A Confession and a Struggle
For much of my adult life, I have suppressed emotion. This isn’t to say that I am not an emotional creature (every human is). But for some reason, my default for processing the world around me is not to feel as much as it is to analyze.
For example, when asked to describe how I am feeling in the moment, I will share my analysis of my external world (I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m tired) rather than expose what is going on in my internal world (I’m angry, I’m fulfilled, I’m content, I’m bitter, I’m joyful, or I’m sad).
In the wake of a tragedy, some will express emotion, saying, “I feel so sorry for their loss.” My response tends to be more philosophical, framing the tragedy in theological terms. Over the years, I’ve wondered if my “feeler” was broken.
While I may not cry at tear-jerker movies as much as the average viewer, I have been known to get wet-eyed on occasion. And there have been times when the faucet has flowed like a hoseless fire hydrant opened on a summer day for kids to enjoy.
I don’t think the problem is that my ability to feel is diminished. Rather, my tendency is to detach from emotion, as I am much more comfortable engaging with objective concepts than subjective. All my personality tests indicate a strong leaning toward detachment, independence, and isolation. Yikes. That sounds like a sociopathic serial killer!
Part of my “detachment syndrome” (did I just coin that?) is hard-wired (in my introversion) while part of it is likely the result of emotional wounds that I have experienced “along the way.” Fatherlessness. Insecurity. A need to prove myself. Hypersensitivity to criticism. All these factors have contributed to a self-protective reaction of detachment when encountering emotion, particularly what we think of as “negative” emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness.
By the way, we all have emotional wounds. It is part of living in a broken, fallen, sinful world. As kids, we fall and scrape our knees. As humans, we fall and scrape our souls. Sometimes, the soul is stepped on by someone else. Either way, we are broken, wounded people. That is the human condition.
The question is what we are going to do with our brokenness. Will I detach and deny, or will I engage and explore?
Recovering a Biblical Understanding of Emotion
Speaking for myself, I believe that recovering a biblical understanding of emotion will help me (and others who struggle with suppressed emotion) experience the grace of God in a much more profound and personal way. Christians are called to be fully human, not robotically stoic. If you will recall, Spock wasn’t human.
When we consider emotion, there are extreme perspectives, neither of which represents a biblical framework. Some people look to emotion as a guide for what to do next. Do what feels right. On the other end of the pendulum are those who despise emotion as human weakness.
However, emotions have not been designed by God to control us, shame us, or plague us but, according to Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, are to function like windows into the soul. Much like the lights on the dashboard of an automobile reveal what is going on under the hood, emotions are indicators that reveal what is under the hood of the heart.
Emotions are Diagnostic
Emotions are diagnostic. To ask, “How are you feeling,” is more about how you are processing your environment and circumstances more than a request for factual information. When we understand emotion in this way, feelings become incredibly helpful windows into the soul, allowing us to do a practical analysis of what our heart is believing at the moment.
Am I believing lies of the world, the flesh, or the Devil, or am I believing the truth of God that is revealed in the Scriptures? How is this influencing my words and actions? What are my emotions revealing about my deep desires? Are those desires being influenced by the Spirit or are they being distorted by the flesh?
Another reason not to resist emotions is that the deep desires of the heart are revealed in our emotions, which are determined by what we believe and ultimately lead to what we do. It can be liberating to discover that emotions are not intended by God to control us, shame us, or plague us. We feel things internally because we are humans with a soul. And emotions are the windows that help us see what is going on there, in the heart.
It’s Okay to be Sad
I have had a particularly difficult time processing the darker emotions, thinking that negative feelings were “bad” feelings — as if being sad is a denial of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, grace, goodness, and love. One of these so-called “negative” emotions that I need permission to feel is sadness. I need to hear God say to me, “It’s okay to be sad.”
Sadness is what we feel as our soul processes loss, whether the loss of a loved one (which can be felt more like grief) or the loss of a day at the park because of rain. I might be sad because I didn’t get into the grad school of my choice, because Red Lobster ran out of fresh oysters, or because my best friend is moving four states away. Sadness can descend upon an unhappy marriage, a miserable work environment, and restrictions placed upon you by “shelter in place” orders during a pandemic. There are ranges of intensity with any emotion. Sadness being no exception.
Sometimes sadness goes beyond the emotional and enters into the clinical. If sadness intensifies into full-blown depression you should see a physician to determine whether a clinical diagnosis is warranted. It may not be. But if it is, you will be able to get the help you need to face more than sadness as an emotion, but depression as a medical condition.
The issue really isn’t whether we will feel sad but what we do with the sadness when we recognize it for what it is. Loss is part of living in a fallen world. The emotional response to loss is sadness, sometimes mixed with other emotions such as anger, bitterness, frustration, and disgust.
I believe that God designed sadness in particular for helping us deal with the pain of life. While sadness itself can be quite mentally heavy and even painful in a way, we do a disservice to ourselves and to others when we seek to minimize, dilute, or numb our loss. To be fully present with our emotions enables us to connect with our deep desires.
For human beings, whether we admit it or not, those desires tend to be a combination of being fully known, fully loved, fully secure, and fully at peace so that we are able to rest as if we could sleep on cue without pressure or worry — like a stress-free infant. When these base-line desires are not met, they may get distorted into idols that promise relief from the sadness. More work. More praise. More entertainment. More alcohol.
If we will let ourselves be sad, we just might find the open door for which our hearts are desperately seeking. This is to say, it is okay to feel sad. King David writes of this in Psalm 34:18
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
The Purpose of Sadness
I think that Psalm 34 helps us see that the events that have caused sadness were not purposed by God to drive you away from him but to enable you to feel his closeness more acutely. There is something about the aroma of sadness that causes the LORD (which when capitalized in English Bibles represents the personal name of God in the Old Testament, whether translated Yahweh or Jehovah) to draw near to meet you with mercy in your time of need. In God’s design, to feel sadness opens the heart to grace.
This God who draws near to the brokenhearted in Psalm 34 is the same who would experience the greatest sadness the world has ever known, for the personal name of this God is revealed in the New Testament as Jesus. Upon a cross, he would not only be crushed in spirit but in body and soul, offering himself to fulfill divine justice as a substitute for sinners before the law of God. While the crucifixion of the Son was a victory over sin and would result in the greatest good possible, the fact remains that there must have been profound sadness among the Father, Son, and Spirit in that moment of pain and judgment. I’m philosophizing a bit here, but when Jesus was being nailed and hanging unto suffocation on Roman crossbeams…
I believe the Father was sad.
I believe the Son was sad.
I believe the Spirit was sad.
Was God at work in the sadness? Of course. Is God a Stoic? Absolutely not. Does this give you permission to feel sadness, too? Yes.
It is okay to be sad.
Whether you lose a job, acquire COVID-19, struggle in your marriage, or lament a broken dream, you don’t have to put on a happy face. Maybe that will come later. But it does not have to be today. In sadness, you can still worship, even if through tears.
While sadness is important to acknowledge, embrace, experience, it does not get the final word. It is a temporary emotion. One day, sadness will be erased from the human condition because there will be no more loss. Only the fullness of joy.
In Revelation 21:1–5, the apostle John writes of a vision, saying,
1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
At the end of the Lord of the Rings saga, Samwise Gamgee wakes up after the epic final battle (in the movie, it is Frodo who wakes, but in the books it is Sam), where the ring of power has been destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom. In the wake of exhaustion, he rises from a long slumber surrounded by the beauty of Rivendell.
Astonished to see Gandalf, Sam asks,
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”
“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
The fulfillment of Revelation 21 will be like that. Waking up from a world of sadness to an atmosphere of eternal joy and ineffable beauty. Until then, we wait and in our sadness we pray, and mourn, and with glimmers of hope taste joy, looking to the cross of the risen Jesus, whose promises of “all things new” are “trustworthy and true.” Come, Lord Jesus. Come.