“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.” – William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3, Line 242.
Shakespeare, a man after my own heart. Shakespeare was famous for taking the tragedy of human souls, defeated and discouraged, and applying words to give way to expression and relief. How well we empathise with his characters, at the height of loss, disappointment, illness and despair. Shakespeare understood the human condition.
It’s hard to believe, when we are in the depths of despair, that the sun will ever rise again. Maybe we even forget what the sun looks like. When we are in this place of suffering and loss, we are in lamentations.
I have encountered some interesting perspectives on lament in the Christian church. Many Christians I have met appear to struggle with the whole concept of lament. It seems to me that there are some who, fearing vulnerability or disappointing God, deny the very existence of lament.
You may have met folk like this, or at times you may have taken up this position yourself. Maybe you’re having a hard time at the moment. You know that you are not your normal self. You can feel it inside yourself, the irritability, the panic, the tears pricking at your eyes. Then the thought strikes you: “Oh no, I can’t let people see me like this! They already know I’m a Christian. If they see me living in this less-than-victorious condition, they’ll know I’m a fraud. I’ll be letting God down.” Convinced that you will be presenting a rather poor advertisement for Christianity, you come up with a game plan: fake it till you make it.
I’ve played this game myself, more than once I’m afraid. For me, it came from the belief that people made their decisions to follow Christ based purely on my Christian performance. Let them see through the make-up, let them realise that a real, vulnerable person exists deep down, and they’ll reject God forever. Apparently God is not capable of meeting with those people independent of me.
Now it must be acknowledged that sometimes pretense is helpful. Faking it can serve a purpose, and I would agree that most people pretend for self-preservation purposes. I would not, for example, advocate that we be utterly honest and vulnerable in a job interview. It would not serve us well to confess to the interview panel how nervous we actually are and how we’re not too sure about the job. Most of us “fake good” in an interview; this is not lying but selectively highlighting our strengths in order to appear in a more favourable light. We do the same thing on dates.
We use these fronts for a reason, they generally help us get by and then we can take them off again. We put them on to feel safe and to cope. The problem lies in keeping the front up perpetually, and never letting anyone connect with the “real” person. If we do this long enough, we can lose our sense of self.
Unfortunately for the Church, people have long since taken to using these fronts as a matter of routine at church. For some reason we believe we are not safe to be truly ourselves at church, and we put up walls to protect ourselves. You know the drill: someone asks us how we are, and we smile by reflex and explain how fine we are. We keep things superficial or focused on the other person; it’s safer that way. Even though the church is our family, designed by God for the genuine encouragement and building up of one another, we feel the need to pretend.
It saddens me to see this played out over and over again in the Church. This is especially true of lamentation. If our brother or sister were in a state of lament, would we not want to help them? And yet we often hide or minimize our lamentations. We act like we feel better than we really do. We hold each other at arms length. There may be times when we need to do this, when the feelings are too raw and intense to be shared, and I do think we need to apply wisdom to the sharing of lament. I am not suggesting that we indiscriminately share our grievances, but I am observing that we cover up a lot of our lamenting when I believe it has a genuine place in the Church and in our lives. Perhaps the cover-up is a Western world phenomena. Do any of these catch phrases sound familiar to you?
“It’s all good.”
“She’ll be right.”
“God’s on the throne.”
I once met someone in a church who answered every enquiry after their health with the response, “God’s on the throne.” Well, yes, that’s very true, but that actually doesn’t bear any relevance to the question. I slowly learned that for this particular individual, the cliche “God’s on the throne” was a substitute for personal honesty. When things were going bad for them, they refused to talk about it; I’m still not sure why. Such statements, while theologically accurate, can also serve to deflect people away from our lament and onto safer topics of conversation.
Truth in the Church can be a difficult thing. Real community in the Church can be a difficult thing. They can be counter-cultural, depending on the levels of openness and community in your church. It’s always easier to gloss over issues, hold back our lament and occasionally let it leak out in private. That approach may work for you. However, there is another option. Healing can also happen in the context of relationships. I think that’s why God put us in a community: so we can be there for each other.
When we are in lament, we need to know that we are not alone. We need connection with one another. We remind each other that things will somehow get better, that the sun will rise again someday, that God’s promises for healing are true. We can support and encourage one another, once we have taken the plunge and spoken the pain we carry aloud.
How true the words written by Shakespeare all those years ago: “Give sorrow words”. It is needed in the Church today. How vital it is to share our lives with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need more writing about these matters. We need our songwriters to write about lament, giving voice to our struggles in ways that only music can. There aren’t many songs about True Lamentations. It’s not a popular subject nor a pleasant one. It does not fit neatly into any “victorious living” framework and it is not part of any 5-step plan to success that I have come across. Yet it is real, it exists, and it is among us. I hope to see more True Lamentations in the Church.
When was the last time you truly lamented?
I think this subject of Lamentations is a large one, unlikely to be covered in a single blog, so will be writing further blogs about this issue. Look out for my next blog in this series: True Lamentations – Part 2: Joyful Grief.