[This is an article I wrote for a counseling center I worked for down in Florida. Thought I’d share it here!]
In his essay, “The Weight of Glory”, C.S. Lewis says, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals that which we do not yet know and need to know.” He is suggesting that the parts of life that we find the most offensive and disturbing are exactly the parts from which we have the most to learn.
This is good advice when we are confronted with some of the more confusing – even disturbing – passages of scripture. In Jeremiah 20, for example, we find Jeremiah in the midst of a raving list of complaints against God. He starts this rant with bold accusation: “O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived.”
Stop for a moment and read that sentence again: A holy prophet of God is accusing the Holy One himself of being a deceiver! We know who the real Deceiver is: It is Satan! Jeremiah is accusing God of doing the sort of things that Satan himself would do!
If you don’t find yourself disturbed by this passage, then maybe you are not paying attention. Ask yourself: “How am I preventing the shocking reality of this passage from reaching my heart?” Are you dismissing it and refusing to engage with it (perhaps because it makes you uncomfortable)? Are you explaining it away somehow?
And if you are willing to go even farther, then ask yourself, “Is this really how a righteous person speaks to God? Is this how I should be speaking to God?”
In fact, the Bible contains many passages that are equally shocking, not the least of which is Jesus’ own cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. If we are able to explain away the words of Jeremiah, certainly we can’t similarly ignore the words of Jesus himself!
What if we took a different approach to understanding these passages? Let us not dismiss the parts of scripture that make us uncomfortable, but instead – as C.S. Lewis says – look more closely at them: What if these passages are examples for us of godly people struggling through the pain of suffering in a world where God is not always clearly seen? I suggest that these passages are examples of followers of God embracing the concept of incarnation.
In Christ, we learn of a God who – rather than being detached and distant – became a human, learning what it is to be famished, to feel pain, to feel physical pleasure, and the full range of human feelings. Significantly, he didn’t learn all these things at the same time, but rather, moment by moment throughout his life, just as we do. For Jesus to be “incarnate” in a moment meant for him to have moments that were “out of balance”: moments in which he experienced certain feelings and not others.
Jesus’ cry from the cross is just such an example: At that moment, he could easily have said something more theologically balanced, such as, “I know that God really loves me, but boy, this is really hard right now and I sort of feel like he’s not with me. Thankfully, there are other times when I do feel his presence – and I especially look forward to experiencing him fully in heaven.” But, had he done so, his suffering would have been trivialized. Instead, Jesus turned to a poetic expression of deep suffering and despair, quoting from the Psalms. Absorbed in the moment of his suffering, Jesus did not hesitate to share exactly how he felt, and did not hasten to qualify it in any way – for himself or anybody else.
The poet who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes taught a similar concept, telling us that there is a time for everything: “A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Later, he says, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time.” This tells us that if we never allow ourselves to be fully incarnate in-the-moment – getting lost in it and trusting that God will move us on when the time is right – we will find ourselves resisting the very purpose for which God made us in time: to allow everything to have its proper, full and beautiful expression.
Having followed C.S. Lewis’ advice to take a closer look at that which disturbs us, we can then return to our original thoughts and remember that we had good reason for being hesitant about embracing these passages to begin with: taken out of context, one could use these verses to justify sinful behaviors: the careless use of harsh words or irreverent accusations against God. Instead, we must remember the context of these verses: Jeremiah’s cry of frustration came in the midst of a life spent struggling deeply with God; Jesus’ words came in the midst of a life of trusting service to the Father. Similarly, it would be foolishness to say, “When I verbally berate my friends, I’m just ‘incarnating myself fully in the moment’, and ‘letting everything be beautiful in its time.’”
The point, rather, is that God has given us a high level of freedom to feel what our hearts feel, and to express those feelings honestly. If you’re feeling sad, you could berate yourself for not feeling the joy of the Lord strongly enough; or you could learn what it means to feel and express your sadness in a holy, God-honoring way. If you are angry, you could suppress it and cover it up with a smile; or you could search for a deeper understanding of what has angered you, and take those injustices to God. Similar things can be said for every emotion that our hearts feel: We can run away from our emotions, or we can embrace them and strive to discover how to deal righteously with them.
The fact is that God has designed our hearts – hard-wired them – to feel. The range of human emotions has been given us that we may respond appropriately to all that we see in this world. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” God has determined that it is beautiful that we should respond to tragedy with grieving, disappointment with sadness, injustice with anger, and redemption with joy.
The words of both Jeremiah and Jesus tell us that there may even be times when our emotions don’t line up with what we know to be true. Jesus knew that God had not truly forsaken him, just as Jeremiah knew that God is not a God of deception. Yet they still gave full and honest expression to what they were feeling. In these cases, we are called to wrestle boldly and honestly with our emotions, just as Jesus and Jeremiah did.