Grief and Doubt in the Christian Life
Published by Calvin Seminary
I walked into church the other day, eager and ready to join the congregation of God’s people in worship. It had been a busy week and a busy morning, and I relished the thought of immersing myself in the music and liturgy of worship, which promised to bring order and meaning to my sometimes-chaotic world. Before I got to the sanctuary, I met someone in the foyer whose world was falling apart around them. She suffered from depression, which was manifesting itself in self-destructive behaviors. As I looked at her, I could see that the upbeat, high-energy worship that beckoned me into the sanctuary was having the opposite effect on her. How could she enter the sanctuary and join the throng when she was surrounded by such darkness? Was there room for her in the sanctuary if not all was well with her spirit? What resources did her faith and her faith community have to help bring order to the chaos of her world?
Unfortunately, sometimes our worship gives the impression that feelings of grief, sadness, doubt, anger, struggle, fear, or confusion have no place in the Christian life. In fact, some Christians have come to assume that these kinds of emotions suggest a deficit of faith. If we really believe in Jesus, so the assumption goes, the joy of being in Christ and the anticipation of our future with Jesus will supersede the cares, concerns, and experiences we face in this life. Happiness, it is believed, is a mark of following Jesus. But is this true? Is it true, for instance, that suffering from depression is incompatible with having a robust faith? Or that experiencing the destabilizing effects of trauma is an indication that one doesn’t love Jesus enough? Should the grief, anger, and frustration associated with dementia be stifled and ignored because in Christ all things are being made new?
Rather strikingly, the Bible doesn’t seem to be as embarrassed or uncomfortable with our emotional responses to suffering and grief as we sometimes are. In fact, the Bible more generally – and the Psalms in particular – indicates that not only will people of faith encounter suffering and hardship in the Christian life, but that anger, doubt, grief, and lament are natural human responses to suffering. Perhaps this is why fourth-century Church Father Athanasius commended the book of Psalms – with its portrayal of the movements of the human spirit, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries – as a book that has much to teach us about ourselves. Or why John Calvin referred to the book of Psalms as “an anatomy of all parts of the soul” for the way it mirrors the breadth of emotions we experience as human beings. For both Athanasius and Calvin, the presence of anger, fear, doubt, and sadness, as well as thanksgiving, happiness, and praise expressed in the Psalms validates the experience of all of these emotions for Christians, and fosters honest talk, both to God and within the Christian community, about our struggles in life. Rather than alienating those who are experiencing a season of hardship and trouble, then, the Psalms model that voicing the good, the bad, and the ugly of our earthly life all properly belong in the context and community of faith.
Without a doubt, watching and hearing about the suffering of others is hard. Our natural inclination is to want to make things better, to take away the grief and quickly restore happiness. But what the lament Psalms teach us is that the road to healing is seldom simple and straightforward. While it is true that most lament Psalms eventually end in praise, the path to getting there is rarely linear and often takes a significant amount of time, meandering back and forth between complaint and lament and trust, sometimes back to complaint and lament again.
And while most Psalms end in praise, not all do. Psalm 88, for instance, closes with the painful testimony, “darkness is my closest friend” (Ps. 88:18b), bearing witness to the fact that for some, darkness and confusion will not fully or finally be lifted in this lifetime. Even so, what is clear from the Psalm is that the experience of such darkness is not a negation of faith. The psalmist hasn’t abandoned God, a fact which is evident in his opening invocation: “Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you” (Ps. 88:1). For those experiencing this kind of darkness, faith finds expression not in denying the power or reality of the darkness, but in the willingness to cry out to God, to be persistent in lament, to voice our pain, sorrow, and disappointment to a listening God. For, just as the psalmist has not abandoned God, God has not abandoned the psalmist. Reading this Psalm in the context of the whole canon of scripture, we know that God in Jesus has entered that darkness Himself, taking on the pain and sorrow of those who suffer. And rather than requiring the one who suffers to change their inward disposition and put on a happy face before approaching God, God joins the sufferer in their grief and weeps with them. Indeed, some who experience such darkness testify to finding comfort in the feeling of being held in the arms of one who Himself entered that darkness, sacrificing His life that the darkness would ultimately be overcome.
That Jesus did this, that He entered into the darkness Himself, making our grief and sorrow His own, gives us a clue as to how we can minister to those who suffer in the community of faith. The community has a role to play, not only in sharing in each other’s joy and thanksgiving, but also in their lament. When Job had lost everything, his wealth, his children, and his health, his friends joined him on the ash heap, and they sat and wept with him for seven days and seven nights. In that moment, they wisely said nothing. Instead, they entered his pain, bearing the burden of his hardship with him.
As Christians, we know how the story of this world ends, that God will indeed bring about a new creation where there will be no more tears and no more dying. But in the here and now, we still live in a broken world, a world that is full of heartache and grief and sorrow. That Christians experience these things as well suggests not a lack of faith, but an honesty about just how broken we are. In this sense, our pain and our sorrow are a testimony to how much we need Jesus, and a call to the whole community of faith to be vigilant in prayer: Come quickly Lord Jesus. Bring healing to our broken world and our broken selves. And as you promised, make all things new!
Amanda W. Benckhuysen
Johanna K. and Martin J. Wyngaarden Senior Professor in Old Testament Studies
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