is grief selfish? Should we be afraid of what others think? Are we letting the side down? Is it better to tell lies and pretend we don’t feel any grief, saying we are okay when really our lives are falling apart?
So many masks
Christians wear masks. We pretend that all is well when we are actually struggling. Often, the mask we put on is a kind of confident triumphalism which tells the world that our faith is strong and that the trials of this world somehow don’t touch us. In particular, we deny the grief and sorrow which we feel in the face of loss.
There are all sorts of reasons we do this.
Perhaps we think that if we confessed our inner struggles, we would be letting the side down. What would my brothers and sisters in church think of me? Their lives are so together and sorted. (If only we knew!) Anyway, there are plenty of people worse off than me. It’s better to smile and keep quiet. Isn’t that what good Christians do? And what about my witness? What would my non-Christian friends or colleagues think if I told them how I really felt?
Then again, we may be suspicious of allowing our feelings to show. Isn’t the Christian life a matter of the truth conquering the emotions? We walk by faith, not feelings, distrusting demonstrative displays of strong emotion. We get embarrassed when people open up to us and would never want to inflict our pain on others, for we are terrified of embarrassing or overwhelming them. Surely it’s better to be disciplined and controlled?
Then of course there is the whole cacophony of voices around us telling us that triumphant faith conquers everything and we should pull ourselves together. There is no room for pain. Voicing our griefs and sorrows is a denial of God’s goodness and a sure sign of unbelief. Remember what happened to Israel in the wilderness? The people grumbled against God and ended up dying outside the promised land.1 With this in mind, the author of Hebrews warns us, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (3:12). Shouldn’t we exercise faith instead?
In short, it’s better to fix our masks firmly in place and pretend that all is well.
Ditch the mask!
These arguments seem so persuasive—that is, until we turn to the Bible. The root problem here is that we do not know our Bibles well enough. For it is full of men and women who genuinely struggled with pain and loss. And what is so wonderful and unique about the Christian Scriptures is that they tell us the truth about the human condition:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom. 8:22–23)
As we shall see, the Bible allows us to be honest. It gives us permission to lament. Lamentation gives grief, sorrow, regret, and disappointment their due. God made us, and he does not expect us to jettison our humanity when we come to faith and are saved. Salvation restores us to what we were always meant to be. And not only is lamenting okay, but it is a vital part of recovering a biblically balanced view of the world.
Lamentation is the prayer language God has given to us so that we can tell him about our sorrows and rekindle our trust in his fatherly care. This was a language used by prophets and apostles, as well as a myriad of unnamed Christians. And this was the language which Jesus himself used in the midst of his trials:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? (Ps. 22:1)
And sometimes our own prayers are little more than a groan:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Rom. 8:26)
We know that one day there will be no more tears (Rev. 21:4). But we are not there yet. Today we live between Eden and the new creation, and this place is a vale of tears.
To lament is to be genuinely Christian; sadness does not constitute spiritual failure. We are not “letting the side down” or “spoiling our witness” when we lament. Rather than denying faith, lamentation is an expression of faith. As we shall see, we must never confuse a genuine and heartfelt lament or complaint with unbelief and grumbling. As author Mark Vroegop puts it,
“All humans cry; only Christians lament. Lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.”
If we are to depend on God in all things, we must learn to mourn, bringing our grief to God, expressing our very real emotions in a healthy way. There are two main Hebrew words translated “lament.” One carries the idea of a dirge—a sombre song expressing grief. The other can mean to groan with pain and sorrow. In both cases, the lamenting or mourning is vocal and demonstrative.
When we cry out to God in pain, trusting however feebly in his love, then in pain and lamentation we can be sure of his smile, because “the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Ps. 147:10–11). As we turn our broken hearts towards God, we discover his kindness and goodness. We feel the warm embrace of our loving heavenly Father. We find boundless comfort in the grace of our precious Saviour. We hear whispers of reassurance as we are drawn into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Our broken hearts draw us to delight in the compassionate heart of our triune God.
And this is a precious place to be.
We often mistakenly believe that our strength is what God wants from us, when it is actually brokenness which pleases his heart:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for
my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9–10)
So, rather than discouraging healthy expressions of emotion—whether of joy or of pain—the Bible urges us to be honest. It also wants us to recognize that sharing our pain with our Christian family is a good thing. We are in this together, weeping with those who weep (see Rom. 12:15).
We need to learn the language of lamentation. We need to learn to lament.
The following article is taken from Learning to Lament: Our Heavenly Father’s Embrace When We Grieve.