Published on August 31st, 2013 | by Joanna Holman
Is It Bad for Christians to Feel Bad?
Western Christian subculture has a special fondness for positivity and a suspicious unease about “negative” emotions.
My local Christian radio station brands themselves as the positive option, and the music they play is, indeed, overwhelmingly positive. Christian bookstores are overloaded with titles on how to have the best life possible. Sometimes popular Christian conference speakers will encourage the crowd to make sure they are only speaking and thinking positive things to ensure life goes well. No less than the Pope recently tweeted, “A Christian is never bored or sad. Rather, the one who loves Christ is full of joy and radiates joy.”
So when a Christian is struggling with mental illness, loss, or even just less-than-pleasant feelings, they can end up wondering if it is okay for them to feel the way they do. After all, if the Bible says to be joyful, and all the Christians they know are emphasising positivity, what room is there for grief, sadness, or depression in the Christian life?
There is plenty of room.
If you are experiencing unpleasant emotions, whether as a result of normal human experience or more serious mental health issues, you are in really good company.
The Bible takes a stunningly realistic view of the world. Certainly the Bible is clear on the magnitude of what Jesus has done for us, the goodness of God, and that we will one day dwell in a new creation where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
But it is also clear on the problems of the world and the people in it. It presents brokenness and pain as realities of life here, not just illusions we need to positive-think away.
Unlike much of our modern worship repertoire, the Psalms present us with expressions of the full range of human emotions. There is joy, but there is also sadness, fear, lament, and mourning.
In his prayer for deliverance in Psalm 6, the psalmist writes, “I am weary with my moaning, every night I flood my bed with tears, I drench my couch with weeping.”
The writer of Psalm 13 asks why it seems like God has forgotten him.
In Psalm 38, David describes his experience of mourning, a tumultuous heart and the light disappearing from his eyes.
Ecclesiastes is a particularly interesting book when it comes to looking at emotions in the Bible. The writer of the book (thought by some to be King Solomon) has had the best of everything—many houses, possessions, and pleasures. No doubt he was the envy of many. And yet, he pours out line after anguished line about how meaningless and unsatisfying life seems.
This is certainly not what most people would expect to find in the Bible.
Perhaps the most famous segment of the book (chapter 3) talks about how there is a time to laugh and a time to weep, a time to mourn and a time to dance.
Too often the Prophetic books (the books near the end of the Old Testament) get skipped over. That’s unfortunate, because we can learn a lot from them. Among the Prophets, we don’t primarily meet stoic, emotionally steady people calmly delivering messages from God to the people. Rather, we meet people who felt the brokenness of the world and their lives deeply.
The book of Lamentations expresses deep mourning about terrible things that have happened to God’s people. Jonah struggles with anger and tells God he wants to die (Jonah 4). Habakkuk gets frustrated and argues with God.
Even Jesus experienced and expressed unpleasant emotions. In John 11, we read of Jesus publicly weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus. He considered it appropriate to grieve even though he knew that in minutes, he would raise Lazarus to life.
Jesus also experienced anxiety. As the time of his crucifixion drew near, he prayed in such agony that he sweated drops of blood (Luke 22). It takes tremendously intense anxiety to create such physical effects.
If Jesus, who was sinless and God in human flesh, could feel these things, surely it’s reasonable to think that we can too.
These are but a few examples the Bible gives of faithful people God was using in his plans who experienced unpleasant emotions or mental health issues. There are many more in the pages of scripture and throughout Christian history.
What about sin?
Even if you agree that unpleasant emotions are legitimate for Christians to experience, you might still be feeling a bit wary that “negative” emotions might lead you to sin. This is an understandable concern, as I’m sure many of us have felt more vulnerable to doing something we’ll regret while experiencing unpleasant emotions.
I think the important thing to remember here is that just because you are tempted to sin or are feeling weaker than usual, this doesn’t mean you have to sin. Experiencing unpleasant emotions can be a fantastic chance to learn to continue to trust God and push on with doing the right things. Accepting the experience of unwanted emotions and choosing right actions anyway. This is hard won and often painful growth for sure, but it can be the longest lasting and most durable growth.
To comment on this article and to read more about Christians and unpleasant emotions, read the associated blog post If You’re Angry and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.
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