Sometimes worship comes by way of weeping in the pew. When the broken enter the sanctuary of God on Sunday mornings, they do so, perhaps, with every fiber of their being tempting them to withdrawal. They drag their grief, depression, and sorrow behind them like a ball and chain, plodding along to their seats with the hope of going unnoticed in the crowd; that they manage to make it to church after peeling themselves out of bed is a grace manifested through gutsy volition.
There in the pew, they collide with the unspoken notion that a painted smile with stoic countenance acts as a prerequisite for respectable attendance. We subconsciously oblige the sorrowing among us to swallow their grief, pipe up, and praise the Lord. Disconnected from the celebratory riffs and confident proclamations, the crushed in spirit become sorely neglected by the exclusion of their spiritual pain in corporate worship.
In short, we stigmatize the sorrowing by fostering an emotional prosperity culture.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wasn’t fooled. He warned that community built upon “rapturous experiences and lofty moods” would stymie true Christian fellowship and prove itself disingenuous over time. The result being communities of believers who build programs and religious activities on human ideals instead of divine realities (Colossians 2:8). While Revelation 21 specifically lists death, mourning, crying, and pain as fundamental grievances believers will face, there is a shocking lack of corporate preparation to meet with such sorrows. Removing the stigma of deeply painful sadness requires the local church’s unhurried commitment to making room for it on Sunday mornings and a desire to equip leaders in one-another care.
When the Sorrowing are Silenced
There are times when carrying a burden requires we also carry a tune of lament to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). In his book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Pastor Mark Vroegop addresses the concerning absence of biblical lament in the music of our churches, noting that while, “at least a third of the Psalms are in a minor key, it seems that the American church avoids lament.” He continues, “More people than we probably know are weeping in our Sunday celebrations.”
In this challenging yet honest observation, Vroegop sheds light on the disconnect between our encounters with real-life pain and the traditional atmosphere of Sunday morning worship. Though the Scriptures are rich with language and comforts for those who are walking through devastating heartbreak, a robust theology of human sorrow seems to be missing from the modern-day songbook. As a result, people who limp to the house of God for spiritual refuge become ostracized, believing that their experiences of sorrow must be indicators of defective faith.
Preparing the People for Sorrow
Daniel Darling, the Vice President for Communications at the ERLC, has shared about his own personal experience with sorrow on Sunday mornings. “There are times,” he reflects, “when I’ve walked into the church and wondered just where to go with my distress. There are many faces to God, and the one I needed to see on those mornings wasn’t the triumphant Warrior but the gentle Shepherd. In those moments, I’ve wondered, Are there spaces for solitude, for lament, for grieving here?”
Of all places, the pulpit is where God’s people should be guided to a thorough biblical understanding of sorrow, grief, and suffering. Charles Spurgeon saw it as a pastoral responsibility to feed Psalms of lament to his congregation regularly for the purposes of ministering to those presently despondent, as well as to help others prepare for future suffering. He wanted his church to know that while King David experienced great victories and occasions to rejoice, he also had times when he “was very sad, and then he touched the mournful string.”
The Scriptures make room for the entire range of human emotions and experiences—particularly the ones we wish we could avoid through piety. It is of precious wisdom and value to understand that when the tribulations do arrive (John 16:33, 1 Peter 4:12), we have a living God who has promised to be with us, to sustain us, and to ultimately deliver us. The Lord does not view our sorrows as something strange or repulsive, nor is he surprised by them. He long-suffers our sadnesses so we may learn the secret to being content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13) In this way, faithful Christian living is not found in the avoidance of sadness, but in the engagement of it through faith in the Man of Sorrows himself. If the Scriptures offer such consolations, the pulpit must be the vehicle by which such blessed manna be spooned to the weary and worn.
Creating Modern-Day Lepers
When the Apostle Paul teaches we’re to bear one another’s burdens, he encourages us to focus especially on those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Unfortunately, the church reveals its impatience for the weak and weeping by outsourcing the soul care of its sheep to secular sources. In doing so, believers are given the impression that the Scriptures are not capable of walking them through seasons of excessive sorrow. Like spiritual lepers, they’re cast outside the house of God to find their convalescence and healing. As Dr. Dale Johnson, the Executive Director for the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, rightly observes: “The church has demonstrated we ought to be a last resort to many human problems.”
Scriptural sufficiency (2 Timothy 3:16-17) is rarely propounded in the local church as a resource for helping people navigate their sadness. Thus, the intentional discipleship of melancholy Christians is often entirely neglected. In instances where sufferers do seek biblical soul care from their church, it’s not uncommon to be met with trite slogans, impatient rebukes, or outright rejection altogether—further perpetuating the stigma of sorrow. The notion that human experiences of hopelessness, depression, and grief are problems only “professionals” can address is a gross disregard of what it means to belong to and be cared for by the body of Christ.
I know what it is to secretly sorrow in the pew—to mourn over my inability to match the emotional jubilation of those around me. Not only did my soul seem distant from God on those mornings, but I felt like a filthy pebble among diamonds in the sanctuary. What are we to do when sad people cannot lift themselves to the emotional heights we enjoy? We follow our Lord’s example and step down into their world. Vroegop encourages, “There is a song of mercy to be sung under dark clouds. The church should lead the way. Through every injustice and every sorrow, followers of Jesus can help one another find their way through the pain.”
In our local churches, we’re to help the weak and fainthearted with all patience and brotherly affection (1 Thessalonians 5:14). By corporately acknowledging the broken-hearted through worship, preaching, and one-another care, we affirm that sorrows of any kind rightly belong in the house of God. Such attentiveness, compassion, and Christian community can become one of the most blessed manifestations of Jesus Christ’s presence we can experience on this side of heaven.