Not Feeling Christ’s Victory during This Pandemic?
The other day, I scrolled through #christianthoughts on Instagram, hoping to connect to other believers in the middle of social distancing. To my chagrin, doing so made me feel more alone. Tell your mountain about your God, one post proclaimed. Leave it to God and he will take care of it, reassured another poster. I’m smiling because my God is stronger than my problems, said a third.
The more I scrolled, the more tense I got. I did not like my reaction—it felt too much like anger. Does this make me a terrible Christian?
The other day, I scrolled through #christianthoughts on Instagram, hoping to connect to other believers in the middle of social distancing.
To my chagrin, doing so made me feel more alone.
Tell your mountain about your God, one post proclaimed. Leave it to God and he will take care of it, reassured another poster. I’m smiling because my God is stronger than my problems, said a third.
The more I scrolled, the more tense I got. I did not like my reaction—it felt too much like anger.
Does this make me a terrible Christian?
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Struggling with Cheerful Statements of Faith?
Before you say YES, stay with me a minute. Both you and I know that theologically-speaking, these statements are all absolutely true. God’s grace and provision are incredibly hopeful realities that we are always standing on. The people expressing them are sincere and faithful. For many of you, they may be exactly what you need to hear in this moment—and that’s wonderful.
After acknowledging all of that, though, I want to say that it is also okay to not be ready for cheerful optimism in the middle of a global, devastating pandemic.
Because I have to be honest: at this moment, I struggle with cheerful statements of faith, however true they are.
I’m grieving this pandemic: for friends who had no financial safety net before this pandemic hit. I’m grieved for immunocompromised loved ones, for kids whose graduations got cancelled, for the amazing people I know serving on the front lines in hospitals. I’m grieved for families who can’t afford two weeks of groceries at a time. For refugees around the world, crowded together with little access to healthcare.
You Are Allowed to Grieve
I know God is strong, but we all know that terrible things will happen to people—yes, even professing Christians—because of this virus. Grief and suffering are real. I’m not ready to ring the ‘Christ victorious’ bell right now even if others can do it with joy.
There is space for all of us—those comforted by statements of praise, and those of us needing to express anger and grief.
Today, though, I’m writing to those like me—the gloomy, anxious, and angry.
Once upon a time, having negative feelings would have shamed me. I used to assume that “knowing the secret of being content in any and every situation” meant having a smile on my face no matter what.
But to my surprise I’ve discovered that the Bible models very human, dark responses to hard times.
In the Bible, these cries of grief are called lament, and they’re everywhere. We don’t have to ring a victory bell today. Instead, lament is a healthy, Christ-centered, and intimacy-creating space for us to encounter God in hard times.
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Lament Is Biblically Normal
I’ll never look at the book of Psalms the same way after reading Walter Brueggemann’s Spirituality of the Psalms.
My shock began with this gem of a quote: “Much Christian…spirituality is…unreal in its positiveness.” He sounds as grouchy as I feel.
In his book, Brueggemann especially focuses on the psalms of lament. Scholars agree that lament psalms—those that express “passionate grief or sorrow”—are the most common type of psalm by far. Lament psalms make up about 40% of all psalms. According to this resource, none of the other genres even come close.
The Book of Psalms isn’t the only place we find laments in the Bible—Lamentations is a long, sorrowful rant; and much of the prophetic books weep and wail over Israel’s sin and misfortune. You can hardly move in the Old Testament without tripping over an expression of grief.
Yet I’ve rarely heard raw laments in a church service. Many of the praise songs and hymns we sing are based on psalms; but not the lament psalms. Imagine your worship leader teaching a chorus based on Psalm 88:
“Your terrors have destroyed me…
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.”
In that song, there’s no reprieve, no “and” “if” or “but.” Can you imagine your worship leader singing it?
We like the praises because they reassure us that the world is a place of order, joy, and progress.
The only problem is that when we’re faced with disaster, grief, and chaos, our usual praises can ring hollow.
But that’s a problem of our culture, not of our faith. The ironic good news of the lament psalms is that the Bible makes ample space for us to express the inexpressible. Laments make space for complaint, bewilderment, rage, and grief. They give us permission to be completely honest with God, no matter how bad things get.
Lament psalms show us that God eagerly listens to our ugliest, darkest feelings. Says Brueggemann: “What is said to Yahweh may be scandalous and without redeeming social value; but these speakers are completely committed, and whatever must be said about the human situation must be said directly to Yahweh… That does not mean things are toned down. Yahweh does not have protected sensitivities.”
Today, if you can’t reach for expressions of victory, you’re not alone or failing. The Bible shows us it’s normal to feel unsettled, overwhelmed, and grief-stricken during times like these. Our despair, fear, and anger don’t send us away from God’s grace. Instead, God is ready to hear our worst thoughts.
Rather than shooing away our negative feelings as “unfaithful,” it turns out that our praise begins in the middle of blunt honesty.
Even Christ’s Victory Involves Painful Delay and Grief
“But what about the New Testament?” I can hear someone asking.
It’s true: Christians read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of Christ’s resurrection—a profoundly hopeful lens. It might be tempting to decide that lament psalms don’t have relevance for Christians, like dietary laws or circumcision.
But that would be ignoring the very real sorrow laced through the New Testament.
First of all, all Christians are in an uncomfortable cosmic parenthesis: caught between the true victory of resurrection and its complete fulfillment in Christ’s Second Coming. Many theologians call this the tension between “now and not yet.” Yes, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit now, and Christ’s victory now—but also, we do not yet experience its fullness—not until Jesus comes again.
Relentlessly cheerful faith also ignores the very real grief Jesus experienced while on earth. He wept at the death of his friend. He wept over Jerusalem. He wept when facing his own torture and execution. Jesus was angered by hard-hearted religious leaders, enraged by the temple being turned into a marketplace, and grieved by the disdain he experienced in his hometown.
There was also the whole business of “taking up your cross” and telling those who mourn that they’re blessed.
In short, Jesus was not what you’d call a happy-go-lucky guy.
I’ll say it again: I celebrate anybody finding hope and encouragement in victorious expressions of faith. Other days, I find them uplifting too. They’re simply not the only choices available. We don’t need to shame ourselves if our prayers are a lot darker and more uncertain.
Right now, we need to make space for expressions of faith that make us uncomfortable. As Brueggemann says, “The spirituality of the Psalms [and, I’d add, the entire Bible]… permits and requires our conversation with God be vigorous, candid, and daring.”
What have you hesitated to say to God? Dare to say it.
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God Wants Our Honesty, No Matter What
For those of us used to cheerful praises, bringing rage to God can feel wrong. What is the point?
The point is developing breathtaking, life-altering intimacy with God. The ability to bring all our emotions and worries directly to God is an incredible gift. Jesus really wants our entire selves—warts and all. He really can handle our worst nightmares and our harshest anger. No matter where we are, no matter how ugly we feel, we are, incredibly, standing on holy ground.
We don’t have to work hard to create a strong faith. That’s Jesus’ job. It is through coming to Jesus just as we are that real transformation happens. We don’t need to do the hard work ourselves. Being absolutely honest with Jesus is the very best way to practice the discipline of abiding in Christ’s power.
It is in truth, humility, and honest confession that we learn to lean on Christ’s power instead of our own.
If you don’t feel victorious today, if you question the goodness of God in times like these, if you feel sick with anxiety about the state of the world, you are in a perfect position to call on the name of Jesus.
Nothing stands between us and the throne of grace, not even our worst selves.