Latter-day Saint Life

Lamenting our grief and pain to God might be one of the best things we can do for our faith

Hispanic women hugging and crying
“I was steeped in the positive-mindset mentality … so, when sadness and grief came—and they did—I harbored a sense of shame for these feelings.”
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I have always struggled with sadness and grief, but not in the ways one might expect. Though mental illness has made appearances in my family tree, I have largely avoided the bouts of clinical depression and anxiety with which some of my close family, friends, and associates have suffered. By nature, I am somewhat optimistic and tend to believe (almost to the point of naivete) that things can and will be better than they are now. Further, I tend to believe (almost to the point of pride) that if I “just do [fill in the blank],” then whatever is bothering me will go away. These predilections of personality were reinforced in my formative years: I grew up a member of the Latter-day Saint community in a white, middle-class home in suburban America. I was steeped in the positive-mindset mentality, with the belief that faithful dedication and commitment could overcome almost any challenge. I don’t say this to disparage, in any way, my upbringing; this was just the way it was for everyone I knew. Whether it was a triumph on the soccer pitch, good grades in school, or success on a mission, the answer to almost any problem was deepened commitment, firmer faith, and harder work. In short, I believed in a straightforward approach to life: commitment + faith + hard work = success/happiness/joy.

Implicit in this worldview is the belief that sadness and grief could largely be avoided by faithfully taking the right steps, in the right order, at the right time. Thus, my struggle with sadness and grief centered around the view that I should be able to avoid feeling sadness and grief. So, when sadness and grief came—and they did—I harbored a sense of shame for these feelings, since, as it seemed to me at the time, these feelings were an indication that I lacked commitment, faith, or work ethic. In order to compensate, I buried the sadness, grief, and shame as deeply as possible and quietly tried to figure out what I needed to fix so these feelings could go away.

Though I could point to many times in my life when this approach proved to be more problematic than helpful, one particular moment comes to mind. I had been on a mission for a little over a year. I was serving in Northern Utah and had been in the same area for a few months. The area covered only three wards—which in Utah was about nine square blocks. I had, quite literally, knocked on every single door in my area at least two times. I had personally spoken to nearly everyone, and I knew the life stories of most of the people in the area. It was around my second Christmas away from home, it was cold and snowy, and daylight was in short supply. We had no one to teach, with no prospects of new investigators on the horizon. I had a brand-new companion, fresh out of the MTC, who was homesick and needed emotional support. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I felt unsuccessful and emotionally drained. All this culminated in a foreboding sense that my relationship with God was on shaky ground.

Things came to a head one day when my companion and I were walking down the road knocking on the same doors I had knocked on multiple times before (that day, more than one person exclaimed, “You again? I already told you I wasn’t interested!”). I was the senior companion and the district leader, and I felt responsible for the salvation of the people in my area, but I had nothing left to give and I felt distant from God. I could feel the sadness and grief settle into my bones like frost on a winter night. So, I did what I had always done: I buried the sadness and grief down deep (and the shame even deeper) and resolved to push myself harder—I had to fix what was wrong so that we could find someone to teach and get back into a good spot with God. Resolve (or maybe desperation) washed over me. I walked so quickly between houses that my companion had to jog to keep up with me. I tried to speak with extra conviction when someone opened the door. I even considered going to a Japanese-speaking family’s house and trying to speak Japanese (which I most definitely do not speak, but maybe the gift of tongues would kick in?) to show God that I was willing to try everything. My companion raised concerns, but I would not listen because I had to work my way out of this rut and back into a relationship with God. In my mind, I thought, blessings come to those who are committed, work hard, have faith, and do what God says, and so the solution for sadness and grief is to be more committed, work harder, and be more obedient. And that is exactly what I am going to do. For weeks and weeks, we followed the missionary handbook with zealous exactness and worked frenetically.

It will probably come as no surprise that these somewhat manic efforts did not lead to a change in my situation. The sadness and grief I felt did not go away, nor did the shame that accompanied those feelings. I continued to struggle to feel God’s presence. In fact, rather than things getting better, they got worse for me and for my companion—or to be clearer, I made things worse for me and my companion. In my drive to assume responsibility for “fixing” whatever it was that was causing me to feel sadness and grief (since, I thought, the sadness and grief were a result of my not doing something right in the first instance), I was driving our companionship into the ground. Change did eventually come, but not in the way that might be expected.

What finally got us back on the right track was my companion’s homesickness. Or more accurately, my companion’s expression of his homesickness. One day, he broke down. He finally said what he was feeling, which was something along the lines of: I just can’t do it anymore. Why isn’t God helping? We’re doing everything we’re supposed to do. We’re working to the point of exhaustion. I miss my family. I believe God can make things better, but where is God now? Maybe I should just go home. My companion was open and honest in expressing his sadness and grief. His emotions were raw but authentic. There was a deep sincerity about what he said that was palpable. His language was not vindictive or abusive; rather, his was a voice of mourning and hurt, and of faith. I finally listened, and we talked for a long time. Though I was too insecure in my own emotional development to be as honest and authentic as he had been, he had said what needed to be said and he had been heard by God, and somewhere deep inside I think we both knew it. In the end, my companion decided not to go home, and we served together for a few months. He ended up being one of my favorite companions. I still think of him fondly. Our situation in that area never really changed, but we changed. We felt a sense of newness and freedom that was unexpected and remarkable. We were closer to each other and closer to God.

I realize that this story may not seem immediately applicable to some. What matters here, and the reason I began with this story, is not the specific situation (i.e., being on a mission) but to share a time in my life when I felt completely overwhelmed as I carried the heavy weight of sadness and grief that would not go away. What is important in this story is not necessarily how I struggled at a certain point on my mission but the fact that I felt distant from God and that I had no idea what to do about it except work harder and bury the shame I felt.

Whether one served a mission or not, I believe that everyone has had times in their lives when those feelings have come—that is part of the human experience—and many of us are not well equipped to understand how those moments fit into our worship practices (I certainly was not). Looking back on this experience, I now see an important key to holding on to covenant relationships in the midst of these hard feelings.

First, though the specifics may vary, my sense is that many people can relate to the worldview I described above. For many of us, faith and hard work are often seen as the keys to overcoming most challenges. We just need to follow the now-apocryphal aphorism, “Pray as though everything depends on God and then work as though everything depends on you.” This guidance is not only common in Church life, but this guidance is also seemingly embedded in all aspects of life: work, home, family, etc. We all just need to “put our shoulder to the wheel” and success will come. This approach to life, encapsulated in the image of the beehive, is not inherently wrong and in fact has been a cornerstone of the Latter-day Saint community’s survival.

Yet, as I learned on a mission, there will also be times in our life when challenges and hardships come due to no fault of our own—sometimes life is just hard and stays that way—and there may not be anything we can really do about it. What does it look like to stay in a covenant relationship with God during these times when more commitment, more faith, and more work do not seem to make things better?

Second, it is my experience that the approach to God that is most common in Latter-day Saint and other Christian church services, meetings, or sanctioned gatherings is often praise-focused. It is an approach that centers on the good that God does and the blessings we receive because of Jesus Christ’s gospel. It fosters the type of language that always ends with an exclamation point. As a missionary, because my approach to God was nested within a praise-focused framework, I did not know how to maintain a relationship with God when my soul was burdened with sadness and grief. What does one say when one cannot express praise? How does one maintain a connection to God from within our pain?

Third, building the kind of durable relationships for which we are aiming—namely, eternal companionship with our friends, family, loved ones, and God—is foundationally premised on complete authenticity. This authenticity requires that all of our life’s experiences be woven into the cloth of these relationships. Being selective about the kinds of emotions we share with those we love inhibits true connection. But how do we foster an authentic relationship with God when such authenticity could lead us to express frustration or even anger about our situation? Is it even possible to faithfully express those feelings to God?

I have come to believe that lament offers us a path to address all three points above. Lament is faithfully taking complaints to God. It is how we worship from within our pain. To be clear, lament is only one part of our worship, and maybe only a small part. But without lament, our worship and our relationships with those we love can never be complete. When I finally internalized what this meant, it evoked a mix of surprise and deep relief. Lament meant that my grief and sadness could be used as a vehicle for greater connection with God, not as a thing that I had to overcome before I could approach God. Lament gave me a way to embrace more of myself and commit more of myself to God. Lament helped me see that God embraces every part of who I am. This realization felt like exhaling a breath I had been holding for many decades. Lament helped make me feel more whole.

But lament is more than just a deeper embrace of who we are (as if that is not enough). Lament has the power to transform us, our families, and our communities. Lament can motivate action, anticipates deliverance, and opens the possibility for newness in our lives. I believe that if, as a young missionary, I had understood the important role of lament as an aspect of my personal worship and a way to deepen my relationship with God in times of hardship, I would have been more open to the newness that God was preparing for me. The same holds true for the small worship community that was my two-person companionship; better equipped to understand the power of lament, we would have been better able to love those we served, who were also in the midst of life’s storms. I am slow to learn life’s lessons, so I make no claim at perfecting this gospel principle (or any gospel principle for that matter). However, I have come to appreciate the power of lament and hope that this small offering will bring greater wholeness, deliverance, and newness in all the spaces where these are needed.

Even in the Darkest Hour

For many of us, faith and hard work are often seen as the keys to overcoming challenges. But what does it look like to stay faithful when “more faith” and “more work” do not make things better? What does one say when one cannot express praise? How do we maintain connection to God from within our pain? In Even in the Darkest Hour, Michael Huston illustrates how a close relationship with God is premised on authenticity: including sincere, faithful expressions of our frustration, anger, and pain.

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