Recently, I awoke suddenly around 1:45am in a tangle of sheets, pillows, and sweat, my body fitfully grasping for peace in the presence of pain. I had just made a medication shift the day before, and after over a decade of living with Ankylosing Spondylitis, I knew my joints were demanding attention and deserving of care.
When one part of the body is inflamed, the body needs pathways to register and sense pain in order to facilitate healing. As I rubbed my swollen, aching hands against each other to quell their raging fire, I remembered Philip Yancey’s words from a recent interview, “A healthy body is not one that feels no pain. A healthy body is one that attends to the pain of its weakest part.”
All too often in our bodies, and in the body of Christ, we’d rather pretend health is the absence of pain rather than the willing care of it. And if Yancey is right, when we order our lives and our worship services around overcoming pain rather than attending to it, we block the pathways that mediate our healing. When the church does not make space for lament, the church is not whole.
Last month a reader on Instagram sent me a long message detailing how her family’s pain felt unwelcome in her church. Her daughter had just been hospitalized due to persistent, intense suicidal thoughts, and that Sunday the sermon was about conquering anxiety with truth. While the pastor enthusiastically bubbled over the victory we can have in Christ, she deflated in the defeat of not hearing the complexity of her daughter’s pain acknowledged. “There was no mention that sometimes depression is clinical,” she wrote. “The only answer he offered was to pray more.”
My reader was exposing a common experience in the Western church: a diminishment of our personhood into what philosopher James K. A. Smith has described as “an isolated, disembodied island of beliefs.” We know the gospel is powerful, but we mistakenly place its power in our individual effort to fill the abyss of our discouragement, doubt, and pain. You are more than a walking head, and the body of Christ is more than a vague association of people praising God.
God made our brains to need others. In recent decades, attachment researchers and clinicians, like neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel and psychologist Louis Cozolino, have been elucidating truth about our personhood grounded in how our brains and bodies develop and function: we are embodied, relational beings whose flourishing—from first to final breath—requires interdependence. As Siegel explains, “The brain is a social organ, and our relationships with one another are not a luxury but an essential nutrient for our survival.”
The Triune God, who is relationship, created us for relationships in bodies shaped by relationships. Psychologists like Warren Brown and Brad Strawn have integrated insights from neuroscience and cognitive psychology with theology to describe how faith is far more than an individual pursuit, possession, or process. The concept of social cognitive extension describes how our minds extend beyond our brains and are enhanced and strengthened by others. Our capacity to trust, hope, and love in want and in plenty is formed and sustained not merely by individual intelligence but through our embodied experiences in the Body of Christ.
Our physical life together, including in our worship services, shapes the story we live, not just the one we recite with our lips or read on a page but the one we feel in our bones and believe when we’re most broken.
Lament belongs in song. Eighteen weeks into their first pregnancy, Clint Watkins and his wife Jillian learned their son Eli had anencephaly, a condition in which Eli’s brain, scalp, and skull would not form. Babies with anencephaly either miscarry during pregnancy, are stillborn, or die just minutes, hours, or days after birth. Lament has sustained Watkins, though he recognizes his sorrow-filled faith is painfully counter-cultural in today’s evangelical church. Watkins stated, “When over a third of the Psalms are lament, there is a distinct imbalance with what we sing on Sundays and the emotional content of Scripture.
“One of the primary ways God gives us to respond to suffering,” Watkins shared, “is to sing—not just through suffering but about it. And we don’t get an opportunity to do this very often in church.”
Watkins reminds us that if triumph is the overwhelming tone of our life together, we will not experience our trembling or tears as nourishing the life of the world to come. The space the church offers to acknowledge the reality of suffering directly shapes the space we will experience within ourselves and our relationships to receive grace in the middle of pain.
Lament belongs in liturgy. David Rice, a pastor in northern Michigan, has sought to make space for the uncomfortable exercise of lament in his church’s services through following the liturgical calendar, creating physical spaces for unhurried conversation before and after services, and frequently including Psalms of lament.
“Our worshipping life together has to express the full scope of life,” Rice stated. “There is always someone in the room who is in the midst of tragedy and someone rejoicing. We offer one another the fullness of the God who can encompass all of that lived experience.”
Neurotheologian David Hogue’s work supports this, accentuating the truth that in our worship services we present our bodies together as “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1, CSB). God created our brains with an innate capacity to empathize with one another through the function of our mirror neurons, and sensing one another’s grief and joy in worship is a central way we can be formed to live as who God says we are: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27, CSB) The truth of the gospel becomes sustained belief and felt experience not through hearing a sermon and applying it dutifully to our lives but through experiencing the physical presence of other believers, over and over, with us in both sorrow and joy.
Watkins similarly described the power of including such Psalms in worship, recalling one service that began with Psalm 13’s cry of “How long, O Lord?” Starting with that cry, Watkins said, “welcomed us in and allowed us to experience fuller emotions on either side of grief and joy. We were able to laugh when our pastor shared a joke in the sermon, because we weren’t forcing down sadness the whole time.”
Lament belongs in the Lord’s Supper. In our worship services we are shaped by what cognitive neuroscientist Thomas Fuchs has described as our collective body memory. Fuchs demonstrates that when Christians reenact the Lord’s Supper, we are experiencing the past, present, and future presence of Christ himself who both transcends history and pervades it. The collective body memory of the church throughout the ages renews our participation in Christ’s life every time we eat the bread and drink the wine.
When we suffer forsaken, unwanted, and unloved are written all over our neural pathways, but through taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound our minds can be rewritten as beloved. Through group practices and liturgies engaging our bodies’ senses, like communion, we together evoke and participate in the embodied reality of the kingdom of God. The more thoroughly and repeatedly we engage our senses in the rituals of worship together, the more our minds will be renewed to experience the life of the world to come as real, true, and for us. The ritual of communion offers us a means of being shaped by the reality of the kingdom even when it feels far from true.
Lament is for us all. Including lament in weekly services is about the entire body being whole, not just our individual experience being better. Worship both reflects and reinforces the story in which we place our hope, and how we worship will guide our whole selves to participate in either a story of self-sufficiency or the gospel story of interdependence. When we orient our services primarily around praise and the individual internalization of truth, we disciple saints to expect lives where individual effort produces blessing. And when effort is not enough, faith flounders under the weight of our anger and fear. Scripture paints a far more textured picture of blessing, where mourning, hunger, and weakness are the backdrop of displaying Christ’s presence, power, and love.
Strawn and Brown rightly challenge the church to guard our life together from worship that disconnects us from our bodies, one another, and the quotidian reality in which we live. Instead of avoiding pain or covering it with positivity, a church that makes space for lament offers every saint in her midst the sacred space of the embodied experience of hospitality toward the parts of their stories and bodies they most fear and hate. When we intentionally include expressions of our weakness, suffering, and anger in our worship services, we make space for every Christian to acknowledge the insufficiency and finitude at the heart of being human in a world infected by the Fall.
Perhaps as we make space for lament in our churches, we will all more tangibly taste and see how weakness can be the place Christ’s power is perfected: it is in each other.
K.J. Ramsey is a therapist, writer, and recovering idealist who believes sorrow and joy coexist. This piece draws from a chapter of her first book, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, which releases with Zondervan in May 2020 and is available for preorder. You can follow K.J.’s writing at kjramsey.com.