When Good Theology Blocks Us From God

I made a point in a recent sermon that sometimes we block ourselves from growing in our faith with good theology. I think some people thought it was a strange point and I’d like to explain why I think it is a point worth making.

First, to make it clear, theology is not the problem. Having a sound theology is a good thing - it helps clarify our thinking about ourselves and about God. It gives us a framework for understanding who God is, what he has done, and how we take hold of his covenant promises. It gives us a scope of God’s awesome control and nature and our dignity and depravity. All good things. Sound theology is (to quote Paul) “holy and righteous and good,” but sometimes how we use it isn’t.

Culturally, we have a very low tolerance for sorrow and negative feelings. We are like the character Joy in the movie Inside Out. We want to draw a little circle around our sad feelings and say, “This is your place, you stay in there. Don’t touch anything.” And the circle we draw is a commitment of the will to think only about happy things.

In fact, my social media feed is filled with quotes and memes that evanglize about the power of positive thinking (Your day isn’t about what happens to you; it’s about how you respond to what happens to you!). We tell each other that all we have to do to overcome negative emotions is fix our thinking about what has happened to us. “Think positive thoughts and you will feel positive things!”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it (1) isn’t biblical, and (2) doesn’t work.

When we read through the Psalms, we don’t see God’s people running from sorrow to platitudes, combatting negative emotions with the power of positive thoughts. We don’t see people drawing a tight circle around their sorrow and then declaring, “You stay there and I will pretend you are smaller than you really are and maybe you will cease to exist.”

We hear the Psalmists crying out things like, “Hey God, where did you go?” Or “Why did you leave me alone and vulnerable here?” Or “I am in so much pain that it feels like I am being sucked into a mud pit, never to return - why did you let this happen?”

This is called Lament. Lament is a powerful and important way of communicating with God. It is the single largest category of Psalms (even more than praise and worship), and there’s a whole book in the Bible dedicated to it called Lamentations. Lament is the guttural cry of suffering and the language of sorrow.

In the Bible we don’t see people desperately trying to make negative feelings go away with mantras of good theology (like, Well, God is still in control, or With God, the future is still bright!). We see God’s people, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, stepping into the circle of their sorrow and pulling it close to their heart in order to feel it, mourne it, and redeem it through lament. We see them crying out to God in honesty in their pain, even saying things that sound theologically incorrect.

Jesus, in one of the greatest points of pain and loneliness and sorrow in his life (on the cross), quoted a Psalmist and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Listen: if Jesus can cry out that honestly in his pain and not be a theological traitor, so can we.

Lament is driven by pain but it is motivated by faith. In order for us to be that honest with our pain with God, we have to have faith that he really does care, understand, and love us. Our good theological platitudes are often not just an expression of fear of our sorrow but a fear of God’s response. We are afraid he won’t meet us in the valley of our darkness, that he will despise our weakness and vulnerability and not run to our aid. True lament requires us to both be honest with our pain and have enough faith that God is bound to us covenant faithfulness that he will honor our pain and meet us in our suffering.

So, ironically, while we often use good theology to shield ourselves from the growth that comes from meeting God in our pain, it is good theology that will equip us to meet God in it. It is only when we know God is loving and powerful that we will obey his voice to “Wait on me” even when the place where we are waiting feels like a pit that is swallowing us whole.

But like the Pslamists, we will discover that something beautiful happens when we meet God in that dark place. Jesus, who knows our pain better than we do, will draw near and give a profound grace in the pain, giving a comfort only a God and a friend can who has suffered in a similar way.

In pain, we need more than just a good theology of grace. We need a deep experience of grace. And doesn’t come from knowing the right things. It comes from coming before God (even crawling) in humility and with our desperate need, knowing that it is only at the throne of grace our sorrow will be redeemed and our hearts healed.


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