Tag Archives: joy

No Room for the Spirit

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“There’s just something missing at church. I can’t put my finger on it, but each week I come home feeling frustrated and empty.”

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by Christians of all stripes (and felt it myself)! If often falls in the context of a fair critique of artificial fellowship, program-driven worship, or pre-packaged sermons. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is a symptom of a deeper issue, one which starts in us.

The “church” of Hannah’s time was experiencing an all-time low. The spiritual leaders who had been entrusted with the holy task of ministering before the Lord and of shepherding His people were instead using their powerful position to take advantage of vulnerable women and to embezzle the offerings of faithful worshippers. Their minds were so far from the Spirit around whom their service and their facility were oriented that they didn’t recognize His work when He showed up!

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. …

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
1 Samuel 1:12-17

But that didn’t stop Hannah from encountering Him. Her desperation for a child and her deep faith that God was the only One who could give her one drove her into His presence. There, through the veil that separated her from the ark of the covenant, she communed with the Spirit in a powerful way, His prayers bubbling up on her lips and mingling with her own tearful longings. And despite Eli’s well-intentioned blunder, the Spirit spoke His blessing and assurance through His not-so-spiritually sensitive priest. Hannah left the tabernacle strengthened and encouraged, filled with the sweet satisfaction of having met with God.

Though Eli’s sons didn’t recognize it, God’s Spirit was living in their midst. He did respond to the prayers of the faithful who came seeking His face. He did take issue with their corrupt practices. And He wasn’t about to let them get away with using Him as an excuse to get what they wanted or a talisman to protect their own self-interests. So when they hauled the ark out of its holy home and put it on display before the eyes of pagan invaders, God let them lose, both the battle and the gift of His Spirit.

She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
1 Samuel 4:22; 5:7

But as He had done for Sarah when her husband devalued her glory in a similar way, God honored His Spirit’s abode in the eyes of its captors. He allowed no one to desecrate its holy form. He poured out plagues on the households of those who took it in. And He brought down in involuntary worship the idol-king who presumed to use it as a self-gratifying prop. By time He was finished with them, Dagon and his Philistine devotees were begging for the Spirit to depart from them. The care with which they sent off the ark and the gifts with which they surrounded it testified to their newfound awareness of the Spirit’s power and worth.

“I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”
Psalm 132:3-9

No wonder David prized the Spirit’s presence with him more than any other gift or accomplishment. No wonder he felt the incredible wrongness of the way the ark had been neglected, abandoned as it was in some shed in a farmer’s field. And no wonder zeal to build a proper house for the Spirit consumed him. The lack of a permanent building or organized worship hadn’t prevented David from meeting with God and enjoying the fellowship of His Spirit. But the value he placed on the Spirit drove him to honor It with the central-most space in his kingdom.

This is what I think we are too-often missing, both in our churches and in our hearts. We fail to recognize the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget to honor Its holiness, to give It central place in our thoughts, our prayers, our service, and our worship. We go through the motions of doing the right things while missing the beauty and the power of the One who could fill them with meaning and satisfaction. In short, we take the Spirit for granted.

For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.
Psalm 132:13-16

The Spirit may be the least-visible member of the Trinity, but It is certainly not the least precious. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit on us as individual believers and as a Church. This Gift is one to be treasured, adored, welcomed, and sought out. Whether our churches welcome the Spirit’s manifestations or not, whether they invoke It’s presence or not, the Spirit is with us. Both in private prayer and in corporate worship, the onus is on us to faithfully, zealously seek His face.

And as each heart prepares Him room, Heaven and nature will have cause to sing.

Opening the Door

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I awoke the other night to a loud, insistent pounding on the door. My initial reaction was to remain securely bundled in the safety of my bed, counting the number of locks on the doors and bars on the windows between me and whoever was out there in the African night.

But they wouldn’t quit. More knocks on the door. More calls through the window for someone to please come and answer. A pang of conscience drifted through my sleep-muddled mind, reminding me that I had arrived at the university guesthouse under similar conditions only a few nights before. Perhaps this was another travel-weary guest, arriving in the middle of the night after countless hours on sleep-depriving airplane seats and bone-jolting potholed roads. Then again, perhaps it was a band of ruthless marauders come to attack and plunder us unsuspecting foreigners as we slept in our beds.

We make a choice whether to protect our own interests or to risk them for the sake of another.

As I lay under my mosquito netting trying to collect my thoughts, the pounding continued. Were there no staff people here to go and sort it out? I realized we were on our own. I had to make a choice whether to protect my own interests or to risk them for the sake of another.

Flipping on the lights, I shuffled across the gritty cement floor, unlocking barrier after barrier of protection as I approached the front door. I peered through the glass, unable to make out the figures that went with the voices calling to me from the blackness of the outside night. They were trying to explain who they were and why they had come, but I could barely hear them through the glass. Did I really want to expose myself to these strangers?

Call it an act of sacrificial love or of supreme stupidity, but I did it. With a quick prayer for protection and a fuzzy-headed analysis of the potential consequences, I stuck my key in the door and turned the lock. Little did I know that I was opening the door for the answer to one of my forgotten prayers.

Out of the darkness stepped a man, his countenance matching the night but his eyes radiating the dawn. His cheeks bore matching sets of scars, which he later explained to me as tribal markings that his parents had cut into his face as a baby to protect him from being mistakenly murdered during the tribal wars into which he had been born. But his purple shirt, white clerical collar, and chain with suspended cross told the story of another birth into a different tribe.

Love for Christ compels us to get up and open the door.

The next day I had the opportunity to pour him a cup of Ugandan coffee and find out more about my Nigerian brother. Born into a Muslim family, he had been among the first in his region to attend school, newly introduced by Christians from abroad. Along with a modern education he had also received knowledge of Christ, to which he responded in faith. Despite opposition from his family, he had persisted in his faith, pursued a life of ministry, and eventually risen to the position of bishop over the churches in the central region of his country.

I listened to this man’s story of life and faith with tears in my eyes, remembering the prayers that I have so fervently offered up to God on behalf of His people in Nigeria. How many times have I have wrestled with God in prayer, wondering why He allows evil, militant groups like ISIS and Boko Haram to overtake a country and torture its struggling Christian population? How often have news reports from around the world caused me to question Jesus’ claim that He will establish His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it?

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16:16-19

And yet here sat this man, a living testimony that God is at work in these places, that the light of His presence has been anything but extinguished there. Yes, the persecution has been severe. Yes, many have lost their homes, their jobs, their families, and even their lives. And some have renounced their faith.

But as my brother testified, the church in Nigeria is being refined by Boko Haram’s fire. Its light is shining all the brighter as a result of persecution. Those who have remained are marked by a willingness to endure all things for the sake of Christ and to reach out in sacrificial love to meet the needs of one another in the Body. In fact, he had only been able to set out on this trans-African pilgrimage to bring his son for higher education in Uganda because of the many unexpected gifts his fellow Nigerian believers had showered on him.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…
I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Matthew 25:34-35, 40

I sit back in humbled amazement, privileged to get to witness God’s work in the world. I suppose that, like with the inconvenient, intimidating knocks on the guesthouse door, we have a choice of how far we will go in opening ourselves to what is going on in the world. We could simply shut out the media-amplified cries of people we don’t know, choosing instead to roll over and pull a pillow over our heads.

But love for Christ compels us to get up and open the door. They may be strangers to us, but they are intimately known by Him. We risk our own sense of security and safety by allowing in the painful awareness of all that His children are suffering for His name’s sake. But in exchange, we gain the joy of participating with Him in bringing about the most improbable of our prayers.

“Your kingdom come.“

A Better Dream

“When I try to think about the future, all I can see is an enormous black curtain blocking out everything else.” I could see no way around it. I knew what I was saying did not fit with the biblical hope that I professed, but that dark cloud of despair had settled so thickly over my soul that I could see little else. I didn’t want to be overcome by depression, but it was so much bigger than me, beyond what my simply “choosing joy” could dispel. Where could I go for help? Who could free me from this invisible prison?

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?”
Psalm 42:9-10

The answer was obvious. Every Sunday school child knows the songs about God being able to do anything. But He wasn’t doing it now. He was not delivering me from my troubles, He was not wiping away my tears, He was not lifting me out of my despair. Not yet, at least. Submerged under a shroud of darkness, I waited. But for what?

My tears have been my food day and night, while men 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 with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Psalm 42:3-4

The longer I pondered that question, the more I realized that I was waiting for Him. One by one, all my other hopes and dreams had faded and died. The memory of them brought a painful chuckle. Had I really once been so bold and carefree as to pursue such idyllic aspirations? I had taken them for granted at the time, but experience taught me that life doesn’t usually work out the way we imagine it will. As the pathetic Fantine in Les Miserables so poignantly sings, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

The death of our dreams gives rise to the life of our worship.

But the longer I waited in the dark, the more a new dream emerged. Sure I still wanted to be a cheery, engaged mother to my children, a loving, encouraging wife to my husband, a useful, effective servant for the kingdom of God. Those were good goals that were right to pursue, but they were no longer the center of my vision. Losing the ability to fulfill them had whetted my appetite for God.

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell. Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
Psalm 43:3-4

Stripped of all the other dreams in which I had formerly found significance and delight, I wanted nothing more than to be in God’s presence. I woke each morning desperate to escape into His heavenly throne room and to lose myself in all-consuming worship. I walked through each day clinging to Him with every step. And I fell asleep each night savoring the sweet comfort of being cradled in His arms.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Psalm 43:5

This was a dream that nothing in this life could deprive me of. It penetrated the dark barriers that hemmed me in and gave me a palpable hope to cling to. Even if I still could not envision the future, even if the thought of what lay ahead overwhelmed and intimidated me, beyond all that I could anticipate the sweetest of prospects: eternity in God’s presence. It was only a matter of time until my hope would be fulfilled, a matter of when, not if. And in the meantime, as I walked the up-and-down path of this life, there was no reason I couldn’t enjoy His presence along the way. Worship became my highest joy. I discovered that I was participating already in what would be perfect then.

Finding the Line

Having ridden the swinging pendulum from a polite but distant relationship with God to one that is more familiar and unreserved, it is easy to forget that God has boundaries. There are lines that He maintains around His glory that even we are not allowed past.

David discovered one of those lines by crossing it. He had come a long way in his relationship with God, too. From starry-eyed shepherd boy singing beautiful poetry, to traumatized warrior begging for relief, to jubilant king exalting his Benefactor, David had learned to walk intimately with God through the ups and downs of life. He had become confident in God’s unfailing love and bold in approaching His throne in raw, uninhibited prayer. Laments, complaints, requests, questions, thanks, praise: the full range of human emotion and relational interaction flowed freely between David and his God.

So David assembled all the Israelites, … to bring up from there the ark of God the LORD, who is enthroned between the cherubim–the ark that is called by the Name. They moved the ark of God from Abinadab’s house on a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio guiding it. David and all the Israelites were celebrating with all their might before God, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals and trumpets.
I Chronicles 13:5-8

The climactic moment of their relationship came when David finally became king over all Israel and established his throne in Jerusalem. The crowning touch was to be united with the ark of the covenant, the footstool of God’s throne and the actual place where His glory dwelt. David called all of the people together to participate in this momentous occasion. More glorious than a royal wedding, this procession was bringing God home to live in their midst.

When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.
1 Chronicles 13:9-10

Joyful singing. Jubilant music. Exuberant dancing. Burning anger? Devastating blow! The procession ground to a halt. David was in shock. One of his men lay dead next to the ark, struck down by God. David was angry. The man had merely been trying to steady the ark on the jolting cart! Did God really have to be so extreme about protecting His glory?

Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah… David was afraid of God that day and asked, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?” He did not take the ark to be with him in the City of David.
1 Chronicles 13:11-13

The day was ruined. David wasn’t so sure he even wanted God so close by, after all. What had happened to the God who was always on his side, always on hand to listen to his prayers and to help him in his struggles? Why hadn’t He cooperated with David’s plan and made their big day a success? Disillusioned, angry, and scared, David left the ark behind and returned home alone.

Our God is both tender friend and consuming fire.

It would take three months of reflection by David and re-affirmation by God to overcome the polite distance between them. David had to come to grips with a God who welcomed him into a warm, loving relationship but who still maintained distinct boundaries around His holiness. He had grown so comfortable in his relationship with God that he had forgotten to take God seriously. God had given specific instructions about how He wanted His ark to be transported, and He would not tolerate even the most intimate of His friends ignoring them.

“It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way.” … So the priests and Levites consecrated themselves in order to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel. And the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD.
1 Chronicles 15:13-15

Once David cooled down and realized where he had gone wrong, he had a decision to make. Was sharing a close relationship with God worth the risk? As he had witnessed, close proximity to God could bring extraordinary blessing or phenomenal disaster. Sobered but undeterred, David once again led the crowd in approaching God’s holy presence, but this time according to God’s terms.

Now David was clothed in a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and as were the singers, and Kenaniah, who was in charge of the singing of the choirs. David also wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouts, with the sounding of rams’ horns and trumpets, and of cymbals, and the playing of lyres and harps.
1 Chronicles 15:27-28

Wild dancing. Loud shouting. Blissful abandonment and exuberant worship accompanied by purified priests and prescribed offerings, ordained carriers and organized worship. This kind of procession held together the tension of spontaneity and order, of familiarity and respect. And God was pleased to bless it.

Intimacy and reverence are not mutually exclusive. We have a God who is both tender friend and consuming fire. He invites us into a full-on, open relationship, but also maintains a distinction between Himself as God and us as His people. A line does remain between us, but it serves to magnify our marvel over a God who comes close in holy communion.

Counting our Blessings?

Tiff,
We sang “count your blessings” in morning prayers yesterday. There’s a line in there about “does the cross feel like a heavy burden to bear” (something like that) and prescribes counting your blessings. 
So, my question for your blog: what do we do with songs like this? Is there value in reminding people to count blessings? I remember people telling me all kinds of things that would “fix” me (more prayer, more bible study, more service to others, etc.). Some of them helped in small ways. None of them “fixed” me.

I hate to admit this, but the rebel in me wants to stand up after a song like that and read aloud Psalm 89, which begins by “recounting” God’s former blessings and promises and then abruptly jumps track and launches into a long list of all the curses that He has brought on His people. Singing about “counting your curses” might not send everyone away with a pleasant smile on their face, though.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament.

Songs like “Count your Blessings” often seem to downplay the reality and immensity of our troubles, sending the message that if we would just focus on the positive rather than the negative, all our problems would just go away. If only the solution were so simple! Formulaic, moralistic approaches to comfort are more likely to heap additional guilt, isolation, and wounding on a person barely managing to keep their nose above water. They don’t need another sermon; they need a life raft!

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.
Psalm 77:1-2

That being said, I do see a form of “Count your Blessings” in many of the Biblical prayers, Psalm 77 in particular. The psalmist doesn’t jump straight to the blessings, though. First he cries out his distress and troubles to God, refusing to be comforted until they have been properly addressed.

My heart mused and my spirit inquired: “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Psalm 77:6-9

As he considers his current misery, he verbalizes to God the horrible doubts that his recent experiences have forced him to consider. These are the disturbing questions that have been simmering under the surface, questions about the character of God and the nature of their relationship. They seem too heretical to put into words, but if he doesn’t ask them his soul will remain in turmoil and their relationship will remain unresolved.

Even as the psalmist hears the questions stated out loud, he recognizes how preposterous they are. God “forgetting” to be merciful? Unfailing love that fails?

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy.
Psalm 77:10-13

The psalmist desperately wants to get beyond despair and back into praise, but he refuses to shortcut the process and shortchange the relationship. So instead he appeals to the history of God’s dealings with His people. He chooses to remember the things God has done in the past, to count the ways He has already proven His love and shown His goodness.

Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.
Psalm 77:19

Memories of God’s incredible rescues and tender mercies come flooding in. In the past when troubles overwhelmed God’s people, He always showed up and delivered them, even when they couldn’t see Him doing it. This time will be no different. Finally, his soul can be a rest again. God has been good to him, and God will once more be good to him.

The movement in the Psalms, and the goal in our own lives, is towards joyful praise. But the road from despair to worship often has to first pass through lament. Interestingly, lament rarely manages to sustain itself for too long. Once it has served its purpose, lament fades away and leaves room for gratitude. And at that point, counting our blessings is a helpful life buoy in lifting our spirits back to joy.

Comfort and Joy? Glad Tidings in the Dark

Christmas caroling facilitates the most bizarre cultural collisions. When else do people open their doors and light up with a smile at the sound of the gospel being proclaimed? When else do secular, public facilities thank you for singing about the global reign of Christ the King?

All is calm; all is bright.

But Christmas caroling also produces poignant emotional collisions. Nostalgic tunes, cheery colors, cherubic faces, soft lights, and celebrating words weave together to send a message that all is right with the world. But what about when it isn’t? For those who sit in deep darkness, songs of comfort and joy dredge up the underlying sorrows, the deep pain, the unresolved conflicts that keep their world from being right. Blessed arms cradling a thriving infant call to mind the babies who didn’t make it or cause an ache in the hearts of those whose arms remain empty.  Presents stacked under a tree and a sumptuous feast spread on the table taunt those who struggle to cover their family’s most basic financial needs. And picture-perfect families happily celebrating together stand in stark contrast to the painful reality of those whose families are broken or abusive, separated by miles or perhaps even by death.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The first Christmas “songs” were for people sitting in the dark. The infertile couple who were past hope of ever holding their own child. An unwed mother wondering how this was going to work out. An engaged man wondering if his woman had cheated on him. Marginalized men working the night shift out in the fields to feed their families. An old widow living in the temple, without the security of a home of her own or the comfort of a family gathered around her. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the prophetess Anna, these songs brought a message of comfort and hope into their messy lives.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.

God had heard their cries. He had noticed their plight. They were not alone. They were not forgotten. He had come to walk with them, to grieve with them, and to comfort them. He had also come to change their world. He had come to overturn the curse and make the wrong things right. He would heal the sick and restore the broken, feed empty stomachs and fill empty arms, affirm the humiliated and admonish the arrogant. And ultimately, He would restore all things to their rightful place in relationship with their God.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night and pierce the clouds and bring us light!

Songs of Christmas stir our deepest longings. They bring us face to face with what is not right in our lives, and then promise us so much more. The thought of hope can be painful, especially in light of our past disappointments. But the message of Jesus’ birth calls us out of our dark caves to bask in the dawning light. God has heard our laments. He has and is responding to our pain.  And He will make all things new.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2

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.