Learning to Bear Loss
Is your heart more like a cup or a set of balance scales? According to this brilliant Twitter thread by Scott Swain, it’s more like the scales, and that fact has some very important implications.
You should really go and read the thread, but in summary, Swain argues that we often apply biblical exhortations to situations of sorrow in an unhelpfully because we fail to reckon with the way the human heart works and the reality of life in this age of redemptive history.
If we view the heart as being like a cup, then we’ll think that negative emotions need to be displaced by good emotions and we’ll use biblical exhortations to encourage each other to enact this displacement. However, this approach overlooks the fact that some negative emotions are completely appropriate responses to situations we’re experiencing. It also overlooks the fact that life in this age of redemptive history will always include sorrow.
Balance scales provide a better metaphor. Biblical exhortations are counterweights to bring balance to the legitimate experience of negative emotions. The exhortations help us to bear the negative emotions, rather than to displace them.
A Needed Message
This strikes me as such a helpful and needed clarification. Over the last few years, with the help of a Christian counsellor, I’ve worked through some deep-seated pain which often led to seasons of depression. One of the things this has most made me realise is how badly Christians often handle emotions. We are quick to assume that all negative emotions are inappropriate and should be overcome by just accepting what the Bible says and trying harder. As Swain notes, this completely overlooks how emotions work and indeed how they are given by God as a gift to help us. Emotions are warning signs. I was aware of my frequent seasons of depression long before I was aware of the pain I was carrying around with me.
This faulty understanding can often come out in our preaching and our pastoring. At one point in the midst of my journey, a well-meaning encourager told that as hard as it might be, I just needed to listen to the truth of God’s word and not anything else. I might feel like the product of my circumstance, I was told, but I’m actually not. For me though, the painful reality was that I really was the product of my circumstances, and I was experiencing completely legitimate pain and sorrow over those circumstances. Telling me to ignore what I was feeling and to just listen to God’s word wasn’t what I needed. I needed to engage with those feelings to be helped to find healing and I needed to experience the word of God bringing some balance to the emotions I was experiencing as I journeyed through them.
A Message Needed Now
Swain’s thread is applied specifically to our current experience of the coronavirus pandemic. And he’s completely right that this is a lesson particularly relevant to the current moment. However we look at it, this is a season of loss. Loss of freedom, loss of physical gatherings, loss of health, for some even loss of loved ones.
The reality of lockdown brings real loss for all Christians. The fact that we can’t currently gather in person is a real loss and it’s one which we should feel. As pastors and church leaders, it’s right that we seek to do everything we can to continue church life in some form, and it’s right that we try to bring some peace and reassurance to people by showing that we are still able to be the church at this time. But we shouldn’t downplay the reality of the loss we are experiencing. If we ignore that loss and send the message that the sort of gatherings we can have at the moment are a perfectly suitable substitute for gathering in person, we’re downplaying the importance of any future physical gatherings we will have (and running the risk that no one will bother coming to them!)
For everyone the reality of lockdown brings loss as our freedom to meet and interact with other humans is limited. As one friend recently commented, this situation is inherently dehumanising. It’s cutting us off from something which is vital to human flourishing – embodied community. It’s understandable that we should find this time difficult. In fact, it’s more than understandable, it’s right. It’s the fitting response. I’ve found that realisation oddly comforting. When I’m struggling with lockdown, I’m not failing, I’m being human.
These experiences of loss also provide us with an opportunity. Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities we have right now is to learn how to handle loss well. For many in the prosperous, privileged, protected West, that will be a new experience, but it’s one which will make us more human. Here’s an opportunity to learn to grieve, learn to lament, and to place the word of God on the scales of our hearts to help us bear the loss.
Image credit: castinstyle.co.uk