I really enjoyed the new movie Inside Out. I confess that I assumed that it was simply a movie dealing in emotional stereotypes, which is what I saw featured in the previews. But while emotions do play a major role, the movie is about much more than that. Inside Out invites us to not only have a more nuanced understanding of emotions but to appreciate them in the context of personal growth, the nature of relationships, and the purposes of family. As a Christian, I found it especially thought provoking.

What Inside Out is About

Inside Out is about Riley, a preteen, who moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, leaving behind everything she has ever known or loved. While she tries to make the best of it at first, the move turns out to be fairly traumatic for her, and her parents aren’t faring much better.

Most of the action is seen through the eyes of the five emotions that reside in Riley’s head as animated characters (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) as they try to navigate the swirling events of her life. The movie brilliantly allegorizes the turmoil of our emotional lives and offers concepts to help children, as well as adults, navigate our inner worlds. One message I appreciated was that ignoring sadness or simply trying to cover it up with happiness doesn’t work. Another is that sadness, and other negative emotions, play important roles in our lives.

But Inside Out is also about the role emotions play in relationships. As Riley’s family learned, fruitful relationships require emotional involvement, and that’s not easy. Sharing our emotions with each other makes us vulnerable and the results aren’t always predictable. Riley, whom her parents had always known as their happy little girl, didn’t know how to process or share with them how upsetting the move was, especially as she witnessed their distress. Complicating matters, Riley’s mother asked her to “put on a smile” for her father’s sake. But as Riley suppressed her heartache, her frustration and resentment grew, and her relationship with her parents suffered. She felt misunderstood and uncared for and came to believe her only option was to run away, back to Minnesota, where she hoped happiness would be regained. Just as she is about to depart, she changes her mind and returns home to her parents who are sick with worry. She collapses in their arms, and as tears stream down her face, she shares how sad she is about the move. Her parents are warm, supportive, and honest. They tell Riley that the move has been hard for them too and they miss home terribly as well. To simply read about this scene, doesn’t do it justice. It really is quite moving. But its power isn’t just in good writing or animation. This type of scene moves us because, though it doesn’t do so intentionally, it powerfully portrays the relational heart of the gospel. Let me explain what I mean.

Sonship and Prodigals

If Riley’s family were Christians, I think a lot of the movie would be the same, though if her parents were really on the ball (in a way that I rarely am) they may have been wise enough to emotionally process and pray with Riley about the challenges of moving. They may have even been a tad less likely to get so absorbed in their own stress so that they would have been more aware of how poorly Riley was transitioning. Maybe.

In all honesty, even if Riley and her parents were Christians, I think it’s pretty likely that Riley would continue to be led by Anger, Fear, and Disgust, and execute her plan to run away. And, just like in the movie, she would probably change her mind and return home just as her parents are starting to panic. Of course, it’s still possible for Christians to blow it at this point. Mom and Dad could still be so involved in their own distress that they only see a preteen “acting out” and they would lash out in anger, and berate her for how she worried them.

But at just this point, I can’t help but think that the Holy Spirit would enter the script and the movie would have a critically important twist. Mom and dad would still grieve with and comfort Riley, but now the camera would zoom inside of their heads allowing us to peek at their inner world of thoughts and feelings. There we would find something remarkable and different. As they embrace Riley and welcome her tears, they aren’t just following parental instincts, or living out of their own childhood experiences, or even drawing on what they gleaned from a book on parenting. They would embrace their daughter and offer words of understanding and comfort because, in that moment, they would realize that Riley needs what they have been receiving from their Heavenly Father—the loving embrace of one who knows and loves them perfectly. He sees all of their weaknesses and sins and is profoundly moved by grace to touch, receive, and embrace. They’ve learned what it means to be children of God and they yearn to lead their daughter into that same understanding.

How do they know to do this? Because in their own lives, they’ve been led by the Spirit of God’s Son to cry out, “Abba, father” and the Holy Spirit groans within them, leading them to the Father’s love. Having been included in the family of God, they know that pain and hardships are still with us. They know that to be a part of God’s family, to be united to his son, involves suffering, because Jesus himself suffered. But in that suffering, Jesus’ own Spirit moves us toward the Father, moves us to cry out for help. And he will help a family grieve over what they have lost by moving to another state and help them to comfort their distraught daughter.

Of course, there will be a time for apologies, repentance for misguided anger, deception, selfishness, and missed opportunities. There will be reasons for repentance all around, parents as well as Riley. But those conversations won’t flow out of her parents’ defensiveness or legalism. They will flow out of the same kind of divine love that leads a father to lift his robes and sprint towards a returning child, embracing and kissing him, ready to slaughter the fattened calf (Luke 15:11-32). Riley and her parents would shine with the glory of the gospel, a human family sharing in the divine love of the Trinity right there in San Francisco. Right there, for anyone willing to see, the gospel will become visible.

Our emotions do all kinds of things. But perhaps most importantly, they are meant to alert us to the brokenness of life and drive us to cry out to our loving Father through the Spirit of the Son. They drive us first and foremost into his arms, and then into the arms of one another.

1 These are considered the “primary” emotions by some psychologists.