It's funny how fads can flip us to opposite extremes--to the point that the extreme we're in right now makes it hard to imagine that an opposite emphasis may have occurred in the past. In this case, I'm thinking about laughter and lament.
Speaking of the past, I'm a big fan of the Puritans and have long known that studies show that calling the Puritans "dour" is not a fair or accurate description. Rather, dourness predates the Puritans by many centuries!! As this article indicates (https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/where-i-stand/st-benedicts-10th-step-humility-when-funny-not-funny) some of my other fave's in the faith were also known for their, well, suspicion of frivolity. For example, Clement of Alexandria was concerned that laughter interferes with rationality and so therefore needed to be curbed. Biggies like Ambrose and John Chrysostom connected laughter and lust. St. Benedict advocated for moderation in laughter. Read properly, none of these leaders are preaching dourness per se. But the emphasis was certainly on caution, control, moderation. Centuries of Christian thought firmly emphasized carefulness in expressions of happiness that were immoderate.
Not so today.
We look back on these times and think, how oppressive, how controlling. How difficult it must have been to just "be yourself." What an unnecessarily unhappy existence, with only the slightest Scriptural proof to support curbing laughter.
And yet, have we swung to the opposite extreme? Do we impose the same level of oppressiveness toward those who are not happy enough? Do we rigidly control "immoderate" expressions of sadness, tiredness, and outright pain? Are Christians not permitted to express weakness, distress, or concern? In other words, has the pendulum swung to the opposite side?
I would not fit in very well in early Christianity in terms of controlling happy expressions. I'm pretty certain that most people who know me see me as a happy person--and I am. I choose joy. I'm a big proponent of mindfulness and small pleasures (food! books! music! nature!)--and noticing the good. I smile a lot and laugh big. Definitely immoderately. I'm told that my co-workers can sometimes hear my laugh across the room. Through a closed door. So...I'm definitely not one to say we should swing back to linking lust and laughter!
Still. I wonder if there is a bit of oppressiveness to societal--and American Christian--expectations to be up, up, up and happy, happy, happy all the time. Do we actively suppress normal human expressions of pain and difficulty, and does this have a negative spiritual impact on people? With the level of depression cases skyrocketing, maybe we should stop and listen to the pain that people are in...and notice how rich Scripture and Christian history is with allowing and even encouraging lament before the Lord and with one another?
More to the point, to what extent am I oppressive in my expectations of myself and others regarding how happy we all seem? It's like I've nominated myself for the job of making sure that everyone around me is always happy. I somehow feel that it's my fault when people aren't. Sometimes this can be helpful in caring for and understanding others, but ultimately can be detrimental and even an idol. I've fallen into our culture's false expectation that life should be happy all the time. It's just an impossible and unachievable goal, and we may be killing ourselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in our attempts to attain it.
Positive psychology has perhaps taken us a little too far, and is often misused and misapplied in the process. This Psychology Today article (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/202006/two-reasons-it-s-not-good-be-happy-all-the-time) describes what research says about why we don't need to be happy all of the time. The author has two key points:
There's a difference between hedonic well-being and eudaimonic well-being. The first has to do with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, and the second has to do with meaning and purpose. Eudaimonic well-being isn't necessarily pleasurable but ultimately may provide a deeper grounding and long-standing life satisfaction.
Negative emotions can be good for us. Even guilt and anger, when properly channeled, can result in positive outcomes. Some negative emotions--such as anger in particular--can be very motivating and can prompt one toward action (the key being appropriate action, after the heat of the moment has passed). Without these negative expressions, we may become too passive, too unmotivated to do anything about truly problematic situations.
These are important lessons for today. In a world that may focus too much on seeking pleasure, and avoiding pain--including negative emotions--it's no wonder that crises such as a pandemic leave us bereft of an emotional mooring. I believe that Christians and those in the monotheistic religions overall, should have a deeper mooring than this. After all, our Scriptures are full of examples of lament and complaint--real human pain. Imperfect human characters. And in Christianity, we actually have a God who suffered.
Peter Lee, in Embodied Hope, writes
Lament helps keep us sane amid physical suffering; it allows us to acknowledge real problems even as we hold out for the unrealized resolution. It affirms God’s shalom even as it confesses our present trouble. As we wonder what it means to look to God amid our suffering, the only way we might keep our hope is to keep this larger, complex story of humanity in mind. Powerful, inventive, and delightful creatures that we can be, we also suffer and complain. We are never far from the dueling experiences of splendor and pain, triumph and tragedy. Lament allows us to embrace this tension without being swallowed up by it. It enables us to look for God’s deliverance even as the sandstorm of life threatens and swirls.
I love that Lee used the word "sane." Yes! It feels not sane to be swirling in pain and yet be in denial over it. God literally tells us that His power is "made perfect in weakness" (II Corinthians 12:9). This verse sits on my mantle:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
God invites us to be weak before Him, before one another. How can we seek deliverance if we insanely insist that there is nothing to be delivered from?!
Peter Lee continues,
When contemporary churches cease to sing laments as part of their regular catalog of songs, instead only choosing happy or upbeat music, the people of God lose their ability to lament well: our muscles for godly mourning atrophy. We become ill-equipped to handle the pain that life throws at us. Without space for genuine lament, false veneers and bitterness easily take root, eventually bringing destruction in their wake. Suffering surprises and isolates once-active worshipers, often driving them away. When the homes of believers are hit by chronic pain or mental illness, they often find the contemporary church strangely unhelpful, even hurtful. A hurting family no longer fits the American Christian model of growth, happiness, and victory. When the church is robbed of its regular pronouncements, prayers, and songs of lament, then, like a shepherd distracted by the stars in the sky, it fails to protect and nourish the vulnerable sheep entrusted to its care.
Is Lee correct? Have our muscles for godly mourning atrophied? Are we ill-equipped to handle the pain that life throws? Do we put on false veneers? Are we letting bitterness take root? Are we letting life's pains drive us away from congregational encounters and worship? Are we failing to protect and nourish one another?
I think these are excellent questions to ask of ourselves and one another. How can we do better?
My church is doing a women's study on Lysa TerKeurst's book, It's Not Supposed To Be This Way: Finding Unexpected Strength When Disappointment Leaves You Shattered. Each week, we positively comment on TerKeurst's openness and transparency. It's almost unheard of, especially in books where the author is expected to have all the answers. My array of books on suffering that I'm continuously reading (next up: Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy and When God Doesn't Fix It) have two requirements for me: the author must draw richly upon a Biblical worldview...and they must have suffered in a notable way. Something that won't cause me to be dismissive of what they're saying, as if they don't know what they're talking about. That's just where I am right now. I don't want advice from someone who can blithely write about pain as if it is something foreign. Joni Earekson Tada wrote the forward to Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy so it seems I'm on some solid footing in starting this book.
So, what are some takeaways from all this? Should we go around with dour faces all day? Please, no! Those of us who are very attuned to the emotional thermostats of others suffer greatly when those around us have no emotional regulation and carry their ups and downs of moment-by-moment changes constantly with them. As I've explained to those closest to me, it's like being hit by waves of others' negative emotion. The only way I can turn it off is to self-isolate and restore in silence, my introverted tendencies coming into high drive when there is chaos and too much negativity around me. So, please not more of that!
A couple of applications come to mind. One is Peter Lee's recommendation about lament in worship. One caveat I'd add is that it's sometimes not the worship leaders who are the ones imposing overly positive triumphalist worship on a congregation. As a worship leader, I have never had a single request from someone asking us to sing more songs on lament! But we do get requests for very upbeat songs and late 20th-century hymns that probably evoke a certain nostalgia for worshippers. I don't think these are necessarily terrible things. But we leaders may need to provide what worshippers don't even know that they need!
Secondly, I do think there's something to living in joy and letting it show on our faces. For all the Scripture verses on lament, we need to remember that joy is also there. In fact, these are often intermingled in Scripture. For example, James 1:2-4 says,
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
I have trouble understanding how we can consider something pure joy but then have a miserable countenance on our face as our normal baseline. Can we find that balance between allowing lament and expressions of weakness, distress, and pain, and then resting in the Lord and choosing joy? Balance is probably not the right word. Just as "work-life balance" is a bit of a misnomer, it's probably not exactly balance that we should seek between lament and laughter, but perhaps simple acknowledgment that both have their place. There is a time for everything, after all.
Ecclesiastes 31:4 literally reads,
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
Both need to be given their place. Perhaps early Christians imposed too much pressure to weep (over sins, over the world, over the hardness of life). And perhaps today we impose too much pressure to be happy (we emphasize health and wealth way too much, along with the perennial quest for personal fulfillment). Let's acknowledge, as Peter Lee says, that we have hurting families at church. Glossing over their pain can prevent their healing. Allowing their lament, joining their lament, is good and healthy. And while we shouldn't pressure someone to be happy (let me just say it clearly: please don't make positive predictions of outcomes when someone has just had a terrible diagnosis. And don't pressure someone to give thanks when they can't even mentally process what they're going through because it's so fresh. This is not helpful.) the goal for us all is to someday (when it is time) to rejoice.
Discernment is key, as is listening. It's OK to wait for fresh, acute pain to subside before rushing to choose joy. And it's healthy to not ruminate on our own or other's pain and distress overly long. What is too long? Grief studies tells us it varies. We need to be patient and wait in the pain. The key for Christians is that our hope is not that we in ourselves become strong enough and happy enough to manage the pain. Our hope is in the Lord and our job while we are going through terrible things is to place our hope in Him. Not that He necessarily takes all the problems away. He may not. But we can put our hope and trust in Him and surrender our need to manage ourselves, our emotions, and everything around us. One of the best things about pain is learning surrender. And, this is why pain is one of the best teachers, ultimately, of true joy. Joy despite circumstances, joy even if we don't feel that hedonistic "high." True joy, not fragile happiness.