How to Be Sad this Season
Christmas is often pitched as the happiest time of THE year. Yet surveys reveal depression DRAMATICALLY increases during the holidays. So are you crazy if you’re not full of Christmas cheer?
Recently I preached on lament (i.e. how to grieve). That may seem like an odd thing to teach. But the truth is as a people we don’t lament. We outsource it. In fact, in the video above I reference an online business service where individuals can hire professional “mourners” for gloomy events.
It may surprise you the largest collection of songs in the Bible is a collection of sad songs called Songs of Lament. These songs embrace life’s disappointments, defeats and losses. By the sheer number of these songs found in the Bible it seems there's something inherently spiritual in learning how to lament.
That is not to suggest we live life increasingly depressed and sad. Spiritually mature people don’t seek pain like some sort of spiritual cross fit program. Jesus himself prayed the night he was to be crucified that God would remove his impending pain. Christ followers don’t chase pain. But they also learn not to waste pain. They don’t run away from lament but rather they embrace it. And as they do beautiful things happen.
There are two biblical principles when we speak of lament.
PRINCIPLE 1: GOD DOESN’T EXPECT ME TO BE HAPPY ALL THE TIME.
There is this myth that Christ-followers should always be smiling, always be happy. There's a misconception the more spiritual you are the more you smile while you wait in the return line at Home Depot, in the carpool lane during rush hour traffic, or when you’re on hold with customer support. That somehow you smile through being laid off, through a terrible diagnosis, or when the alimony check is late again.
That’s not real life. That’s Ned Flanders (a caricature of an emotionally shallow Christian from the TV Show the Simpsons).
In fact, the Bible says
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven… There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” - Ecclesiastes 3:4
Sometimes the only appropriate response to life’s sadness is lament.
PRINCIPLE 2: GOD DOESN’T EXPECT ME TO BE SAD ALL THE TIME.
The second principle of lament is this: God doesn’t expect me to be sad all the time.
If Ned Flanders is one extreme direction we can take life’s disappointments (i.e. always happy), the other is Batman from the Lego Movie. Underscored by heavy-metal electric guitar riffs, Batman laments the following lyrics:
"Dark; Brooding. Darkness. No parents. Continued Darkness. More darkness, get it? The opposite of light. Black hole. Curtains drawn. In the basement. Middle of the night. Blacked-out windows. Other places that are dark. Black suit. Black Coffee. Darkness - No parents. Super rich...Kinda makes it better." - Batman.
This is not what lament is really all about. It's not an endless vomit of ceaseless gloom. Though these psalms are absolutely full of grief, what characterizes these psalms of lament is the confidence if God intervenes that somehow grief can be redeemed.
So what is lament actually?
1) Lament is UNFILTERED REDEEMABLE GRIEF.
UNFILTERED: Lament is the place where we are brutally honest with God. We say exactly what we're thinking and feeling. We go to God UNFILTERED. It's amazing how many people try to fake how they feel with others. In Lament we say it like it is to God. We scream. We cry. We cus. We sob. We are unfiltered.
REDEEMABLE: Lament is redeemable because we are bringing our pain to SOMEONE who can actually do something about it.
One of the most powerful principles found in healthy work cultures is the principle of complaining up. Rather than complaining at the water cooler, or in the parking lot, or at lunch we learn to complain up to a supervisor, manager or boss – someone who actually has the power to change the situation. Lament is REDEEMABLE grief because it is a chance to “complain up.”
2) Lament is the place where God’s POWER and PRESENCE intersect my PAIN.
There are a lot of places to bring your pain. Lament is the place where God’s power and presence intersect your pain. And yet we often short-circuit this process because we’ve learned to distance ourselves from our pain.
Not too long ago my wife Lynsie and I attended a county fair. It was out in the California Sierras and included everything you’d expect at a county fair: carnival rides, 4H animals, cotton candy, country line dancing, a mechanical bull, and lots and lots of crowds.
As we were walking on this congested sidewalk I noticed a boy holding a red balloon. He was walking towards us, his family trailing slightly behind. As we moved closer I watched as his red balloon slipped out of his hands, sailing above the tall trees into the evening sky. He was mortified. His face dropped and his eyes began to swell.
I watched in horror as his family, seeing his pain, started laughing at him. They called him names and made fun of his loss. I watched, in the midst of their jaunts, as he struggled to contort his face forcing it into a smile. And then I heard him declare, “I don’t care about that stupid balloon anyways.”
We’re a lot like that boy. We’ve learned to make light of our pain, to minimize it, to ignore it, to treat it as meaningless, to contort our face into a smile.
In contrast listen to how the Psalmist confronts his pain in Psalm 42. Listen to how the writer is unfiltered in his pain: how his soul is completely dehydrated, how his only drink is his own tears, how he aches for community and for happiness again. He’s not Ned Flanders. He embraces life’s pain. And listen to how his pain, through lament, intersects Gods presence and his power.
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me. Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you, from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. - Psalm 42
THE RESULT OF LAMENT: HOPE
You want to know what the end result of lament is? It’s hope. There’s a direct correlation between the amount of lament you experience and the amount of hope you experience. Without lament, without the experience of having God’s power and his presence intersect our pain, hope is just an idea. People who learn to lament deeply are deeply hopeful people.
Are there areas where you lack hope? Perhaps instead of thinking more positively, going to the gym more frequently, or soaking in more sunshine, perhaps the pathway to hope is actually lament.
What’s your “red balloon?” Where in your life are things not working out as you had hoped or how you would want? The invitation in these moments is not to grin but to grieve. To lament. To let your pain intersect the power and presence of God.
Hear the words of Christ,
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
Come. Don’t stuff it down, fake it, or wallow in it. Don’t waste your pain. Bring it to Jesus. In his death and resurrection Jesus proved he can take it. He can take our worst. He can redeem it. Jesus put on flesh and dwelt among us. He touched the eyes of the blind and gave them sight. He touched the ears of the deaf and gave them hearing. He saw those who where hungry and miraculously fed them. He saw those who were outsiders and ostracized and welcomed them into relationship. He raised the dead. This is the Jesus who invites you to come to him. What’s your red balloon?
Where in your life are things not working out as you had hoped or how you would want? The invitation in these moments is not to grin but to grieve. To lament. To let your pain intersect the power and presence of God.
Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28