Christians can harbour some of the most destructive mindsets.
I know, because I've harboured them, myself.
We have a reputation for being more hypocritical than the unbelieving world. We can be sneakier in our sin, because of our religious label. We can be haughty and proud. We can be exclusive and unattractive to outsiders. We can be close-minded and argumentative, defensive and critical, cynical and artificial, snobbish and judgmental. There are many dangerous frames of mind that are especially tempting for believers. Because of who we've chosen to be and how we strive to live, we are often more prone to certain weaknesses. And the devil knows what those weaknesses are.
But I want to talk about one, in particular. One that may not immediately jump to your mind as a problem. One that is rarely talked about in Christian circles, from what I've experienced. One that has proven to be spiritually damaging to me, time and time again.
It's the habit of "dealing with it."
From the moment I was born, I've been taught by fellow believers. Parents, pastors, Sunday School teachers, Bible study Leaders, youth pastors, etc. And while I've been explicitly taught Biblical principles from people like these, I was also taught subliminal lessons just by observing the people around me- church members, friends, peers, and family. And it's crazy just how many of the habits I've formed and the mindsets I've adopted developed not from church sermons or Bible memory verses, but from copying the people around me.
I guess it's really not that surprising. For example, if a young child is told by his parents to chew with his mouth closed, eat whatever he is given, use a napkin instead of his shirt, and practice good manners, but his parents do not follow those rules themselves... it's not difficult to imagine how the kid will learn to behave. Teaching by example is generally more effective than simply teaching by instruction. However, we teach by example all the time without even realizing it. The way we live, good or bad, is always an example to those around us- especially to those younger than us.
So, "dealing with it." What does that mean?
I guess the mindset I'm trying to describe is the mindset of guilt. Good, old-fashioned Christian guilt. Guilt for being too sad. Guilt for being too discouraged. Guilt for struggling, for hurting, for suffering. Guilt for not being "strong enough." Guilt for being weak. Tired. Heartbroken. Scared. Lonely. Bitter. Betrayed. You name it- you're guilty of it.
All my life I've been a slave to this kind of guilt. I've spent months at a time feeling ashamed of the trials I was going through. I've I've felt guilty anytime life was hard. I've even felt guilty for feeling guilty. Why? I believe it's because there's a sneaky message that is taught to us as Christians, and it goes something like this: "No matter what you're going through, you've got it better than a lot of people. You have no reason to complain, and no reason to be sad. Just think of those who have it worse than you." Or, to simplify, "Just deal with it."
This message was never taught to me by any Sunday School teacher or youth pastor. Yet somehow, in between the lines of "Consider it pure joy" and "In all things, give thanks," I understood a completely different message. Perhaps a sinister, even devilish message. A message that twisted the truth and warped these verses into something more like: "How dare you be discouraged? Look at everything you have; look at how good your life is! Remember the people who are actually suffering, and stop being a wimp." Again, in short, "Just deal with it."
So that's what I did. Every time. I dealt with it. I stuffed it away, I ignored it all. I told myself I was fine, I told myself I was great, I told myself I'd never been better. I dealt with it by forgetting the pain, and never admitting to anyone, least of all myself, that there was any issue. I dealt with it by plastering a smile on my face and then patting myself on the back for having such a good attitude. I dealt with it by blaming my lack of sleep on the weather, or my supper, or maybe just the busy week ahead. I dealt with it by drowning out my thoughts in music and books and tv episodes, and said I was at peace. I dealt with it by suppressing it all. Distracting myself. Stifling my emotions, smothering my pain.
And after months of good attitudes and smiles,
nothing was dealt with, at all.
No matter how long I ignored it, it always came flooding back. Every time. No matter how long I "dealt with it," its crushing return was inevitable. No problem was ever fixed, just prolonged. The wounds were never healed; the symptoms were just masked.
It's like a family who throws all their junk into the downstairs storage room. Everyone feels like they've gotten rid of their trash, but really, it just piles up over time until one day, the room is overflowing. The problem never disappears and the trash is never dealt with. It just heaps up and swells until that inevitable day when it can take no more. Now, the problem still has to be dealt with. It's just bigger than it ever was before.
I've never heard it said better than Pastor Ashwin Ramani in his sermon, "A Thanksgiving Lament." He says:
Is there room in our liturgy to express disappointments, brokenness, and grief? What if you're going through a difficult season of life right now? For example, a young mom with two little kids who's been diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live. A person with a long-standing battle with mental illness and bouts of depression. A family still reeling from the news of their son, murdered by a mob. I can think of at least a few couples whose marriages are on the brink of divorce. Our churches don't do very well with grief. We simply don't seem to have the capacity to handle sadness.
What do you do when you have no trophies of answered prayers to show off, but rather one disappointment after another? Do we just put on a pretend face and say, "Praise the Lord!" along with everybody? No. A believer shouldn't have to pretend. We can express our honest doubts to God without fear that he's going to strike us back. It's a privilege God has given to us. And it is better to speak honestly than to pretend like we are fine, because God knows our hearts, anyway. It's called "Lamentation." (Paraphrase. Full sermon here.)
Lamentation. It's a very little-known and even less-practiced form of communicating with God. In his sermon, Ashwin goes on to point out the example of lamentation modelled in the Bible- not only in the book of Lamentations, but also in the writings of Moses, the Psalms, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and other prophets, and even in the Gospels by the Lord Jesus, Himself. He reminds us that to lament is the exclusive privilege of the believer.
As Christians, we're often told to put on a brave face, be strong, and to always be thankful. It's almost unheard of to actually cry out to God, be vulnerable, express our anger to Him, tell Him our honest doubts, or question His character. It would be considered sacrilegious and irreverent to shout out our sufferings and hurts instead of calmly and quietly praising God and focusing on all the good things in life. I dare you to try and find a single modern Christian chorus that speaks of pain in the raw and unfiltered way that the Psalms so often do.
Psalm 77:9 - Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me? Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion?
Or try suggesting these lyrics to your church's worship team:
Psalm 88:13-18 - O Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you turn your face from me? I have been sick and close to death since my youth. I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors. Your fierce anger has overwhelmed me. They swirl around me like floodwaters all day long. They have engulfed me completely. You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.
Talk about depressing. What was wrong with these authors? What was with their negative attitudes? Why all the doubt? Why did they have so little trust? These are the questions we would've asked those Psalmists, had they been alive today. We would have shaken our heads in disapproval. We would have thought amongst ourselves, "Those grumblers need to count their blessings." "How dare they think those things?" "And they call themselves Christians...."
We shame the hurting. We rebuke the wounded. We reproach the grieving. And because of that, we have fostered a generation of Christians who suppress everything. We are a people who silence our sorrows and grievances until they explode, annihilating families, destroying friendships, and turning believers away from the faith. We keep it all under wraps, and we walk around with that image of perfection and bliss on our faces that is so unbearable for the hurting and the lost.
We can't empathize with the broken world
because we can't admit to ourselves that we still break.
All my life, any time I've felt pain or sorrow or depression, I've always stifled it as quickly as possible. I've said to myself, "Think about the Christians dying for their faith. Think about the countries that aren't allowed to worship God. Think about the people being beaten and starved. They've got it far worse than me- I shouldn't complain. I'm overreacting." And with that destructive mentality and pervasive guilt, I played the role of perfect-life, happy-heart Christian... and I proceeded to crash and burn. Every. Time. Trust me: There's no quicker way to lose your mind than to convince yourself that you've got it all together.
It wasn't until recently that I finally begun to entertain a new thought: What if I just admitted it when life is hard? What if I let myself recognize the struggle? What if I acknowledged the pain? The guilt and the shame fight back and tell me I'm being a wimp, but God loves my broken heart. It's the only kind of heart that He can heal. He can't do anything when I tape my heart together and hide it away from Him. But I'm learning that when I allow myself to bleed, when I let myself cry, that's when the healing can begin. That's when the Great Physician can get to work. That's when I can grow.
I'm not condoning grumbling. I'm not encouraging complaining. Discontent and whining are nails on the chalkboard in God's ears. But the lamentation of a broken spirit and a bleeding heart is music to God. What do we gain when we dismiss our pain and condemn ourselves for suffering? What do we learn when we don't allow ourselves to acknowledge the trials in our lives?
Paul told us to consider it pure joy when we face trials. But in order to consider them joy, we actually have to face them. The apostles were some of the most vocal of all when it came to expressing pain and sorrow and suffering. They never denied it. They never punished themselves for their weaknesses or adversities. In fact, the exact opposite is true:
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 - "But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
We can force ourselves to have a good attitude and be strong in spite of our circumstances, but it will only ever amount to crushing defeat unless we allow God to be our strength for us. He is our anchor in the storm, our hope in the battle, and our victory in the fight. But He can't fight for us if we don't cry out for help. And we'll never cry out if we are guilt-tripping ourselves for even needing help, in the first place.
He can't help us in our messes until we stop hogging control. As long as we're "dealing with it," He never will. It's time we learned to give up the fight, lift our eyes, and let Him be the Saviour and Healer and Comforter that He desires to be. Remember, Christ came to save not only the starving and dying, but the anxious hearts, too. The depressed. The lonely. He came for the healthy and the wealthy, as well as for the sick and the poor.
No matter your social status. No matter your physical well-being. No matter your background, your family, your country- no matter any of your privileges or your lack thereof. We are all in need of a Saviour, and we are all lost without Him.
So stop condemning yourself for your struggles. There's a reason we need God.
Believe it or not, believers,
it's okay to not be okay.