We had just driven home after a wonderfully happy Christmas Day with some of our family. (Our government allowed us to mix on that one day, but we had to drive home that evening ready for the next spell of tight COVID restrictions.) As I was sorting things out at home, tears welled up in my eyes. Why? After all, it had been a lovely day, full of family harmony and joy.
Well, to the naturally dark days (for us in the northern hemisphere) and gray, wet weather (of which we’ve had plenty) was added the sadnesses of COVID restrictions, the misery of social distancing, the disruption of church, and the uncertainties about when we could next see precious family or friends.
There is nothing particularly special about my sadness. But it prompted me to ponder what spiritual disciplines would be beneficial to me, and to others experiencing the darkness.
I hang them on five words.
Lament focuses on three truths: the character of God, the truth about myself, and the sadness that lies at the root of all our sorrows.
There is all the difference in the world between shedding tears and pouring out “tears to God” (Job 16:20). For when I weep in the presence of God, I do so before the face of infinite love, unerring wisdom, unchanging faithfulness, and unfailing kindness; before the Father who sent his Son to save me; before the Son who loved me and gave himself for me; in the power of the Spirit who pours love into my heart. Weeping can feel lonely; weeping to God never is.
When I weep in the presence of God, I do so before the face of infinite love, unerring wisdom, unchanging faithfulness, and unfailing kindness.
But biblical lament (for example, in the Psalms or the songs of Lamentations) also presses me to remember who I am as the mourner. By nature I am a rebel in a world under sin. And yet in Christ I am not merely fallen but justified—a sinner for whom there is no condemnation, a sinner whose sins are borne by the death of the Lord Jesus.
So why, in Christ, must I grieve? Perhaps Romans 8:17 puts it most crisply: “We suffer with Christ in order that we may also be glorified with him.” In this world, we expect to suffer. Whether in sickness, frustration, bereavement, and weakness, or—for so many—in persecution of one kind or another, suffering ought not to surprise us. But it is wonderful to remember that we do not suffer alone. Our sorrows bring us into fellowship with Christ.
Once when I was feeling quite low and rather full of self-pity, a friend wrote me a letter telling me how helpful he’d found the discipline of daily thanksgiving. Rather than rebuking my bad attitude, he listed some of blessings for which he gave thanks and implicitly commended the practice to me. I have never forgotten his kindness or his counsel.
Thanksgiving coexists in the life of faith with lament, as we so often see in the Psalms. It pervades the prayers of the apostle Paul. Not to give thanks is one of the foundational markers of idolatry in Romans 1:21. It seems clear from the Scriptures that thanksgiving is not a discipline simply for when I feel thankful, but a discipline for dark days as well.
Thanksgiving is not a discipline simply for when I feel thankful, but a discipline for dark days as well.
And so I am stirring my soul afresh to give thanks to God. From him flows every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)—all that we possess in Jesus so that, in the words of a wonderful song, “there is no more for heaven now to give.” Having given Jesus, God has given me all I need for life and godliness.
This then stirs me to make my thanksgiving more particular as I explore God’s providential ordering in my life, working all things for the honor of Jesus and for my good.
Following thanksgiving is the discipline of rejoicing. Again, this often coexists with tears in the paradox of the life of faith (“sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” 2 Cor. 6:10). I need to allow myself to be reminded, to be stirred, to be warmed afresh by the truths I know about God my Savior—the truths heralded and proclaimed to me in the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
I need to allow myself to be reminded, to be stirred, to be warmed afresh by the truths I know about God my Savior.
I don’t want to be afraid to be refreshed. I have been pondering that strange exhortation in the letter of Jude: “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Or, to paraphrase: Go on and on and on being loved by God! Let yourself be loved. Don’t wander from being loved. It is a strange exhortation, but it is necessary because my natural tendency is precisely and madly to wander away—whether into a legalistic misery of desperate activism, or a vain search for happiness away from God, or a belief that his law is repressive and crushing.
Recently, I preached 2 Corinthians 8:9 and was struck by the flow of divine grace: Jesus became poor to give us riches, which then moves us to pour ourselves out for others so they too may become rich. When Paul describes his own ministry as “poor, yet making many rich” (2 Cor. 6:10), it sounds remarkably like the pattern of his Master. Our present darkness can turn us in upon ourselves (at least, it does for me), but the gospel of Jesus enriches us and turns us outward.
For me this means a renewed discipline of intercession for others. I suspect that most authentic service toward others has its roots in intercessory prayer for them. Praying for others keeps us from destructive introspection and self-pity.
Finally, as I have struggled on some dark days to get out of bed and get going on the day’s tasks, it’s been helpful to remind myself that, as long as there is life, there are good works prepared for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10). So often I think this is “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5): simple obedience that believes God has set the good works before us and that trusts him to give strength for what he calls me to today.
And so often it is starting that is the key. For where there is a beginning, there can be a continuing, until at the end I may look back at a day well spent, however little I think I have achieved.