This past week, I felt compelled to change my Sunday sermon and to talk about a serious concern I’ve had as I’ve watched our collective response to the intensifying events of 2020. Based on our congregation’s response to the message, I wanted to share it here as well. This message is not a response to the election—I delivered it on November 1, so the election hadn’t happened yet. It’s about our response to all of 2020.
God Wants You to Grieve
I was once counseling a college student through a traumatic time in her life. She had lost her brother in a tragic accident. He had been an inspiration to her, and she was devastated.
Each week when we met, she would break down. And then she would apologize. “I’m so sorry that I can’t handle this. I should be stronger.” She felt like many of us feel when we’re really struggling.
I kept telling her it was OK for her to feel this way. But it was hard for us to make progress. One day, I told her, “It’s not just OK that you’re feeling this way. It’s good. It’s good that you’re grieving. It’s good that you’re heartbroken. Because what happened is horrific. God wants you to grieve.”
That conversation ended up being a turning point. She started to grieve more freely. She started to realize that she shouldn’t feel ashamed. She started learning not to push her grief down but to bring it up.
The pain didn’t go away. It never fully will. But now she was learning to express it and process it. She was learning to grieve.
A Time to Mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8)
Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 3 that there’s a time for everything:
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Eccles 3:1–8).
What Kind of Time Is It Now?
What kind of time is it now? I am sharing this message with you today because I am deeply concerned that in 2020, we Christians are acting like every moment is only “a time to hate,” a time to fight, and “a time for war.” I’m concerned that we haven’t stopped to treat this year like “a time to weep” and “a time to mourn.”
It’s been a uniquely difficult year. Any counselor worth their salt would tell us we need to take time to grieve. But it seems like we’re doing everything but grieving.
We’re jabbing at each other online, but who’s grieving? We’re binge-watching cable news, but who’s grieving? We’re sharing memes to mock our enemies, but who’s grieving? We’re stockpiling guns and ammo, but who’s grieving? We’re fearing for our futures, but who’s grieving? We’re furious about COVID, but who’s grieving? We know our world is deeply broken, but who’s taking the time to grieve and pray and reflect and seek the Lord?
The Challenges of 2020
None of us expected 2020 to be this way. There’s a megachurch billboard on my commute. At the start of the year, it said “20/20 Vision!” with the pastor’s smiling face. But now, ten months later, it says, “This Is Us,” with the pastor’s picture upside down. It’s been that kind of year.
We knew there would be a contentious election—there always is. But a global virus? Lockdowns? A new civil rights firestorm? Riots and violence? Church vs. state lawsuits? Debates over masks? Surging gun sales?
Contention is everywhere. Indignation is everywhere. Condemnation is everywhere. Anger is the new norm. We’re on edge.
But in the emotional blizzard that is A.D. 2020, I wonder when we’ll finally learn to grieve? And until we do, I wonder what it’s costing us?
Just Keep Going?
One of life’s challenges is that you don’t get timeouts. The world doesn’t stop just because you’re struggling. You can lose your job, but traffic moves just as fast. You can lose a loved one, but life keeps going. You can be losing your mind, but the alarm clock still goes off at the same time each morning.
If you’re a teacher, you still have to show up and teach. If you’re a boss, you still have to supervise. If you’re in sales, you still have to make your calls. If you’re a parent, you still have to chase and feed and carpool and tutor your kids.
Grief is hard to process, because we have to keep going.
The busyness of life makes it easy to say, “I don’t have time to grieve.” And yet, how much time do we spend on less important things? How often do we turn to forms of relief that only numb us, distract us, or even add to our troubles?
Distracting Ourselves to Death
As a pastor, I am concerned that our underlying sorrow is taking us everywhere but to God. I am concerned that our collective pain has morphed into a cocktail of worry, bitterness, anger, conflict, and division.
When the shutdowns first hit and life slowed down, many of us dreamed about a healthier pace: more reflection, more time outside, more time with loved ones, more time with God. But now, how many of us are filled with angst instead of peace, fear instead of faith, condemnation instead of contentment?
And how many of us are drowning our sorrows with distractions? There might be nothing wrong with that NETFLIX series… except that you’re taking it every night like a pain med. That nightly glass of wine might be a gift of God… that’s become more important to you than time with God. Your hardcore commitment to exercise might be relieving stress… while also keeping you from dealing with the underlying causes of your stress.
What if we’re distracting ourselves to death? What if we’re just numbing the pain, not dealing with it? What if we’re deeply sad about our deeply broken world, but we’re spending little time with the only one who can heal us?
Choosing to Mourn
Mourning isn’t just something that happens. We have to choose it. The Psalms didn’t write themselves. They’re carefully crafted poems. Believers sat down and took the time to express themselves to God—good, bad, and ugly.
On our own, we don’t like to feel weak. And when we do feel weak, we don’t like to admit it or focus on it. We run away from weakness; we don’t lean into it.
When God brought a burden into Paul’s life, Paul asked him to take it away: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me” (2 Cor 12:8).
But God wanted to weaken Paul so Paul could learn a new kind of strength. And once Paul realized this, he started embracing his weakness (2 Cor 12:10).
We have to learn to choose sorrow. We have to stop numbing the pain and start addressing its source. We have to acknowledge that life is hard, that we’re having a hard time, and that we can’t change our own lives, much less society, on our own.
But Doesn’t Sorrow Make Us Passive?
Some of you are feelers, or you’ve been through some terrible times and learned the importance of grieving. You’ve been tracking with me from the very beginning. But some of us are fixers and doers—always moving, and always on the offensive. You’re just not feeling this whole “sorrow” thing, and you have some objections:
Isn’t this kind of sorrow just passivity? When we see bad things happening in the world, aren’t we supposed to do something? Doesn’t God tell us to stand up, and speak out, and fight for what’s right?
Yes, God wants our faith to be active (James 2:14–26). But be careful. Because if you criticize lament because it seems passive, you could use the same logic to criticize prayer. You could use the same logic to criticize gentleness. You could use the same logic to criticize forgiveness.
Learning to Lament
Many believers have never quite learned how to lament. We know how to be active and busy; we’re familiar with feeling frustrated and irritated; we’re used to being discontent and depressed. But we don’t know how to bring our sorrows to God and experience his comfort. So we live with a toxic brew of negative emotions while trying our best to act strong.
But think about it: If we’re never supposed to feel weak, or sad, or broken, why did God give us the Psalms? If lament is supposed to be a rare experience, why are the Psalms filled with lament? If God just wanted us to fight about everything we don’t like, why did he give us a hymnbook that’s soaked in tears?
Ultimately, biblical lament is a sign of health, not sickness. A broken heart is the garden where God’s seeds grows best. God sends us through difficult times to soften us. And when our hearts are soft, good things grow.
What Sprouts in the Soil of Sorrow?
You know that youth sports coach who just yells and yells? He yells at the kids. He yells at the refs. He yells in practices. He yells at games. Meanwhile, what do all the spectators know? He’s the one who needs to change. He needs to learn how to encourage. He needs to learn to dial it down. He needs to learn that it’s just a game. But he can’t see those things, because he’s upset with everyone else.
Repentance is impossible in a culture of perpetual outrage. When we’re constantly upset about the latest news, crisis, policy, or election, there’s no bandwidth left to look at ourselves.
I’m concerned that more and more of us talk like everyone else is the problem but we’re sinless. But is that what God says?
“Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccles 7:20). “If you, O Lord, were to keep track of sins, O Lord, who could stand before you?” (Ps 130:3, NET). “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17).
You’ll never get a good look at yourself in the mirror of God’s word if you’re constantly rolling your eyes at everyone else.
We talk like we don’t share in the sins of our society. But we do. We can’t say that everyone else is to blame for America’s problems, but not us. We can’t say that everyone else is deficient and depraved, but not us. We can’t say, “Well, it’s the last guy’s fault and the next guy’s problem,” acting like our generation has nothing to do with it.
The prophet Daniel lived a faithful life as an exile in Babylon. In his prayers, he could’ve blamed Israel while exonerating himself. But instead, he included himself when he confessed the nation’s sins to God. He said, “We have sinned” (Dan. 9).
I fear being a church that sees everyone else’s failures but not our own. I fear being Christians who are always on the jury but never on trial. I fear being a pastor who’s really good at pointing and really bad at repenting.
Because when we do learn to mourn over our world, we start to see things more clearly. We start seeing things the way God sees them. Then we’re not just upset about what Republicans are upset about. We’re not just upset about what Democrats are upset about. We’re grieved by what grieves God, no matter what any other person or political party or pundit tells us.
When we mourn over the evil and brokenness in our world, we’re sharing God’s heart. When we mourn over the evil and brokenness in our world, we’re driven to pray. And when we linger with God in this kind of prayerful sorrow, our Father convicts us, comforts us, and sends us back out to do his work, but now with a grace and humility and resilience that anger never provides.
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).
Shortly after Hurricane Harvey struck our city and our church in 2017, I was upset about a lot of things. Nothing seemed to be going well, and I was frustrated. So I started going on these really hard runs. I would actually express my anger through my running. It felt great, because when I was pushing hard, I felt strong. The frustration was pulsing through my veins, and I felt like I was in control.
But God helped me see what was happening. Instead of taking my weakness to God and seeking his strength, I was just doubling down. On those runs, I was creating an alternate universe where I was strong and in control. But that was exactly the attitude God was wanting to break.
God was wanting me to learn what Jesus taught: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4).
Out of Sorrow, Strength
“It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply,” wrote A. W. Tozer.
Before God used Joseph to save Egypt from a famine, God put him in a pit and a prison, and made him wait for decades.
Before God used Hannah to give birth to Samuel, the mighty prophet, God took her through a bitter season of infertility, teaching her to trust him.
Before God used David to rule the nation of Israel, David spent years running from Saul. He had to learn to walk the valley before God gave him the mountain.
Before Mary saw the fruit of her labor in the life of her son, she had to endure years of scandal, her reputation ruined by a virgin birth.
Before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, using his power to push back the darkest enemy of all, he wept over his friend. And before he flipped the extortionists’ tables in the temple, he did something I’m praying we learn to do: he wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–46).
I believe that God wants to use his church in a fresh and powerful way in the days to come. But he wants to break us first.
The School of Sorrow
That student I counseled—I still remember the day she graduated. There she was in her cap and gown, walking across the stage, receiving her diploma. Her parents were there, and I was so proud of her.
But as we looked at each other that day, we both knew that the hardest class she had taken wasn’t on her transcript. And the most important lessons she had learned were worth far more than her degree.
God had enrolled her in the school of sorrow. And in that school, she had learned the most important lesson of all: that God does his best work in the valleys.
She had learned that God doesn’t take us around pain but through it. She had learned not to fight him but to surrender to him. And she had learned that her sorrow was not the end of his story.
Because with Christ, life doesn’t end in death. Death ends in life. Sorrow turns to song. The famine becomes a feast. Joy comes in the morning. And out of sorrow rises a new kind of strength.