When my dad died, I found myself walking around with all of these big feelings in my chest, pressing up against my ribcage and throat, wanting to burst out, but with nowhere I felt like I could allow them to go.
I took up running, and with every deep inhale and exhale, those feelings began to find their way up and out. In my day to day life, those feelings felt too big to look at, too big to manage or bring up in day to day conversation, but every strike of the pavement gave me a chance to feel the big feelings, for my chest to heave and my throat to burn and feel all of it — a couple of miles at a time.
Sometimes we all struggle to feel the big feelings, to make space for heavy, complicated, huge things like grief, anger, fear, regret – even joy –in our already-full lives. We don’t have time to stop, to be derailed by some wave of emotion or attack of sentimentality, and we silence the urge inside us to yell, or cry, or jump up and down. We have things to do and we just don’t have time.
When I worked on child sexual assault and exploitation cases in my previous job, every day I had to suppress my fear and anger and grief; I had to learn to be a professional. Even now, when teenagers talk to me about things like self-harm or suicidal ideation, part of me doing my job well is holding back my gut emotional reactions so I can be professional.
Sometimes though, our practice of holding back our big feelings in the service of professionalism and efficiency means that we don’t know how to really feel what we feel — and sometimes that we think those feelings are inherently bad or need to stay buried.
For the season of Lent, I took up the practice of leading a Tuesday morning bible study before school, and this week we’re talking about John 11, the death of Lazarus.
This is a story with a lot of big feelings. When Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus, falls ill and dies, Jesus and the disciples head toward his home. Lazarus’s sister, Martha, goes out into the road to meet him and says,
“If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Oof. How do you hear her voice?
Here’s a woman who runs out to the road to meet Jesus, a man who she loves and knows, a man whom she knows has saved the lives of complete strangers from sickness with a single word, as he comes to instead mourn her brother’s death. It’s not written in the text here, but as I read these words, I can almost hear the bitter tears, the where were you when it mattered? in her voice.
Talk about big feelings. This is anger, bitterness, confusion, grief, and betrayal.
As Jesus continues into town, he sees Mary, Martha’s sister. She falls at his feet in tears and says the same thing: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
This time, though, I tend to hear it differently. In her crying at his feet, I imagine overwhelming sadness, desperation, broken-heartedness, and loss. I imagine that kind of crying where you couldn’t make yourself stop even if you wanted to.
When Jesus sees Mary’s crying, and Martha’s anger — and the mourning of all the other community members who had come to town — what did Jesus do?
He didn’t scold Martha for lashing out, or tell Mary to pull herself together, or give a lecture to the crowd about eternal life and how they didn’t really have a reason to be sad.
In the face of big feelings, huge feelings, overwhelming, pressing up against ribcage and throat feelings, Jesus just witnessed and entered into those feelings, right alongside the people he loved.
We, of course, know what happens next. Lazarus isn’t famous for staying dead.
But for now, I’d like to stop here to consider who Jesus is to us here, in this moment — and how that models for us what it means to be Christlike in the world. Jesus did not reject the human part of himself that felt deeply, loved his friends, was in relationship and conflict with his people. He didn’t float above the messiness of the human heart and consider the feelings of others or even his own feelings childish or unprofessional or something to be repressed in polite company.
I encourage you this week to find a way to feel big feelings, whether in a safe relationship, on a run, in prayer — wherever it bubbles up for you. And when that big feeling inevitably comes up, try to resist the urge to silence or suppress it right away; instead, try to accept the fact that if Jesus wept, so too can we — and just as Jesus made space for the big feelings of Mary and Martha, he does for ours, too.
Director of Youth Ministries