“How are you doing?” the tenth person asked me. I smiled and said “fine”. Only, I wasn’t really. But that day, just like the day before I tried to put on a happy face and say that I was fine.
I’m sure you’ve been there; those hard days, that lonely path of suffering where you don’t feel that anyone could possibly understand. But you smile and say “I’m fine”. There are many reasons… I just want to hide, they won’t understand, they actually don’t understand, they won’t know what to say, it’s too awkward, I’m supposed to be happy, what’s wrong with me?
I was reading a book1 recently and something the author talked about stood out to me as so true in many churches today. We tend to have this idea that if you’re a Christian you’re supposed to be happy no matter what. And especially when you come to church! If you’re suffering, well that’s normal, but we’re here to worship God not focus on our suffering. Todd Billings writes, “…when we inevitably face the reality of death or suffering – along with the fear, anger, and grief faced during other hardships – we are not encouraged to bring those ‘to church’; such emotions have come to be frowned on as ‘unreligious’. When worship expresses only ‘victory,’ it can unintentionally suggest that the broken and the lonely and the hurting have no place here.” (p. 41) But is that the way of Scripture? All throughout the book of Psalms we have psalms of lament. They are songs lamenting, complaining and crying out to God in the midst of suffering. Do you know how to comfort a suffering brother or sister? Too often most of us, if we do speak, say something like “I’ll be praying for you” (but then never follow up - this happens ALL the time, but I am guilty too!) or offer some trite word of “comfort” that actually isn’t comforting at all. How often has someone said to someone suffering “Don’t worry, God will work it all for good” or “God says we need to rejoice in our suffering”? While that is Biblical truth please excuse me while I go and nurse the wound that you just poured salt on. Unfortunately sometimes our efforts to help don't end up helping at all.
Too often we focus just on the need to praise God instead of the reality of suffering. Billings further writes, “Cherry-picking only the praises from the Psalms tends to shape a church culture in which only positive emotions can be expressed before God in faith. Since my diagnosis with cancer, I’ve found that my fellow Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death.”
But we may ask, is it OK to complain to God? Isn’t that an expression of unbelief? It can be. Our lamenting to God can be misguided. But while we are called to “rejoice always” (Phil. 4:4) that doesn’t mean that we rejoice the actual suffering itself, rather we rejoice as we look past the suffering and see a God we can trust. “The Psalms bring our whole life before God – in happiness and grief, in joy and bitterness – and focus our eyes on God’s promises.” We can look to God and express anger at sin and its effects, we can cry out to God for judgment. God is a God of justice after all. But in these moments we yield Him the right to act and trust His timing. You notice in these psalms that they start off with lament, but then they grow. The psalmist moves from lament to a statement of trust in the Lord’s faithfulness even in the midst of his suffering. Lamenting to God does not mean that you have unbelief, although it can at times, it means that you realize that this isn’t the way things are supposed to be. We should bring our lamentations to God, but not against Him. If your laments are a prayer to God, than they are actually a form of worship, not a form of unbelief. Despair does not pray at all, unbelief accuses God, but lament brings its complaint to God, and looks upward. The Enemy of course will seek to use this as an occasion to condemn you for unbelief, as if you should be some kind of super-Christian who only rejoices in the midst of extreme suffering. That kind of person does not exist! Certainly God gives some an extra dose of grace in some circumstances to be remarkably joyful, but God also does not minimize our pain. It is real, and He wants to share in it with us. “Praise, petition, and lament in the Psalms are all tightly woven together in prayer that help us recognize and rest in God’s promises.”
Psalm 77:1-3 says, “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.” Psalm 13:1 cries out “How long will you hide your face from me? How long O Lord?” Psalm 62:8 says to “pour out your heart” to God. That means going to God will all your emotions. Take your pain, your disappointment, your confusion, your fear to God. That’s what prayer is; prayer is worries and doubts taken to God, to the One who can actually do something with them. Another song of lament in the Bible comes from the book of Lamentations. Here we have a whole book full of laments to God concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of God’s people. Especially chapter 3 where Jeremiah is despairing of God’s judgment against Israel. But then he says, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord's mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23). There is hope, the sun will shine on you again.
It’s OK to feel sad, it’s OK to grieve. You don’t have to put on a happy face, you can be honest about your feelings and your struggles. Part of the beauty of the church is that we are all broken, we all need help. Don't be ashamed to admit it. Listen! We should not hide our needs from our brothers and sisters. We need to learn to have compassion on those who are hurting and you can help us. Instead of giving advice we need to learn to cry out to God with you for deliverance. Let us walk alongside of you.
Next time someone asks you how you are doing, be brave and try to be a little more honest. Start by saying something like "I'm just OK" and see how they respond. And for the rest of us, next time you ask someone how they’re doing, are you ready to really listen and love them?
1 All quotes from this post are taken from J. Todd Billings’ book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. Even if cancer is not your struggle, this book will still be extremely helpful and very encouraging to you as you walk through your own form of suffering, or as you seek to minister to others in midst of their suffering.