Negative Emotions (Part 1)
This is part 1 of a 2 part series: Part 2
Let me ask you a question. Is it okay for Christians to feel really bad? Is it okay for Christians to get upset and feel terrible? Do you have a place in your theology for a Christian to be sad or angry or afraid or any of a host of other negative emotions? Are these things that we need to simply repent of? Or can they be good and right and righteous?
Let me give a couple of examples of situations we might respond to with negative emotion. And I ask you to think, what emotion would you bring to the table if you’re in this situation? Let’s say there’s a friend. And you’ve invested a ton of time and you know this person is very sensitive and something you’ve done that you really believe was for their good has just really set them off. And they’re accusing you of all sorts of unpleasant, and from your perspective, false things—and the relationship is now strained even after all you’ve done. How do you respond to your child being in significant, ongoing pain and surgery or medication has been tried and the results have just come back that it hasn’t helped? What about someone that you’ve trusted, a beloved younger business partner, turns out they’ve been swindling your customers, and now your shop’s reputation is sure to come under fire in the coming years and may be permanently ruined. Maybe your school district just chose distance learning or onsite learning or hybrid learning, and you’re quite confident that whatever has just been chosen is going to be the worst possible option, or at least a very bad option for your child.
What about just being down? The weight of your trials and aches just piled up in front of you and your heart is heavy. When I’ve experienced that, I have sometimes described it as like, you feel like a stone skipping across the surface of depression. How would you respond to any of those things? And not only how would you respond, but what would be a good, a Christian, a godly Christ honoring response to those sorts of things?
Well, you might say, “Yeah, it’s really not okay to feel bad. It’s not okay to be upset and afraid. And of course being fallen, flawed humans, we probably will be, but that’s not right.” And the thinking would go something like this: We have verses in the scriptures that say, “Be anxious for nothing,” “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” It’s a logic that would be rooted deeply in God’s sovereignty. If God is in control, then why on Earth would any Christian or at least any deeply faithful Christian ever really be bothered by or upset about anything? If we really trust the Lord, if we really trust our God, then there’s no real reason to get super worked up about anything, because all things work together for the good of those who love him or are called according to his purpose.
Do you feel the weight of that? Do you feel the inner logic of that? And let me say right at the outset, you can tell where I’m going. I’m going to be presenting something further that I would say enriches the picture. But I want to be clear. The fact of God’s sovereignty is the greatest hope that we have. It is absolutely vital that we never lose sight of the fact that God is in control. And this is at the heart of all of our hope in life and in death.
Having said that, I want to slow us down for a minute though, because I think the Bible makes a very, very strong repeated case that there can be very deep good in our bad emotions. Now, obviously, when we experience dark emotions—sadness, fear, anger, discouragement, and so on and so forth—there is a chance to look at our own hearts and say, “Are there bad things happening in me as a result of this? What is my opportunity to repent and to trust the Lord in ways that I haven’t been?” And that’s always a fair question to be asking of ourselves. But the biblical view understands us in a very nuanced way. It knows that we are complicated creatures. It knows that our world is both glorious and fallen. And that we respond as image bearers of God, who like him, can see both good and bad in the situation around us.
So, let’s think a couple of minutes here. What does the Scripture say about negative emotions? Where does it engage this? One example that pops quickly to mind would be John 11, Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is there. He is there because he is planning to raise Lazarus from the dead. This has been his plan all along. This has been something he does particularly, and even rejoicing in it ahead of time, that there will be this amazing benefit to the faith of his disciples. And he’s going into a hard situation. He’s actually delayed so that Lazarus can die. And he’s doing this because he knows the power of them witnessing him raising someone from the dead. He knows the enormous, lifelong, eternal impact that this will have on his disciples and their followers after him, for the generations down through the church to our very own day. This is an incredibly beautiful chance for Jesus to move forward in his ministry.
However, Jesus doesn’t just rush in and raise Lazarus from the dead and start waving banners. He talks to Mary and to Martha, Lazarus’s sisters, who are weeping and grieving and mourning the loss. And he engages each of them in wonderfully personalized ways. And then he goes to the tomb and he weeps. And the underlying Greek word has the sense of: it is an angry weeping and an indignant weeping—your footnote might even say in your Bible. It is a weeping that takes very, very seriously the absolutely horrible nature of what has happened to Lazarus. Why is that? Why can Jesus do that? Why would he stop and pause and weep when in fact he is about to raise him from the dead? And the answer is something like this: it’s because he loves Mary and Martha. It’s because he loves Lazarus. It’s because he loves life. It’s because he is good. It’s because he is love. Because he loves, he will not refuse to enter into the pain of those he loves, even for the ten minutes as we wait here before the resurrection of Lazarus.
He sees his own death coming. He’s going to be laid behind a stone in the not-so-distant future himself. And he is seeing all of the evil that is waiting on the other side of that stone that is going to fall upon him. And he weeps, and he feels anger. And he feels distress in the face of seeing, “This is not right. This is not good. This is not what the Lord meant to be. This is not what I meant when I created this world.”
Think about Paul, 2 Corinthians. He goes through this just enormous, staggering list of physical sufferings he has been through. Naked and beaten and cold and shipwrecked and in the open sea and hungry and without sleep. It’s this absolutely demoralizing list of horrible things that Paul has suffered. And then he gets to verse 28 and he says, “On top of all this, I bear daily my anxiety for all the churches—this burden on my heart, this fear, this concern, because I know that false teachers have come and will come. I know persecution has come and will come. I know that divisions and rivalries and temptations and factions come within churches. I know that the temptation to drift away will be there over and over again. And I love these people and I love Jesus. And therefore I care deeply about these people. And I don’t know what will happen to them. I don’t know what will come of this church. So I feel a godly, a loving and appropriate, healthy, righteous anxiety for the unknowns of what will happen to these people.”
Think about Jesus in John 2, driving people out of the temple, who are corrupting the place of worship of God, who are breaking down the opportunity for God’s precious, beloved, struggling, beset children to come to him, and to know him, and to experience forgiveness and cleansing and grace. And these people are monetizing it, corrupting it, commercializing it, making it a sham.
And Jesus goes in with a whip that he’s thoughtfully ahead of time, gone out and made. This isn’t a sudden moment of peak. He’s not suddenly irritated and just lashing out. This is a considered way in which his anger is driving him to action that is deeply right and deeply good. And certainly not the first image that most of us have when we think of Jesus.
I could go on. I mean, how many Psalms of lament and distress and dismay are there? The Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, many places where we see various characters throughout the scripture tearing their clothes and wearing sackcloth and ashes, and just utter horror at the loss that they have just gone through or some terrible thing that has happened.
This is an important biblical reality. We can’t escape that if Jesus can do this, if Paul can do this, if David can do this, if their experience of life and of the brokenness of this world leads them to these dark, negative emotions and they can do that righteously, then we are called to do the same. And this doesn’t mean that God isn’t good, or that we don’t find comfort in his sovereignty. This doesn’t mean that we have to just mope about it. It doesn’t mean that, “Oh, well, actually I guess all my fears are in fact good and wonderful and valid or that everything I’m ever sad about is appropriate to be sad about.” Of course our emotions are a place where there’s a great temptation to things that are not good.
So I don’t want to, for a moment, suggest that all emotions are signs of righteousness in our heart. But I do want to say that every emotion can be honoring to the Lord. And in fact, many of the pleasant emotions that we normally think of as good and godly, contentment, peace, joy—these things can be just as corruptible as our negative emotions. When you feel joy and happiness at someone else’s downfall because it takes the spotlight off of you, or because you’re getting ahead competitively or whatever, that is terrible. That’s bad joy. There are evil joys and evil contentment and evil peace, just as there is godly anxiety, there’s godly, loving anger. There is godly, loving distress.
These are not in opposition to God’s sovereignty. In fact, if anything, they go hand in hand and we can acknowledge both together that God is good and working all things for good. And that we want to hate what he hates and be grieved by what grieves him.
Let me simply summarize it this way. If you love the Lord, and if you love his kingdom, it is going to lead to negative feelings. We must be troubled by living in a troubling world that does not always honor our Lord.
Let me make one last point in conclusion. We might say that we believe this. We might say, “Yeah, that is true. This is right. There is a real place for these negative and dark emotions. And they aren’t inherently bad and sinful, at least not necessarily. There’s a place in my theology for these things.” And yet, functionally, it’s very easy to live as if in fact that’s a theoretical possibility, but not a real one.
So let me leave us with this self-diagnostic question. Do you ever lament to the Lord? Do you ever simply speak to him with earnest feeling about what is wrong and what is hurting in your world? Do you ever simply pour out your heart to the Lord? Could you ever write words like Psalm 69:1-3, which says, “Save me, Oh God. For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold. I’ve come into deep waters. The flood sweeps over me. I’m weary with my crying out. My throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”
That has taken a long and difficult time for me to begin to grow in being able to speak words like that. If you, like me, have struggled here, then there’s room for growth in your functional theology of dark emotions. And to learn that sharing in the Lord’s griefs is actually a profound way to share in his heart. To be a Christian, it actually not only allows you to feel negative emotions, but in fact, it demands that you will feel negative emotions because this world really is broken and it has not yet been restored in full as someday it will be.
What a comfort it is now that we know that the Lord in fact does hate when bad things happen to us. And he does, in fact, enter into our sufferings and our griefs and our darknesses, not only bringing us relief at times and in ways and in measures, but using our very worst moments, our very darkest times and our greatest joys for our eternal good. This is a God we can trust. This is a God we can trust in any and every emotion.