Proper 12(A): Sighs Too Deep For Words
By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell
On April 6, 2020, Maria Cain got word that her sister Franca Panettone, a 46-year-old woman with Downs syndrome, died alone in her hospital bed after several days on a ventilator battling COVID-19.
Sighs too deep for words.
On May 25, 2020, witnesses watched in horror as a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer, who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, choking him as he cried out for his breath.
Sighs too deep for words.
As cases of coronavirus continue to rise in the United States, robbing people of breath and life, and as more and more white people come to an awareness of the systemic racism and white supremacy that have robbed black people of breath and life for over 400 years, we find ourselves at a time when we need the Spirit to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words.
The NRSV translates the Greek word στεναγμός as “sighing,” but the more common translation is “groaning.” The word specifically implies the groans of those in distress.
I am a chronic anxiety sufferer. I have experienced panic attacks for nearly two decades. Over the years, my anxiety has manifested in a number of different ways, but one of the most common is a feeling of tightness in my throat. This “choking” sensation, common among anxiety sufferers, is actually where we get our word “anxiety.” It comes from the ancient Latin root angere, meaning “I’m choking” or “I can’t breathe.”
One of the things that I have learned over the years as both a chronic anxiety sufferer and a Christian is that it is extremely difficult for most people to integrate anxiety, anger, and sadness into their understanding of a “spiritual” or religious life. Particularly among white people, “spirituality” is often associated with peaceful feelings, calmness, quietness, and being nice. Sadness, fear, and anger are understood as “sinful”… they lead to “the dark side.” It is for this reason that many people cannot conceive of the relationship between spirituality and social justice, or between religion and the public square. Consequently, many “spiritual” people respond to the totally justified anger, fear, and grief of black people with dismissive platitudes about love, nonviolence, and the need for inner transformation, while many “religious” people respond to the totally reasonable, medically-informed anxieties about the spread of a deadly disease with denial and the demand to return to public worship.
Of the many cultural trends that have dominated the American religious landscape over the last century, the “positive thinking” movement remains one of the most insidious and pervasive. Often associated with Norman Vincent Peale and the Religious Right, the origins of this movement do not necessarily lie within Christianity itself, but in the Transcendentalism of the mid-19th century and the New Thought movements of the early 20th century, which offered a uniquely American interpretation of Hinduism that linked modern capitalist ideals to the belief that individuals could earn God’s (or “the universe’s”) favor through positive thinking and the avoidance of “negative” thoughts. These ideas have given rise not only to the multibillion dollar secular mindfulness industry, which promotes individualistic self-help through the consumption of trendy, positivity-based “spiritual-but-not-religious” practices, but also to the hyper-individualized “feel-good” version of Christianity that has given us megachurches, the prosperity gospel, and the Christian pop of “positive and encouraging K-Love.”
While we may easily chortle at the saccharine spirituality of ultra-spiritual guy or the Precious Moments chapel, this tendency to split off from our so-called “negative” emotions in order to avoid conflict and pain is as common in “progressive” Christian circles as it is in evangelical communities and the SBNR “love and light” crowd. Mainline churches have also been guilty of using spirituality to ignore the cries of the those who can’t breathe. I can’t count the number of times mainline clergy have tried to use Matthew 6:27 (“who of you by worrying can add a day to his life?”) in a misguided attempt to control or suppress my anxiety (seriously people… stop doing this). Conversations about mental illness are shut down in mainline church contexts almost as swiftly as conversations about death (“It was all a part of God’s plan”) and conversations about systemic racism (“Why cause trouble by bringing up the negative?”).
In 1984, Psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe this habit of using “spiritual” beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with painful feelings and uncomfortable realities. “Part of the reason for this,” writes Robert Masters, “is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing ‘solutions’, regardless of how much suffering such ‘remedies’ may catalyze” (click here for more information about spiritual bypassing).
Christian clergy, cognitive behavioral therapists, “wisdom” teachers, motivational speakers, and New Age gurus alike have taught us that the path to healing entails a process of learning how to transform and/or replace “negative” emotions with “positive” ones. But as Sri Lankan philosopher of psychology Sahanika Ratnayake writes in The Problem of Mindfulness, “the focus tends to be solely on the contents of an individual’s mind and the alleviation of their distress, rather than on interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress in the first place.”
Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that while spiritual “techniques” may be helpful in offering short-term relief from everyday stresses, they are largely counterproductive for navigating anxiety, depression, and anger, precisely because these emotions are often rooted in experiences of trauma, abuse, neglect, and oppression. Attitudes of suppression or even “nonattachment” can impede the kind of direct confrontation with the pain that is necessary for long-term healing and social transformation.
At this moment in our communal lives, it is critical for religious and spiritual people to begin to understand that our “negative emotions” are not exclusively anger, sadness, and fear, but any emotion to which we become overly attached. Calmness, peace, love, and hope can all become extremely negative and toxic when we cling to them at the expense of acknowledging painful truths. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that the primary shared trait among psychopaths is a profound lack of anxiety, fear, and sadness. Thus, spiritual and emotional well-being does not extend from a steady, zen-like state of calmness, but from an emotional fluidity that allows for an engagement with the full spectrum of reality.
Perhaps we can forgive our wayward SBNR friends for being swayed by feel-good cultural trends. But as Christians, we ought to know better. We know from the Biblical witness that there can be no love without justice, and no justice without a humbling of those in power and a lifting up of the lowly. Ours is a God who despises the false optimism and “positivity” of those who sing songs of praise while ignoring the cries of the poor and the oppressed. Ours is a God who abhors those who honor Him “with their lips” but who meanwhile “make someone out to be guilty,” by ensnaring the defender in court, “and with a false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.” (Is. 29: 13, 21). Through the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus, we have come to know a God who was born into poverty, a God who wept, a God who got angry over religious hypocrisy, and a God who even despaired of God while he was suffering and dying unjustly at the hands of those in power.
When the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in times of distress, it is not with platitudes of prosaic positivity, but with the wordless groans of empathic lament. Any spirituality that does not make room for anger, sadness, and fear is not a truly Biblical “spirituality.”
Because what happens when those groans go unheard and unacknowledged?
What happens when the grief and the fear and the anger are ignored?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, Harlem
Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.