And Yet: The Road to Joy is Paved with Lament
I, like most people who study lament, began out of necessity. The language of victory and triumph over adversity that I heard in worship songs, the stories told (almost exclusively) at evangelistic events about ailments cured and problems solved jarred painfully with my own reality growing up. I became a Christian aged five and by the time I was in my early teens and my friends began to go to festivals and give their lives to Jesus, I had developed a depression that would threaten my life. I couldn't reconcile the stories I was hearing from friends about how Christianity made their life better - and my own story which felt as if it started with promise and was getting progressively darker.
Where is God When it Hurts?
I knew I wanted to serve God, but I didn't know how when my tears blinded me. And so, during my regular visits to my local Christian bookshop, I began to seek out books that answered the question that was burned into my soul, and perhaps lingers in yours, too. Where is God when it hurts?
I read voraciously, and in the years that followed I probably read more about God than I read from God through the Bible, so whilst I began to get an intellectual understanding of theodicy (the question of how an all-loving, all-powerful God would allow his creation to suffer), and I continued to love God, there was a gap between my knowledge and my relationship with Jesus. Throughout these years, I wrote extensively in my diary, an A4 pink hardback book that I'd bought at 14 and would become the record of my descent into mental illness.
It was only as I looked back at this that I realised it was full of laments before I even knew what the word was. The prayers were raw and more honest than I was ever able to be with those around me; prayers which expressed my pain and doubt - but held onto who I believed God to be. I lamented through my writing with the vague hope that God was reading my desperate pleas and would act.
The Honesty of Lament
By the time I was in my late teens, I'd tried twice to take my own life and was well acquainted with the darkness, but it wasn't until then that I began to learn a language for my pain and outpourings of grief. As I recovered, I received cards with portions of the Psalms carefully copied out, and as I read them I began to recognise my own heartbreak in the ancient words. I began to see that the gap between my knowledge of theology and my relationship with Jesus could be bridged with the honesty of lament.
I felt then, as now, that only lament can hold the reality of the agonies of mental illness with the sovereign, all loving and all kind God. Lament is not only for those who are living with mental illness, however, it is a gift given to anyone that they can call out to God when life hurts.
Lament speaks to the void where wholeness and shalom should be; but it also looks forward with the hope of joy we find in Jesus. This isn’t happiness as we might think it, but the joy most commonly found nestled with sorrow. Our joy is planted deep in the sorrow of Christ - our sorrow births our joys. Sorrow and joy cannot be separated because we cannot have one without the other when we make our home in the heart of God.
Joy is Coming Home
As writer Frederick Buechener so beautifully puts it: "Joy is home, and I believe the tears that came to our eyes were more than anything else, homesick tears. God created us in joy and created for joy and in the long run not all the darkness there is the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy, because whatever else it means...we have God's joy in our blood.”
I love this image of joy that Buechener gives as coming home. An image that we see throughout the Bible; from Adam and Eve leaving their home in Eden, to the Israelites finding their home in the Promised Land, to Jesus' story of the prodigal son being welcomed home by his Father, and the Holy Spirit sent to give us a taste of our heavenly home. The path to joy is paved with lament; it's not easy and sometimes it will feel as joy is too far away, but it is our journey home to our Creator and Redeemer.
Rachael Newham is the Mental Health Friendly Church Project Manager at Kintsugi Hope and the author of two books; “And Yet”, exploring joy and lament which comes out in November 2021 and “Learning to Breathe” a memoir and theological reflection on mental illness. If you’d like to connect with Rachael you can find her on Instagram @RachaelNewham90