When Joy is Wrong

“Stop telling me why I shouldn’t hurt. Since when did that help anyone? Listen to the roar of the pain, the rage, the frustration, the disappointment churning deep within me. Don’t ignore my agony. Acknowledge that it is real. Don’t leave me alone in it. Hurt with me. Don’t mock me with simple solutions. Wrestle with me. Don’t silence me with platitudes. Make space for my lament.”

I know I shouldn’t be, but I have been surprised by the number of wounded individuals who have responded to the raw, unresolved pain of my last post with stories of their own suppressed suffering. I say suppressed because for many of them, well-intentioned Christian “comforters” have compounded their pain, not alleviated it; praise-filled church services have crushed their spirits, not lifted them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I suspect that many Christians are too threatened by the immensity of pain to be able to engage it. It scares them, because if they look it straight in the face, they might lose their joy, might start to question God’s goodness, might even be in danger of losing their faith! So they escape into exciting praise songs, testimonies with happy endings, and repeated reminders to be thankful and joyful all the time. But where does that leave the wounded? Out in the cold. Isolated, hurt, and now with a generous serving of guilt on top.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

The Jewish exiles shared a similar experience. Their homes pillaged and burned, their loved ones raped and murdered, their temple desecrated, their country destroyed, and themselves hauled off as helpless captives, they sat in the prison of a strange, scary place with nothing but the painful memories of all they had lost. Traumatized. Grieving. Broken. Their hands hung limp. Their harps hung unused.

There are times when songs of joy are just wrong, when cries of lament are the truest form of worship.

As if that weren’t enough, their captors came around to taunt them. “Sing us one of your praise choruses! You know, the catchy tunes you used to sing back home.” Worse than another blow to the body, this kind of torment violated their souls. It made a mockery of their pain, requiring them to pretend that nothing had happened and that everything was fine.

The exiles did not give in to the pressure. They refused to join the farce, to surrender the last few shreds of dignity they had left. How could they enact the lie of being joyful when they were anything but? Instead they used their voices to express their agony over the horrors they had endured. They called on God to remember all that had happened to them, and not to forget it until He had made it right. God did not condemn them for refusing to be joyful at that moment. Rather, He recorded their laments for our benefit.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell…
Psalm 137:4-7

There are times when joy is just wrong, when faking praise only further isolates us from God. There are seasons when lament is the truest form of worship, the only honest way we can relate to God. This is not a permanent state, but rather a necessary stage on the road back to joy.

Embedded within the New Testament calls to “be joyful in hope”(Rom. 12:12) and to “rejoice with those who rejoice”(Rom. 12:15) is also a reminder to “mourn with those who mourn”(Rom. 12:15). Whether we find ourselves currently in a season of celebration or in a season of despair, love compels us to acknowledge and share in each other’s emotional realities. Compassionate tears. Shared laughter. Heart-rending cries for mercy. Heart-filled songs of praise. This is the stuff that binds us together as the church, with our weeping, worshipping Savior at the core.

6 thoughts on “When Joy is Wrong”

  1. Tiffany: Your posts make me cry. Thank you for being real and not afraid to ask the questions that Christians aren’t supposed to ask. My daughter struggles with depression, tried to kill herself and basically gets through one day only to go to sleep and get to the next. She has no life, no hope and no longer believes in God. I have cried out to God on her behalf more times than I can count. I jump when the phone rings and I see the call is from her. I worry when she doesn’t call. I take her to doctors who want to fill her with drugs that dull her mind. I hold onto the truths of God and know He will never forsake me. …and i pray continually for my precious child. My hope is always, “God is not finished with her yet” Well, what if He is? “What if her lot in life is to be in constant pain and then hell”?. I can barely write this question. I suppose my point in writing is to thank you for giving me permission to grieve and be sad (as a believer). Life is hard… Thank you.

    1. Dear Gail,
      My heart aches over your tears, but even more over that deep, scary question. Only God knows what He has planned for your daughter in the future, but for the present I can say with certainty that you are absolutely right in clinging to the hope that He is not finished with her yet. Each day that He puts breath in her body and tells her heart to keep beating, each day that He shines the light of the sun on her and satisfies her appetite with good things, is another day in which He is not finished with her yet. The yearning ache that you carry around in your heart is merely a reflection of His own heart towards her. I won’t pretend to understand His ways or attempt to predict what He will do. But I do know that you are not alone in your grieving over her. Your Father is weeping, too.

  2. Janet Powell and I were just discussing these ideas yesterday. God brings sorrow for a purpose. If we do not grieve, then is it not a way of saying that the loss was not of value? When those closest to us out on the “happy, clappy” praise song approach when we legitimately suffer, we suffer all the more. It’s one thing to take the hit from your enemies, but to take it from those closet to you in Christ is even more painful.

    As I slog through Job, I’m amazed at how God gives us such a realistic, raw picture of suffering. A picture so raw that we turn our eyes and minds from it, not even letting our hearts begin to feel it. (Reminds me of Isaiah 53.) God never turned His face away from Job, all the while the Evil One was so relentlessly pursuing him. And to consider thr raw darkness of Christ’s suffering on our behalf such that the Father — for our sakes– would turn His face away from His Son, from our sin, such that we might become Hs children.

    The Lord is answering my prayer for the redemption of your suffering and sorrow.

  3. Mindy, thank you for praying with such perseverance and zeal. It is humbling to be on the receiving end, but I have needed it too much to pretend otherwise. In response to your comment about wounds coming from those closest to us, I think that intimacy and vulnerability go hand in hand. It is impossible to have one without the other. That makes those who are closest to us simultaneously the greatest potential source of wounding and of comfort. That’s a scary position to be in; but if we are sensitive and honest with each other, it’s also a beautiful position to be in. May you experience the sweet communion of laughing and crying with those with whom you currently share your life.

  4. What a great post Tiffany. I needed that reminder – that lamenting is okay. In an effort to “Count it all joy” when trials come, I have felt I’ve not honored God in my times of lament. But there are seasons for grief even as we are thankful and praise Him. Thank you.

    1. I know the feeling, Pamela, and I think our Lord understands our desire to honor Him despite the clumsy ways we go about doing it. 🙂 The more I sit with the Psalms, though, the more I am convinced that He wants to be included in our messy process, not just allowed in once we have gotten ourselves cleaned up and presentable. What a shame we don’t send that message to others by willingly entering into their mess and inviting them into ours! I really appreciated you pointing that out in your blog this week.

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