Teach us to weep

Jen Michel’s book Teach Us to Want remains a highlight of my reading in the past few years. What does it mean to want things as a Christian? Is it okay to desire things, or to have ambition? What place (if any) do those have in the life of faith?

This past weekend I got to hear Jen speak, and she reminded us of both the caution of desire (we should be wary of wanting, because we want wrongly, willfully, and dangerously); as well as the call of desire (because wanting lies at the heart of prayer, and transformation, and discipleship as we learn to want what God wants). Jen’s words are soul-mingling with a number of other voices of late: Paul E Miller’s practical and profound insights in A Praying Life, the beautiful paths of spiritual formation mapped out in the novel Sensible Shoes, as well as the wise mentoring of Ruth Haley Barton in her podcast Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership.

What do we want? What do we hope for? What do we pray for? And how do we cope with the glaring gaps between what we hope and pray for, and the grueling realities of how life sometimes is? How do we discern where God is at work, and what he has for us in each of these? What happens if we wanted and desired good things, and they were withheld or lost?

I have a journal full of questions and confessions and thoughts that have no place on this blog, but I do want to share this one thing, because perhaps you’re wading through some deep waters, too:

There is no path to spiritual wholeness that does not walk through the rocky terrain of grief and lament.

I’m learning to grieve. Right alongside, “Teach me to want, Lord”, I’m praying “teach me to weep”. Teach me how to notice and name the losses and disappointments of this life, and to lay each of these before you. Teach me to feel the hard feelings. Teach me to process pain in your presence.

Grief is not only a feeling we feel with the loss of loved ones. It’s what we feel when we lose anything: friendships or dreams or hopes or the change in a situation. There are good things about each life stage, and when change happens (even for good reasons!), there is still some grief we feel in losing what we had before. Noticing it. Naming it. Calling out the elephant in the room… or prayer closet as the case may be.

My friend Alastair Roberts made an insightful observation about the role feelings play in our spiritual lives: we are not to be ruled by our emotions, but we are not to be dismissive of them, either. Instead, the Psalms teach us to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them (for our emotions, like our minds and our bodies, each give us some information about the world and ourselves), and respond appropriately.

I can have all the “God is good and God is sovereign” theology firmly tucked under my proverbial Belt of Truth and Breastplate of Righteousness… but all of that does not muscle out the fact that sometimes, my heart still hurts, and disappointments still come. It is true that we can say, with Paul, that “in all these things (including death! disease! disappointment!) we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loved us” (Romans 8)… and at the SAME TIME to acknowledge that we feel hard-pressed on every side, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:9).

“Why are you so downcast within me, O my soul?” asks the Psalmist.

And then he lists the ways. There is no fast forwarding to hope. Joy may come in the morning, but sometimes there’s still a long night to endure before then. In truth, I think sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do in a situation is to cry.

I made a list of all the things I’m sad about right now: not a prayer list asking for help. Just a “I’m sad” list. This is not the kind of list I would have thought it was okay to write in a journal, but I’m learning that there’s a good and right place for lament.

Teach us to weep, O Lord. May all our longings be laid before you, all our sighs heard by you; and in time, would you lift our heads.

When What I Desire Is The End of Suffering

teachustowantMy friend Jen Pollock Michel has written a beautiful book called Teach Us To Want: On Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith. It is exquisitely written, theologically profound, and I am savoring each page. Jen asked a few writers to share their thoughts on desire and what we really, really want. I was honored to guest post over at her blog last month: this here is the more detailed version.

The prayers of my youth were filled with desire. Prayers for a boyfriend, for college scholarships, for permission to go on the sleepover at the popular kids’ house. I wanted those things with a guilty, drenched need, and did not know where else to turn than to the God who gave good gifts. Those were the good gifts, as far as I could understand them.

The prayers of my adulthood still carry echoes of the prayers of my youth. In truth: I still pray about men, opportunities and friendships. However, I find that the life of being a mom and friend in a sin-soaked world are leading me to pray a host of different prayers of desire: “Please, I want it to be better. Please, let it not hurt anymore.”

We have weathered a good number of storms over the years, but I remember clearly the first tsunami of pain which made me pray that prayer most fervently. Our family was devastated by violent crime and we had no answers, no balm.

Instead we had questions, the most oppressive of which was this: “why would a good God let this happen?” We wanted so badly for things to be well with our loved ones, we desired good things from the one who “gives people the desires of their heart” (Psalm 37:4), and wasn’t he supposed to be the one who knew how to give his children good things? If we asked for a fish, would he give us a snake? If we asked for an egg, would he give us a scorpion? (Luke 11:11-12)

And yet there we were: snake-bitten by crime, scorpion-stung by violence.

I would not say that, having endured that trial, that I solved the ‘problem of evil’. That particular suffering challenged my faith significantly, but even in the absence of finding intellectually satisfying answers to my heartbroken questions, I still found myself drawing closer to God rather than pulling away from him.

Unglamorous as this may sound, I believe the main reason I stuck with Jesus was that I didn’t have any better alternatives. Again and again I was drawn back to John 6, where the disciples challenge Jesus with his teaching saying “this is hard to accept!” Jesus’ challenged them in reply: “will you leave me also?” Peter’s reply rang in my ears for weeks: “to whom else shall we go? We know and have believed that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60-69)

In the wake of our trauma, I considered my options: I could deny there was a God (not really an option.) I could opt for a different religion: Islam (but Allah seemed so capricious.) Hinduism (but I really wasn’t persuaded, and the pictures gave me the creeps.) It was looking into Buddhism, though, which finally pointed me back to Christianity.

The four noble truths of Buddhism teach this:

All is suffering (dukkha), and

 Suffering is caused by desire.

 If one can eliminate desire, one can eliminate suffering.

 Finally, the Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire.

My soul rebelled. The notion that the suffering we were experiencing was caused by a (wrongful) desire to not have things hurt seemed unconscionably inhuman. Far from helping me find peace, Buddhism made me angry: it was simply NOT TRUE that we were suffering because we had a wrongful desire not to suffer.

I needed someone to say that the suffering was wrong.

I needed to know that longing for wholeness was good.

I needed someone to say that ‘good’ was, in fact, good; and that ‘evil’ was truly ‘evil’.

I needed to know that my desire for things to be right was not a denial of my truest spiritual self, but in fact a deep expression of my truest spiritual self.

In Jesus, I found someone who did just that. He wept over death. He “set his face” towards the things he wanted to accomplish. He grieved over the bad, and gave his own life “for the joy set before him”. My soul needed to know that both grief and hope were appropriate and full expressions of the human experience.  In Jesus, I found someone who acknowledged and affirmed that both my desires for joy and relationship and my desires for pain and suffering to end were good things. And more than that, they were things he desired for us too.

The timeline in which those desires would be met still needed some negotiation.

But the desires themselves were good and God-given, even in the valley of shadows.

The prayers of my adulthood are filled with such prayers.