Helping Women Lament in the Church

helping women lament in the church

grace lung     |     SEPTEMBER 18, 2019     |    3 MIN READ

Asian women in the West are confronted with multiple expectations. There are Asian expectations to be high-achieving daughters who are submissive and look after the family. There are also Western expectations to be quiet, grateful and hard-working model migrants. In both communities, the unspoken condition for our acceptance is dutifully meeting expectations without complaint.

Because if you complain, what happens? It threatens your level of acceptance in the community. You are a bad Asian, bad daughter, bad immigrant. You’re “that” woman, and shame follows.

This attitude towards women can also permeate our churches and affect us all. We think God is primarily a patriarch or a boss, putting us positions in which it is difficult to voice our struggles honestly. We feel the need to serve dutifully without grumbling or complaint. We police ourselves, telling ourselves, “stop complaining, be thankful, lots of people have it worse than you. Stop being dramatic. You have so much going for you.” We shame ourselves.

So for many of us, “dutiful” characterizes our relationships, with our families, our wider community and with God.

We are often like King David in Psalm 39:1-3 (MSG):

I’m determined to watch steps and tongue
so they won’t land me in trouble.
I decided to hold my tongue
as long as Wicked is in the room.
“Mum’s the word,” I said, and kept quiet.
But the longer I kept silence
The worse it got—
my insides got hotter and hotter.

The problem with dutiful silence is that we deal with them in two ways. Some escape, while others attack. I suspect that some Asian women deal with it by internalizing the pain, which then manifests itself into mental illness and somatic symptoms. Is it any wonder Asian American women between the ages of 15-24 have the second highest rate of suicide of all racial groups?

The discipline of biblical lament

But as we press down our feelings and suffering, the pain gets worse and worse. Silence was also the psalmist's initial strategy. But soon he can no longer hold it in, and his words pour out:

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure” (Psalm 39:4-6 NIV)

Perhaps we need to rediscover the discipline of biblical lament and cry out as the psalmist does. In fact, one-third of the Psalms are psalms of lament, asking God for help or talking to God about difficult situations.  But oftentimes for women, we are often fearful, expecting the familiar guilt and shame inducing words. In our desire for love and acceptance, instead of opening up to God, we stay quiet.

The interesting thing about Psalm 39 is that it does not end in an expression of praise or thanksgiving. But the psalmist is confident in his appeals for God to be heard:

“Hear my prayer, LORD,
Listen to my cry for help;
Do not be deaf to my weeping.” (v 39:12, NIV)

The Psalmist is able to fully lament and cry out out because his relationship with God allowed him to do so without fear of condemnation. There were no conditions for acceptance, but rather there was complete honesty and oneness. In the same way, we are able to speak freely to Him and know that He is listening.

Allowing others to lament

There is another consequence to hiding our laments. If we don’t allow ourselves to own our pain, then, as God’s we will become numb to other people’s pain. Instead of empathy and grace, our own policing messages are passed on, creating an atmosphere of shame, instead of the safe presence God offers.

Many women who struggle don’t feel safe to approach others or the church for help. Frances, a domestic violence survivor who shared her testimony at a church event, said that she had to fight within her previous church community to assert the truth behind her painful experiences with her partner.

“In their opinion, I never fulfilled my duties,” she said. “‘You do not appreciate your husband enough… therefore you are experiencing these sorts of behaviors.’”

But by acknowledging our specific pains, our wounds can be used by God as a gift for others to stand with fellow women and speak for them.

Thankfully a woman at her new church community truly listened to Frances lament, and that connection helped her to settle there. “They showed me that being a Christian was not about ticking all the ‘good’ boxes to demonstrate to other people, but about being completely honest and humble before God and let God rebuild us,” she said.

Sisters, let’s be honest with how we’re already feeling with God. Our prayers don’t have to end in a neat little bow. Getting to the bottom of our honest feelings with the one in whom there is no more condemnation is the first step to healing for ourselves and our communities. Then, we can slowly stop seeing God as patriarchal -- a demanding father or boss -- but one who truly loves and accepts us unconditionally. Let us cry out to Him who hears.

Grace Lung is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Asian Christianity at the Brisbane School of Theology. She assists various groups contextualize their ministry to Asians Between Cultures. She is a graduate of the Sydney Missionary and Bible College and Fuller Theological Seminary.