Sometimes, all you can do is wail.
Every Lent, my mind returns to the image of tears. I think of the prophet Jeremiah, weeping under imperial subjugation and the oppression of his people. I think of Job in agony, and of Jesus Christ on the cross, beseeching God as to why he has been forsaken.
I think of my posture when I first encountered the living, breathing Jesus, speaking directly to me as a teenager: knelt over, arms cradling my body while I sobbed. Jesus held out his hand and asked me to take it. When I did, I wanted him to cure my depression. I wanted him to change my life immediately from one I hated to one I was happy with. “Here I am,” I said. “I see you now. So please fix everything, like you promised you would.”
But in the following months, nothing about my circumstances changed, even as I wished and prayed desperately that they would. I continued to lash out in bitterness and confusion. I was a Christian! Why weren’t things better? Was I actually seeing God any more at work in my life?
A year later, He would speak in the unlikeliest of moments, nudging me to take note of my surroundings and of what had happened during the past year. “Didn’t I say I would take care of you?” he murmured, chuckling kindly.
My journey to God with Christ can be understood in cycles. I have cried throughout them all, and I know that I will continue to cry in the future. I have cried through the pain and I have cried through the joyful realizations. Crying, the acknowledgment of sorrow, and the act of sitting in that sorrow through its duration, are integral parts of sustaining faith.
As I think about process, tension, and waiting, I reflect on Exodus 33. Here, God is exasperated. He has had enough with this generation of Israelites. They move out of Egypt and closer to the land promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God makes His message clear. “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey,” He says. However, God continues, “for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3, NASB).
I might destroy you on the way. Read alone, these may not appear to be the words of a gracious God. Yet this image has stuck with me, fearsome and beautiful: A heartbroken God, who feels pain and sees it through.
When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning, and none of them put on his jewelry. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, ‘You are an obstinate people; if I were to go up in your midst for just one moment, I would destroy you. So now, take off your jewelry that I may know what I shall do to you.’” So the sons of Israel stripped themselves of their jewelry, from Mount Horeb onward. (Exodus 33:4-5, NASB)
After receiving God’s message, the Israelites grieve. They take off their jewelry and enter a posture of mourning (Exodus 33:4, NASB). This passage does not conclude on a happy note, nor even a resolved one. God’s statement hangs in the air as they continue their journey. They walk as they cry as they walk.
On Ash Wednesday, I prayed desperately to the Lord for some sense of spiritual communion. I prayed and waited and prayed for a clear and audible breakthrough from the Spirit. I wanted so desperately some kind of direction, some kind of purpose for this season of Lent, and I did not receive one all day.
My day felt off-kilter. At evening service, I sat in the pew, my forehead newly marked with ashes, unable to articulate why I was so sad and what could make it better. In the silence, I was given a thought: Is silence not a form of sound? Is ambiguity not a way of being?
There are processes that unfold with no foreseeable conclusion. Years spent in a suffocating place, a murky fog, while wondering how anyone could possibly emerge from it, if at all. A few examples from my own life include the years that the U.S. military sent my family into some of the most racially, culturally, physically, and spiritually isolating circumstances I have ever experienced. Sometimes, the only thing I could do was sit in my circumstances and lament them, like when, to the bewilderment of my brand-new sixth grade class in Kansas, the new girl inexplicably burst out crying two weeks into school and couldn’t get up to join the line for music period. Knowing when sorrow must be embraced continues to be a difficult but rewarding practice I commit to learning every day.
When my campus ministry was completely uprooted and I was one of the few remaining seniors rummaging through the pieces, I cried immensely. It was not until months after I graduated that I began to feel the effects of a slow, nearly imperceptible healing that had been taking place. As I processed what had happened, people asked me the same question: “Have you let yourself grieve?” Part of life’s beauty is to be present in the mourning and wail out the tears that come, that the mourning may do what it does.
During Lent, joy and melancholy move in tandem. This season brings into sharp focus the necessity of understanding that weeping and rejoicing may happen simultaneously for the Christian. To believe in Jesus Christ is to believe in the God-man sent to die for the healing and renewal of the Creator’s world: to believe in suffering and healing, hand in hand. We must feel sorrow in order to also feel the necessity, impact, and joy of Jesus Christ’s act of ultimate and utter service when it comes—over and over again.
I still have days when I feel deep sorrow in ways I cannot articulate, in ways that scare me because of the emotions, nestled dormant in my bones, that they threaten to wake—the persistent echoes of past hardships that will never fully disappear. But perhaps what these feelings are asking for is remembrance. Pain must be remembered in order for joy to be understood.
Mourning and moving, too, occur in tandem. The blank canvas before you asks a question: Do you trust that the answer will come? The silence of the Spirit gives an audible assurance: There is a process unfolding here.
So, dear one, do you trust that more is coming?
Karis Ryu is a Master of Arts in Religion student at Yale Divinity School. She will graduate in 2023.