There are many great things about social media. But while I’m grateful for tools like Twitter and Instagram and all the encouragement via “insta-verses,” I’m equally frustrated with the false Christian pick-me-ups displayed throughout social media, such as tweets like, “You can’t trust God and worry at the same time,” or “Leave your past in your past,” or bios that include the infamous “Too blessed to be stressed” line.
Where do we get these silly slogans? For the longest time I believed these sayings myself; I was quick to give them to a hurting friend. But when God called me to deal with areas of my life in which I didn’t fully trust him, these flimsy slogans quickly turned from motivators into discouraging setbacks and empty promises.
See, over the past few years, God has been showing me how “off” I’ve been in my understanding of suffering. As I began to study, what I found is that in order to have a full relationship with God, not only was it okay to acknowledge the reality of pain and frustration, but God wanted me to go a step further: to talk with him about it.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve found myself lamenting frequently: expressing feelings of regret, sorrow, and frustration with God. I chose to surrender my career over to God, and he has not made the path easy for me to walk. During a long stretch of living out of a suitcase, feeling little direction, and wondering if God had maybe forgotten me, I became frustrated. And the Christian one-liners didn’t do a thing to cheer me up.
As I turned away from the noise and pressure and opened the Word of God, my feelings of frustration and disappointment suddenly felt validated.
O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
These laments are just a few examples of questions you’d find written in my journals. But more importantly, they’re found in Psalm 13. The psalms are filled with laments, questions, frustrations, and disappointments. As I struggled, reading these honest prayers in the Bible made me feel normal, whereas the Christian culture was unintentionally making me feel like I’d missed something in my walk with God.
Permission to Feel
At first I really didn’t want to take the time to feel or lament. I felt it was a waste of God’s time and certainly mine. I believed lamenting would cause God to think of me as ungrateful or cause him to pull away from me. So I tried to reassure myself by telling myself things would be okay or by reminding myself that others were much worse off than me. But this pressure to be “okay” and to view lament as a waste of time is not a tool of compassion, nor is it an instrument for intimacy.
I could hardly believe the feelings I saw expressed throughout the Bible. From Jonah being so angry he wanted to die (Jonah 4:9) to Job and Jeremiah cursing the day they were born (Job 3:1; Jeremiah 20:14), there is passionate emotion throughout the Bible. Feelings and emotions can get a bad rap in our Western culture, but in Scripture we see that God esteems them. Not only that, but God also uses emotional language to communicate truths about himself to us:
- God is angry with the wicked every day (Psalm 7:11).
- God is jealous for our love (Exodus 34:14).
- God experiences grief in his heart (Genesis 6:6).
If God used this type of language to communicate with us, why would I choose to numb my feelings when I’m communicating with him?
As we imitate Christ, we imitate his feelings, his emotions, his expressions, and his actions. If God feels, Jesus feels, and the Holy Spirit feels, then I ought to feel too. Minimizing these feelings, or pretending them away, robs us of an intimacy God desires to have with us. The intimacy he desires is not conditional and is not rooted in happy-go-lucky days. In fact, sometimes his intimacy is even sweeter in the pain.
What Do We Do with Feelings
Habakkuk provides a great example of emotions and lament. He was a man who was deeply troubled by the evil he saw around him, and he lamented to God about it:
How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery? Wherever I look, I see destruction and violence. I am surrounded by people who love to argue and fight. (Habakkuk 1:1–3)
Have you ever felt like Habakkuk did? I echoed these cries when my friend Dave lost his life in Afghanistan. I lamented the violence that cost him his life. Words like Habakkuk’s validated my own hollow pain.
All throughout his Word, God, in his kindness, has given us language for lamenting. You think just women are emotional? What about David, Jonah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Job, Solomon . . . even Jesus himself?
While these leaders of old went through painful lamenting seasons, God did not once abandon them. Not only that, but following their lament came a new perspective, insight, and deep praise. God can do the same for us. The source of our frustrations can pave a way for deeper intimacy with the one to whom we lament. When we begin to understand this, we can stop offering people false comfort with shallow “everything happens for a reason” or “it could be worse” platitudes.
Stand and Wait
God answered Habakkuk’s lament, in his way and his timing, and I am beginning to see that he is also answering mine.
Habakkuk didn’t like God’s initial response (I can relate!), so he lamented to God a second time. God didn’t rebuke Habakkuk for his lament, yet for far too long I’ve incorrectly believed God would push me away if I were to complain. For far too long I thought God was uninterested in these types of prayers.
Even though Habakkuk wasn’t pleased with God’s response, Habakkuk chose to stand at his guardpost waiting for God to move (Habakkuk 2:1). Habakkuk fully expected God to respond to his prayer and to change his own understanding.
Like Habakkuk, when we lament and cry out to God in pain or frustration, we’re called to wait for God’s response—for God to change us. When God doesn’t move the way we want him to, we often divert to questioning his character and motives toward us.
Instead, we can choose to keep watch to see how God changes us in and through our experience of lament. Many of our laments and some of our complaints stem from a lack of understanding about God. And this is okay as long as we are willing to change. God can use frustration and even suffering to clarify our view of him.
We live in a broken world. We will experience pain and death. We will be frustrated and disappointed. Walking with God doesn’t render life always upbeat or positive. But God’s Word teaches us that we can be upset and frustrated while still remaining in God’s presence. Denying feelings and disappointments is really denying us an opportunity to experience intimacy with him in these much-needed areas. A faith that has no room for lament is a shallow faith indeed.
Are you hurting? Stand watch. Get to know the author of emotions who has given you full permission to feel. Your pain, your disappointment, and your frustration can be tools for greater intimacy with him.
Esther Fleece is an international speaker and writer on faith, leadership, and family. As founder and CEO of L&L Consulting, she works to connect influential individuals and organizations to their mutual benefit. Esther’s first non-fiction book (due January 2017) explores what good can come from grief. You can follow Esther’s global adventures on Twitter at @EstherFleece.