A friend was talking with me the other day about struggles at her new church. She recently moved from the inner-city to the affluent Northern suburbs of Sydney, and noticed a big cultural difference. “People aren’t real,” she said. “They just want to pretend everything is ‘happy-happy, joy-joy’ all the time. Just because you’ve found God doesn’t mean life isn’t hard, and that there aren’t issues to grapple with – surely? It’s like people want to take the ‘love and grace’ part of being a Christian, leave it at that, and not go any deeper. They don’t want to talk about struggles of faith, because usually, they don’t have them. I feel like I’m the only one who does.”
I really appreciated her honesty, and I felt for her. We are new friends, and I hope I’m someone she can be ‘real’ with from now on. But it’s a common refrain in many churches. It’s as if Christianity needs a big PR campaign where we have to convince the world – and each other – that life is as shiny as Ned Flanders’ front fence. We don’t want to admit to pain, or suffering, or grief – because that would put our faith – our Christianity – in a bad light.
Or maybe it’s just too hard to dig deep.
But the Bible is full of suffering and impassioned grief.
I’m studying Job at the moment, for a subject at bible college. This man suffers an unbelievable series of tragedies, and his friends are of little help during this time. They blame him for what happened, and essentially try and pull him out of his grieving process. In the midst of loads of unhelpful statements and advice, Job questions God. He feels as though He, too, has turned his back on him. In 31:35 he cries: “Let the Almighty answer me!” He feels like God is deaf to his wails.
Job, a faith-filled man, asks ‘Why?’, just as Jesus did as he bled on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried (Matt. 27:46). He knew an acute separation from God.
Grief is raw and wretched and visceral. Grief questions God. Grief screams at the sky. Grief doesn’t care who’s watching.
I’ll never forget the moans and sobs emanating from my boss’s office one day at work. Normally she’s contained, reserved – a ‘together’ kind of person. But this was the day her mother died. And she’d just received the phone call.
This week my lecturer, in speaking about Job and suffering, spoke about our tendency these days to turn funerals into celebrations. He shared his thoughts, somewhat controversially, that turning the occasion of a close relative’s death into a party can sometimes dismiss or detract from the natural process of grief. Bereaved people need permission to wail if they want (and party if they need to too, in my opinion).
We need to make way for a range of emotional responses, whether our friends are grieving, or questioning God, or broken and dying inside. Sure, it’s confronting – but this is the world we live in.
May we always look towards Jesus. He took his light into some of the darkest places, and gave his life on a wooden cross for us. You can’t get much more ‘real’ than that.
Thank you, God, that you hear our cries, our wails, our screams. Thank you that you know pain intimately, because you chose to come to earth in the form of a man and die for our sins. Thank you that you also conquered death by rising from the grave. One day you’ll take us away from all our earthly suffering.
Thank you for helping us to be real, because it isn’t easy to be honest sometimes. Help us to be the kind of people others want to share their struggles with.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.