“Why are you crying? Don’t cry. Shake it off. You’ll feel better tomorrow. Smile. Shouldn’t you be over it by now?”
These are a few of the messages I heard surrounding my tears growing up. I heard them on the softball field, in the classroom, from family, from friends. As a Highly Sensitive Person who cried a lot as a child, I’m sure my big feelings were overwhelming to some people. But what I learned from teachers, coaches, and adult family members was that my feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and shame were bad. I learned to hide them, ignore them, stuff them, and pretend they did not exist though I often cried myself to sleep.
In church it was no different. Our youth group took us to events where we experienced mountaintop highs. Mission trips, camps, retreats, conferences, special worship events. At each event, the message was the same: The joy of the Lord would fill us. We should be happy in the presence of God. We could allow ourselves to be filled with the Spirit and as a result all our tears, sadness, and “bad” feelings would melt away.
“Good” Feelings “Bad” Feelings
I was taught that to experience God’s presence of joy and happiness, I should praise him and thank him for all good things. My heart needed to be made right before him which meant once again ignoring my “negative” feelings in order to focus on the “good” in my life. If I thanked God, had a joyful heart, then God would be with me. Then God would show up. Then I would experience God’s presence.
When I was diagnosed with depression at age 18, I felt like a failure in faith. I was ashamed of my inability to grasp onto the joy of the Lord or to remain in his presence. I have heard so many teachings that said, “If I only believed” then I would not feel this way. If I was “only” more grateful, more trusting, more worshipful, then I would not experience dark nights and feelings.
Due to my depression, I believed I was not in God’s presence, nor he in mine. “Where are you, God?” was a constant refrain.
Eventually, I got help for my depression in the form of therapy and medication and light came back into my life again. Good feelings were more readily available and I again “felt” God’s presence in worship and day-to-day life.
But questions and doubts about God’s presence in the middle of dark night lingered. Where was he at that time when I needed him most? Why didn’t I feel his presence? Why didn’t he save me from my mental illness?
Years later, I came face to face with loss. A dear friend moved away and, after 7 or 8 years living in Denver, this became an all-too-common experience. Denver is a transient town and people come and go, but I have this tendency to become deeply attached to my friends and when they leave they take a piece of me. I had never grieved those losses well, but a wise mentor told me I needed to take the time to mourn.
When Tears Fall Like Rain
One rainy night, I was journaling in a Caribou Coffee shop near my house, when I began to write down the names of all the people who had moved away or died, or friendships that had drifted apart over the previous two years. The grief and sadness hit like a tsunami. I could not stop the tears and quickly packed up my things to leave before I caused a scene. The pain of the losses overwhelmed me. As I pulled away from the store, the windshield wipers wiped away the rain as if they were the tears from my own eyes. I cried out, “Where are you, God?!”
This time I heard a response: “When you’re in pain, why do you assume God is not near?” It was as if the words were spoken to me from the passenger seat of my car. And again, “When you’re suffering, why do you assume I’m not with you?”
A sob caught in my throat and I felt my mind explode with possibilities. I had equated my “positive” feelings with God’s presence. Good feelings equaled God is near. Bad feelings equaled God is far away.
But what if that was not true? What if God was always near no matter how I felt? What if God was with me in the grief, the lament, the anger, the fear, the pain? Looking back on the times when God felt the furthest away, in the midst of death, depression, goodbyes, and heartbreak, God was actually near. God is near.
It changed everything.
The past year has been a year of loss. Many of us have lost a friend or family member to Covid-19. Many of us have lost jobs and income due to shutdowns, children being home from school, and the hit the economy took in 2020. Many of us have lost relationships due to the political divide in our country.
There are also ambiguous losses that are more difficult to name. The friend I haven’t seen since February 2020. The loss of regular date nights, trips to the movie theatre, casually eating out on a regular basis. For me, I long for evenings in coffee shops where I can write while others work, do homework, chat with friends, or simply read a book.
We have gone through a collective trauma and have experienced painful feelings. The question I want to ask you is: What do you believe about those feelings, these experiences, and God’s presence? Or, as therapists and coaches say: What story do you tell yourself about your feelings?
Because of Your Feelings
Do you believe that these painful feelings are an indicator that God has given up on you? That God is no longer present? Do you judge yourself for your sadness or judge the world for making you sad? Do you think you shouldn’t feel sad because you have so much when others are struggling?
What is the story you tell yourself when you feel the ache of sadness? Is it a story of shame? Comparison? Anger? Are you kind to yourself? Or do you silence those “bad” feelings?
If you, like me, heard the message that your feelings are not good or not welcome, I would like to invite you to experience your feelings in God’s presence in a new way.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” He then encourages us to take heart, to be courageous, to trust him. But he never tells us to not feel the feelings that arise nor that we should not feel bad. Jesus says this so we can be comforted by him: “I tell you this so that you might have peace” (see John 16:33).
Paul described God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). We experience suffering and loss as Jesus experienced suffering and loss (2 Corinthians 1:5). These pains are not evidence that God is not working or God is not present. No, far from it. When we experience pain, we are invited to pour them out to God, to give them to God, to bring them into God’s presence to be comforted.
After that car ride home from Caribou Coffee, practicing the presence of God took on a whole new meaning. Rather than praying and believing I needed to ask God to come into my presence or that I needed to go somewhere to be in God’s presence to experience a different feeling, I learned in all things, in all feelings, “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:5).
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, “Notion your mind with the idea that God is there.” Here. Where you are. Right now. Fix your mind on this. That is practicing the presence of God who is already present.
Practice the Ever-present Presence of God
My practice became quite simple. I would begin prayers with, “The Lord is near.” I would repeat the phrase to myself when parenting, working, or washing the dishes, “The Lord is near.” It became a mantra no matter what was happening.
Chambers continues, “If once the mind is notioned along that line, then when you are in difficulties, it is as easy as breathing to remember—Why, my Father knows all about it! It is not an effort, it comes naturally when perplexities press.”
My prayer grew: “The God of Comfort, The Father of Compassion is near.”
This small prayer has carried me through greater trials. Through chronic migraines, through further depression, through the deaths of dear friends and family, and yes, through this pandemic year: God is near in it all and comforting through it all. I know God does not dismiss my tears or tell me to push through my pain. Instead, he joins me. He joins me in bed with the icepack over my eyes. He joins me in grief and weeps with me. He joins me in all of my feelings and helps me feel them to the end. He is the ultimate source of compassion. He silences the shame. He carries my grief. He restores my soul. I am comforted.
By practicing the presence of God in fear, sadness, anger, and pain, I no longer need to strive to be in God’s presence. Instead, I am present to the God who is already here. The One who knows my feelings and heartaches more intimately than I do. The One who sees. The One who feels. He does not need me to be something other than what I am. God invites me to be authentic, to be open, to simply be with him. And when my feelings are big, tearful, and scary, God does not silence my cries or tell me to dry my tears. No. When my feelings are painful and hard, God listens. God comforts me.