“Suck it up, Esther.”
Spoken by a judge hardened to the humiliated weeping of ten-year-old Esther Fleece, these words were her first lesson in adulthood: Figure out how to bury your pain, put on a brave face and plow through. Vulnerability will not be tolerated. Emotional distress is wrong. Whimpering equals weakness.
Esther’s tears were shed in a courtroom filled to the brim with onlookers. She sat in the witness stand across from her father, the accused. An attorney held her private journal high in the air, pulled out of a plastic bag and presented as Exhibit B in a trial against the man she called Daddy. She was utterly mortified, exposed and full of shame.
Esther carried that lesson through a tumultuous childhood and into her adult faith. She brought it with her into a successful career advocating for faith and families. It accompanied her even as she navigated the Bible and conversed with God. It was a lesson in cleaning up your prayers before praying them and plastering on a fake smile over your anguish that says, “I am fine. I am tough.”
“I thought adults were supposed to hold their tears in and not let people see their emotions and not be too upset. So from that age on,” Fleece remembers, “I faked fine and tried to be really strong.”
A Suck-It-Up Culture
Any man can recall when a well-meaning coworker, father, coach or teammate told them to suck it up. Women need only look to modern culture for this message tailored to them.
“Fix your makeup; put on your stilettos, and put on a brave face!”
And while there is the biblical call to be strong warriors in the faith, there is an equally undeniable call to lament before God. For Esther Fleece, the call to lamentation came two decades after that fateful courtroom scene, when she realized she was tired of keeping it all together.
Looking for Help
Esther Fleece began suffering debilitating anxiety attacks when her father reappeared in her adult life 20 years after the courtroom. He began stalking and threatening her, triggering a crisis of faith she couldn’t fake her way through.
“When I faced this difficulty… this thing I wanted no one to know about, very few books in the Christian bookstore spoke to me. A lot of them seemed to be talking about changing our thought life or praying a different way,” Fleece remembers.
But when she turned to the Bible, she saw numerous examples of people who followed God but still had terrible things happen. In fact, once she looked, she couldn’t find a place in the Bible where lamenting wasn’t practiced. She saw it in the Psalms, where David poured out his battered heart to God and praised Him a few verses later. Jesus Himself lamented to God the Father the night before His death. It was through this intense study of Scripture that she began to learn the language of lament.
“I felt very emotionally unsteady until I learned this language of lament and gave myself permission to practice it. And what happens in lament is that God meets you in that distress. He is close to the brokenhearted.”
For Esther Fleece, this revelation was transformational. When she read about God the Judge in Scripture, she only heard the austere voice of the courtroom judge telling her to suck it up. Now Fleece likened God to a kind father who, after His children have come home from school, wants to hear about all the good and bad things that happened in their day.
“I just want people to have permission to take their cries to God. But it is so foreign that we always default to putting our best foot forward. We almost feel like we have to sanitize our prayers sometimes or minimize what we are going through, like we have to make sure we are being grateful Christians.”
Learning a New Language
Lament is one of those words that makes us cringe. When we hear it, we think of weeping and wailing and all things icky and uncomfortable.
We think of vulnerability.
For Esther Fleece, lamenting isn’t only something we do when someone dies or something traumatic happens in our life. She points to Scripture, where time and time again we see God’s people lamenting while simultaneously offering up praise to Him. And she argues our prayer life is incomplete without it.
Esther Fleece’s hope is that the church would begin to embrace the process of lamenting in prayer. Her new book, “No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending” (Zondervan), is aimed at guiding readers through this new language in their prayer lives.
“I want to help people come to God with not only the things that are painful, but the things they don’t want anyone else to know about or the things that they feel stuck,” Fleece says.
She provides practical tools to help normalize lament for readers, and her hope is they will get comfortable going to God with unsanitized, heartfelt prayers.
“People need that hope that they can go deep with God and that He’s not going to leave you in a lament,” Fleece believes. “Lament is not your final destination, but it is a very important step on the way.”