Brueggemann highlights a grave danger here, not just for our inner emotional lives, but for the types of Christian communities we help create. If we believe God is offended by complaints, we naturally create communities where one no longer feels free to voice dissent without retribution. We imagine God as an insecure boss who won’t hear anything other than positive things said about himself and his creation. In turn, we create communities where faithfulness is interpreted as toeing-the-line and never voicing concern or worse, abuse. This is how Christian communities become hotbeds for abuse and scandal when, ever so subtly, we create a culture where positivity and celebration are the only acceptable forms of expression. The absence of an ability to lament or to express grief or sorrow results in what Bruggemann powerfully calls “a religion of coercive obedience.”
I was recently introduced to helpful terminology from Cathy Loerzel from the Allender Centre in the USA. She speaks about how humans are made for Eden. We are made for the type of flourishing and relationship that characterised the world before the rebellion of Genesis 3. But in Genesis 3, and now in all our lives, the shalom of Eden has been shattered. One day Eden will be restored, and that is God’s work. But we still need to acknowledge the shattering that has taken place in our lives, and if we pretend it isn’t there, we begin to live numbed-down and denial-filled lives.
So how do we recover whole and healthy emotional lives where we can pray out both praise and protest in God’s presence?
Historically, as I’ve mentioned, Christians were able to offer the full spectrum of their emotions to God by reading the entire book of Psalms in their worship times over a year. These days, such liturgical disciplines may be experienced as rote and inauthentic. Surely, if we are trying to offer our deepest feelings to God then the formality of liturgical worship doesn’t have anything to offer us?
Well, imagine with me for a moment being a worshipper in a community that reads through the Psalms every Sunday over a year. On some Sundays, you may feel great and you read and respond to the praise and celebratory psalms with a full heart. On another Sunday, you may experience grief and you are invited to bring your grief before God in the presence of His people. This simple act of reading through the psalms becomes a type of scaffolding upon which your emotional life can begin to rest. You begin to experience the welcome invitation to speak out the rightful protest against the impacts of a bruised and broken world. And one is not alone when they address their protest to God as they join with others to proclaim that "even so God, we put our trust in you.” This is how many of the Psalms are resolved. In the context of a community of God’s people, we become convinced that we no longer need to hide our depression, disappointments and doubts, but instead can address them to God in the presence of His people. There would be, of course, weeks when the reading of these Psalms would be distinctly out of step with one’s own emotional life, but even this serves to teach us that this is not just about us. Rather, it is about growing to become the type of person who has the emotional fluency to, as Romans 12:15 encourages; “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Some of us are melancholic in disposition and we need the discipline of celebration. For those who are upbeat, we need the discipline of naming and sitting with grief, even when it isn’t ours.
Eden has been lost, and we are living in a broken and hurting world. One day it will be restored, but unless we can live faithfully in the now and not yet we will create cultures of toxic positivity that convince those that grieve that they have to do so outside, away from others. Could this be part of the reason the Church loses so many people as they come of age and finally face the fractured and broken state of the world? By returning to Psalms and liturgies of lament, maybe we can sit with those who weep and encourage them that even here God is present.
Jesus took on the title of a Man of Sorrows, the messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 53. He experienced grief, and so he knows ours. God, in Jesus, knows what it is to be fully human, having entered into our shattered world.. And he is with us through Holy Spirit. We are not alone.
Once again returning to the Psalms;
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139: 7-8)
We don’t need to protect God from the highs and lows of our lives. He is Emmanuel, God with us, in the highs of celebration and in the lows of depression. And we are called to meet Him in it all.