By Jessica Sanford
By nature, I tend to shy away from negative emotions, preferring a world where everyone is happy and there’s no conflict. (Yes, I do realize this kind of world does not exist this side of heaven, but one can always dream!) As a result of my desire to avoid all things negative, I have sometimes struggled to admit to myself, to God, or to others those moments when hurt or sadness or fear or anxiety or discouragement or even anger have invaded my heart. I have erroneously believed to do so made me appear weak or whiny or somehow un-Christian. (Nobody likes a weak or whiny Christian. Am I right?)
I have erroneously believed my “faith” obligated me to deal with my emotions quickly and move on, never really giving myself permission to “feel” for too long, absorbing the negative circumstance and continuing on as if everything were fine (when everything wasn’t fine). I felt the sting, but my reaction was more of a whimper rather than a shout. After all, Christians don’t despair; they might cry, but only a little. Or so I thought.
Apparently, Christians are also super-human.
These patterns worked – until they didn’t – and I have spent the past several months coming face to face with some places of sorrow and disappointment I had never given myself permission to fully feel. I call these places “pain spots.”
If we are honest, we all have pain spots, areas in our lives that for lack of a better word, stink! A difficult boss, a troubled marriage, a prodigal child, broken relationships, unfulfilled dreams, unfair treatment, loneliness, betrayal, a bleak medical prognosis, lingering anxiety, physical and mental exhaustion, financial hardship, deep sorrow, the loss of a loved one. The list is seemingly endless. What do we do with these pain spots and the emotions they invoke? Though not an exhaustive list, some unhealthy responses might include denial, avoidance, withdrawal, isolation, victimhood, lashing out, self-harm, and self-medicating.
The reality is that we are emotional beings who face an array of both positive and negative emotions every day. To deny our emotions is to deny our humanness. As I am learning, emotionally healthy people learn to lean in to their emotions rather than brush them aside. They learn how to manage their emotions in appropriate, God-honoring ways. They are willing to be honest about what they are feeling, and they are willing to take the steps necessary to walk in wholeness.
In her book How to Survive as a Pastor’s Wife, author Christine Hoover identified some of the challenges ministry leaders face. Though there are many joys, to be sure, there are also challenges. To ignore this fact would be dishonest. How can leaders navigate these inevitable challenges well? Hoover introduces a practice I had not considered. One way to process the hard places of ministry (and life) is through the practice of lament.
What exactly is lament? Lament can be defined as a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.
However, as Mark Vroegop points out in his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, “In the Bible lament is more than sorrow or talking about sadness. It is more than walking through the stages of grief. Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.”i Vroegop goes on to describe biblical lament as “the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.”ii Or put another way, “Lament is how you live between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty.”iii
Learning how to cultivate the skill of lament is healthy and biblical, and it can be a powerful tool in helping us process our emotions and pain spots. The Psalms are full of laments, making up about one third of the entire book.iv And an entire book of the Bible, Lamentations, is dedicated to lament.
David expressed lament in Psalms 13 (NLT):
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?
Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.
Clearly, we don’t live in a continual state of lament. There is a greater purpose to lament than merely grieving for grieving’s sake, so how do we practice biblical lament?
- Turn toward God in prayer. The turning is important because it signifies our desire to look to God for help. When hope feels distant, we turn to the God who hears our cries and sees our tears. “O, Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear” (Psalm 10:17, ESV). “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8, NLT).
- Talk to God about what’s wrong. Tell Him all of it! He already knows what’s taking place inside our hearts, but He is waiting for us to voice it to Him. This is where keeping a journal can be especially helpful. (Sometimes it helps me to get my thoughts down on paper before trying to verbalize them.) It’s important not to rush this step. Lament can feel unnatural because it requires us to sit with our feelings for longer than we are often comfortable.
- Trust in God. Keep moving toward trust by asking God to help you get there. “Strengthened confidence in God’s trustworthiness is the destination of all lament.”v Lament is not a quick fix; rather, it’s a journey toward deeper faith and trust in God. And while our circumstances may not change, through lament “God redirects our gaze” and reminds us of His goodness right in the middle of our pain.vi
I have been practicing lament, voicing my pain spots to the Lord, and allowing Him to redirect my gaze. It’s messy and raw and profound and completely out of my comfort zone. (Did I mention I don’t like negative emotions?) I only wish I had discovered the skill of lament much, much earlier.
Perhaps you have some pain spots you need to bring before the Lord? Biblical lament can be one tool in helping you navigate those hard places. I’d encourage you to get some tissues and give it a try. Blessings, friends!
For a fuller understanding of biblical lament, Mark Vroegop’s book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy is very helpful.
[i] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 28.
[ii] Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, 26.
[iii] Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, 21.
[v] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy Devotional Journal (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 14
[vi] Christine Hoover, How to Thrive as a Pastor’s Wife (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2022), 90.
About the Author
Jessica Sanford has served alongside her husband, Matt, in ministry for over two decades. She is a licensed coach with Leader Breakthru, Inc. and is passionate about making disciples and helping facilitate the spiritual transformation of those not content with the status quo. She also loves seeing women in ministry, especially other pastors’ wives, realize and step into their unique calling.