This week, the news of the suicide of Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and mental health advocate, has once again stirred the attention and anguish of many in the Church in regard to mental health – and how we respond. Wilson was an outspoken and vulnerable advocate for those who suffered with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, having himself struggled through the darkness of these issues first had.
With it also being National Suicide Prevention Week, I’ve been thinking a great deal about what it means to suffer in the Church. For many, the onset of negative emotions and mental illness has driven them away from community, either as a response to a well-meaning-yet-short-sighted spiritualized attempt to “fix” them, or from the personal shame of not having it all together in an environment where this false projection is often valued. To come into an environment often only known for celebratory music with trite, pragmatic advice on getting “better” seems useless to touch the deeper wounds of the soul.
Having grown up in and around Church, I don’t remember having the language to speak into these places of grief. For the most part, only funerals served as occasions for sadness, and even these were centered on the promise of a life to come – not the impact of our sadness in this life. This wasn’t (in my case) willful neglect, but rather a cultural norm. Whether spoken or unspoken, sadness, despair, and anxiety were met with a simple fix – have more faith. Believe more in the truth. And if truth and faith couldn’t touch those places of pain, doubt would creep in. Maybe this stuff isn’t true, after all. If it’s not “fixing” me, it can’t be what it promises, right?
But as is often the case, there were sides of the Christian faith and the Scriptures that were neglected and unseen to a “fix-it” faith. Namely, I had absolutely no knowledge and exposure to the language and practice of lament. It had been right there in front of me all along, peppering the pages of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I had missed them, in part, because I had no reason for them. They were rarely if ever preached on (what a buzzkill!), and I wasn’t exactly excited to put them on my coffee mugs and bumper stickers.
But there they were: gut-wrenching, body-aching, God-questioning prayers and petitions of despair. Sadness. Hopelessness. I didn’t know we were allowed to talk to God this way! There were prayers I found in the Scriptures I wouldn’t dare pray to God. For example:
O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Psalm 13:1-2 NLT
Why then does my suffering continue?
Why is my wound so incurable?
Your help seems as uncertain as a seasonal brook,
like a spring that has gone dry.”
Jeremiah 15:18 NLT
I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
I am wasting away from within,
I am scorned by all my enemies
and despised by my neighbors—
even my friends are afraid to come near me.
Psalm 31:10-11 NLT
And that’s just a few. In fact, a third of the Psalms are lamenting songs. There’s a whole book of prayers of sadness and complaint called Lamentations! But here’s the thing – discovering these verses don’t magically “fix” us any more than the happy verses. So why do they matter?
They matter because they show us that for thousands of years, good, godly men and women have found themselves in places of despair just like us. They’ve found themselves overwhelmed in emotions, stuck in dead ends, helpless to the grief that overwhelms their souls. And more importantly, this lament and grief was not a sign of being unfaithful to God, but rather an expression of their faithfulness to him. What these saints of old knew was that God wasn’t afraid of their questions, their emotions, their doubts, or their sadness. It’s why the Psalmist reminds us: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed (Psalm 34:18).”
The language of lament we find in the Scriptures is a gift. It reminds us that we are not alone. For those of us who’ve been in seasons of grief and despair, we know that sometimes it’s the words and attempts to fix the problem that can cause even more pain. The greatest gift in these seasons? People who choose to be with us, to cry with us, to hurt with us. In these seasons, words often fail. How comforting, then, that God himself meets us first with not a quick fix, but with loving, suffering, compassionate presence? God suffers with us. Like we see in John 11, Jesus weeps with us. In both joy and pain, God’s greatest gift remains the same: presence.
I have a theory. Over the years, I’ve known many Christians who have gone through seasons of doubt. On many occasions, this doubt is less an intellectual exercise and more an inability to reconcile the emotions and disappointments of life with the reality of a God who they’ve been told – implicitly or explicitly – wants us to be happy more than anything else. How can my sadness and grief connect to a quick fix, happy God? And… if everyone in the Church is happy too? I don’t fit. It’s easy to doubt in this environment. It’s easy to move away from community. It’s easy to walk away from faith altogether. But…
What if the quick-fix, happy God isn’t God after all?
What if the doubt we feel could be expressed in the prayers and expressions of lament?
What if our pains and doubts brought us TO God – not away from him?
What if the Church made lament a part of their spiritual language, not an afterthought?
What if Christian community made vulnerability in our grief and sadness a normal practice?
And most importantly… what if God is like Jesus – suffering with us and for us?
This Jesus, after all, is the one described by Isaiah as “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain (Isaiah 53:3).” By taking on human flesh, Jesus experienced every temptation, emotion, and hurt that we feel. There is no suffering that Jesus, Himself, has not experienced. In fact, the central act of redemption in human history – the cross of Christ – is centered in God suffering for us. The God who is with us in our suffering is a God know knows suffering all too well.
What does this mean for us? Well, we are prone to expect God to be present only in the wholeness. Only when the sadness goes away. Only when the doubt subsides. But what if God is waiting to meet us here in our pain? What if our grief, depression, anxiety, and pain are not a barrier to God, but the very place he’s waiting to meet us?
I can’t pretend to understand the depths of depression, anxiety, and despair we face on this side of eternity. I do know that when Jesus returns and makes everything new, it won’t just be our bodies that are healed. It will also be our minds and emotions. I often wonder if we will recognize ourselves when we see who we are apart from our insecurities, our defense mechanisms, and our anxieties. I can’t wait to see us free, our minds whole and healed in Christ.
But until then, the promise we have is simple: presence. Jesus Christ is present with us in our suffering, and if His family – the Church – is faithful to his love and mission, they will be too. Will some overcome their sadness and grief? Yes! And praise God! But will some fight these battles until they die? Yes. Thankfully, we have a faith and Story that not only makes room for those in despair, it welcomes them with open arms, crying out: you are not alone.