Once upon a time…for a long time…I hated the Psalms. Their only purpose seemed to reinforce the idea that suffering was quick and trivial; with a little effort, one could scrounge up some joy by simply believing that God would eventually sweep in and solve all your problems. For someone who, at the time, was considering suicide, the Psalms only served to worsen my guilt over my inability to “get over” my pain.
And then I realized I was reading them the wrong way.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes. (Psalm 6:1-3,6-7)
I was reading them the wrong way because my denomination was using them to prop up a sunny, quick-fix doctrine. Psalm 6? I might have heard it quoted twice my entire 28 years in church. Psalm 145, which says God has compassion on all He has made? Not once. But Psalm 23, 118 and 103–until I could nearly recite them backwards.
The message was that God had promised happiness and comfort for his people. So if you weren’t experiencing happiness and comfort in your walk with Him, something was wrong with YOUR faith!
And what about all those worldly people who needed to see that faith brought giddy (i.e., godly) happiness? A church full of mourners wasn’t going to convince anyone to turn to Christ.
As a result, people struggling with genuine grief and trauma in the church were shunned. Shamed. Ostracized. Ignored. Pushed into the corners. Held at arm’s length. Someone might offer to pray with you once in a blue moon or quote a cherry-picked scripture concerning “the joy of the Lord,” but no one was going to listen to you bare your soul for 20 minutes or invite you out for coffee.
I wish I could say that was then and this is now. But alas. Much of the evangelical church still lacks room and compassion for grieving people.
And the church is failing for it.
Yes, Jesus desires to bring joy to his people. And, yes, joy comes by faith and by remembering the promises of God in His Word. But I believe we, as Christians, lack understanding about what joy really is. Joy and grief are not mutually exclusive. Joy can replace grief, but it doesn’t always. Scripture shows that joy is often experienced in the midst of grief, as a source of strength that bears people through–not above–their pain:
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24)
We forget, too, that Jesus is particularly close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18). He is the Great Physician. When he senses a hurting soul, he comes running with arms outstretched. When someone shames a grieving person, intentionally or unintentionally, they cut that person off from the savior’s embrace. They tell that person that he or she cannot be fully loved or accepted in the midst of their suffering; therefore, they must “fix themselves” in order to receive God’s blessing and favor.
Such is an anti-Christ posture.
Christ’s church was built for suffering people. Jesus called to him all who were “weary and heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28). His self-stated purpose was “to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). You can’t set anyone free without first walking into their prison. Over and over, we see Jesus among the sick and in the houses of the mourning. The Early Church, following this example, was so dead set on reaching out to the disenfranchised that Roman historians labeled Christianity “the religion of women and slaves.”
Now we have drive-through churches and fast-food faith. People are leaving hungrier and the pews are getting emptier.
There is no Christ without suffering. There is no love without suffering people to lavish it on. By asking the grieving to get over it and move on, the evangelical church is denying the reality of Christ and his ministry. Look, I get it: allowing people to suffer and grieve is hard. Grief is ugly. Pain is scary. We want to rush in and fix it quickly with the right words. Carrying another person’s burdens can be exhausting. Maddening. Heartbreaking. But until we’re willing to climb down into the gutters of pain with our brothers and sisters, we’ll never experience the fullness of Christ or the depths of his love.
And the church will continue to dwindle into irrelevancy.