It can sometimes seem as if Christians don’t have permission to be unhappy. Today, Barry Cooper reminds us that Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows”—and our expressions of sadness are heard by our good God.
Like many teenagers who had a lovely upbringing in a safe suburb with kind parents and many friends, I was often miserable.
I spent many evenings with my cassette walkman, just the two of us, listening to doomy English music like Depeche Mode, and thinking that no one else understood, or could possibly understand, just how deep I was. I specifically recall one of my friends’ mums looking at my miserable face and saying, “Cheer up, it might never happen.” To which I responded, “Too late. It already has.” And I was so pleased with this response that I probably would have smiled, had smiling not already become physically impossible for me.
There is a kind of sadness or melancholy which is delicious and addictive, which can make us feel special and, yes, even superior to others. A kind of misery that, if we give ourselves over to it, tips into self-indulgence and self-pity.
But you can also fall off the horse the other way. You can mistake “being chipper” for being godly. You can start to believe that Christians have no right to be sad about anything, because everything will be okily dokily in the end.
I’m afraid this poor theology has infected many of our churches, and it’s nowhere more obvious than in the songs we often sing. Some songs have so little gravity that NASA could use them to train astronauts in.
It’s not we that shouldn’t sing songs of joy, of course we should. But where are the songs of lament? It can sometimes seem as if Christians don’t have permission to be unhappy, to have regrets, to feel broken, to express deep sorrow, or to lament. Which would have been news to the writers of Scripture. The major giveaway being that there is literally a book of the Bible called “Lamentation”.
The Psalms – the Bible’s very own songbook – has an entire genre called “Psalms of lament”. There are more psalms of lament than there are psalms of any other kind – in fact, a whole third of them are lamentation of one kind of another.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
Remember, these are intended to be sung. Or take this example:
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
The fact that we’re more likely to sing songs with all the emotional range of a smiling emoji really does seem to indicate that many churches, and many Christians, are – emotionally speaking – completely out of tune with God’s inspired word.
Perhaps we feel that to admit to feeling sadness is to let the side down, or worse, to let Jesus down. And yet Jesus himself lamented. We read that in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus became greatly distressed, troubled and sorrowful – even that he was emotionally “in agony”. And all this before he ever reached the cross.
And though Jesus did rebuke people for pretending to be sad (I’m thinking here of the religious types who wanted everyone to notice that they were fasting), Jesus never rebuked people for actually being sad.
Yes, of course, we do not despair as those who have no hope – that’s what Paul says in First Thessalonians chapter 4. As long as Christ is alive, we do have hope. But we also grieve. As Paul also says, in Romans chapter 12, we must “weep with those who weep”. Which clearly indicates that a) there will be people in our midst who are quite rightly weeping, for any number of reasons, and that b) it is not good pastoral practise to tell them to “cheer up”.
We follow one who is described as a “man of sorrows”: despised, rejected, unbeautiful. One who was very well acquainted with the language of lamentation – so much so that at the very moment of his death, he quoted a psalm of lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
God has given us these words of lament so that we would know that our expressions of sadness and grief are welcomed, heard, and understood. That we are not forgotten in our sorrow, any more than His Son was in His.