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Holding the Tension of Joy and Lament

I used to think that seasons of difficulty and sorrow were temporary challenges interrupting the normal equilibrium of life. They were seasons we must navigate until joy and optimism were possible again. I was young. I was wrong.

Sorrow and disappointment and crisis and grief—and any of those things in life that serve as a cause for lament—are not an exception, they are a norm.

In the same way, no matter how dark and destabilizing a season of lament might be, reality holds reasons for joy as well. Lament and joy live as inseparable twins. It extraordinarily rare that any season of life is fully devoid of either one or the other.

The same exquisite tension populates the territory of leadership as well.

As a leader I’ve had seasons when it felt like we were humming on all cylinders and I’ve had others when it seemed like we just couldn’t catch a break. But in the best and the worst of those times, there was always at least one outlier keeping my feet anchored in both sides of reality.

The implications of this both/and reality are quite significant. On a personal level, it means my soul is only fully alive when I am attentive to both. Authentic leadership calls for the vulnerability of holding both joy and lament in tension without underplaying either.

Since leadership flows from the inside out, let’s look first at what it means to choose both joy and lament in our own lives.

For the past 18 years, my wife and I have walked with both our adult kids through disabling health issues. We have known the despair of hearing diagnoses for which there is no cure. And, we have experienced the indescribable joy of seeing miraculous healing in their lives. I can’t tell 18 years worth of history here, but I can say there were times when or the other of our kids was discovering new health while the other was going downhill. On the one hand we knew incredible joy, while on the other our lament seemed to know no bounds.

Our western culture weans us to believe that sorrow, grief, and deep emotion are to be avoided. We say inept things to each other like, “Don’t dwell on the negative.” “Look on the bright side.” So we stuff our difficult emotions only to watch them squirt out sideways in harmful ways. We adopt patronizing attitudes toward those “unfortunate” people swimming in hardship and speak platitudes in an effort to assuage our own discomfort.

In contrast, God is never intimidated by the depth of our emotions. Quite the contrary. He invites us to dance with praise and thanksgiving when things are good while also calling us to be brutally honest about our despair. The songbook of the Bible, Psalms, actually teaches us to lament well.

To embrace lament is to walk down a pathway of deep emotional discovery. It may even be the pathway that makes deep joy possible. To embrace joy in the face of legitimate cause for lament, is to awaken the beauty of an enviable life.

When leaders learn to live this way, holding both joy and lament together they unleash tremendous capacity for impact.

  • Their personal EQ grows exponentially.

  • They discover the ability to speak with empathy and sensitivity.

  • They invariably temper the tendency to communicate with grandiose language.

  • They become great listeners as the substance of people’s lives takes on new significance.

Think about it this way. People everywhere clamor for leaders who are authentic and in touch with real life. Most of us are exhausted by leaders who offer glib slogans. We long for leaders who are the real deal.

Leadership perspective that's anchored in honest lament AND substantive joy carries a gravitas that creates legitimate hope. The hope most people hunger for.

Three Practical Suggestions

If you wanted to grow your ability to hold both lament and joy, where could you start?

  1. Become a student of the Psalms. The ancient hymnbook of God’s people is filled with songs that will tutor you on the power of this both/and practice. If you need a starting point, try Psalm 13.

  2. Write out your own prayers of lament. While you’re at it, use as many emotionally descriptive words as possible.

  3. On the joy side of the equation, I’ve been promoting “The Gratitude Challenge” for a little while. Give it a try and increase the joy quotient in your life.

Let me know what you think.

[Photo credit: Michael Held on Unsplash]


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