This summer, we’re running a short series of adapted selections from my book, How to Be a Bad Christian. (If you’d prefer to get the whole thing at once, it’s available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.) Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.
Every year growing up, my family would take each summer to visit our relatives in Seattle. For my brother Benjamin and me, the whole point of the trip was to see our cousins Katherine, Alison, Anna, and Joseph. The six of us shared the joy of freewheeling playtimes and antics of all kinds. Each year, we would write and perform a miniature play for our aunts and uncles. It gave us all a chance to be dramatic and adventurous, slaying dragons and liberating kingdoms within the confines of a suburban living room. As we got older, childlike play gave way to adolescent conversation and the wonder of growing up together. The warm weight of twenty of these summer trips settled in our souls; play, imagination, and recreation have led to great joy and love.
Our mutual trust has allowed us to be present to each other in grief, too. We were together the week after Grandpa died, and again five years later when Grandma died, too. We have had each other’s backs through the ups and downs of both teenage and twenty-something social drama and heartbreak. We have come to know, as you may too, that the closest friends are those who can be with you not only in good times, but also in bad.
Our friendship with Jesus can have that closeness, too. But to share darker emotions like sadness with him, we have to brave being present to them ourselves.
Gritting My Teeth
When I was eighteen years old, I took a gap year to serve with a church and youth ministry in Peru. I was eager for the cross-cultural experience of a lifetime. But by the time I’d been in the country a month, it was clear to me that something was wrong. I found myself caught in the middle of conflicts among my church and host family. There were few people around I felt I could trust, and I was grieved by the unresolved animosities I was witnessing.
I felt stuck. What was I supposed to do? I considered whether it would be wise to pack up and just head home, but friends and family members had given money so that I could have this experience. I didn’t want to bail out. At the same time, I could feel myself shutting down. Without any close and safe relationships, I had trouble making sense of my place in Peru. My host home didn’t feel like home. I found it unusually difficult to connect with other people. My energy levels slowed from full blast down to a drip.
I had no idea what to do with my feelings. Prolonged sadness was new territory, as unfamiliar to me as the mountains and abandoned Incan cities on the horizon. Why didn’t I feel good anymore? Why couldn’t I seem to muster the energy to “get past” the difficulty of my situation?
I wanted a way to make the dark feelings go away, to feel happy like I had before. Without a breakthrough on the emotional front, I opted to grit my teeth and focus on being productive. It did not occur to me that I might welcome the sadness, or that it could be something good to experience. If being present to sadness is a kind of skill, it was one that I had never honed.
God often seemed absent that year. My sense of listlessness left me feeling distant from God more often than not.
Whenever it surfaced, this sense of distance distressed me, and it drove me to prayer. I really wanted to make it go away, to somehow return to positive feelings. So I would pray, remind myself of the truths of Scripture, confess my sin, and work hard. I did my best not to focus on the negative feelings, and instead tried to “stay positive.”
For all my efforts, though, disappointment and even anger kept bubbling up at inopportune times. My incapacity to reconcile myself to the challenges of my situation and the feelings they stirred up in me left me feeling divided from myself, confused, and bitter. Negative emotions were just that, a negative experience. I couldn’t find any more meaning than that in them.
Getting to Know Sadness
But another opportunity to return to this same set of feelings came to me a few years later. Katie’s health issues had reached a crisis point, and I was exhausted. I spoke with one of our pastors, and she encouraged me to see a counselor. I had never thought of myself as having the kind of problems that counseling is meant for, but I was experiencing so much pain at the time, the notion that maybe I was the kind of poor soul who needed counseling no longer seemed far-fetched. So, I decided to try it out.
When I began meeting with my counselor, I thought we would talk about how to “deal with” sadness and anger; I wanted to learn how to make them go away so I could be happy again, to get things done emotionally. But my counselor instead wanted me to take time to get to know these darker feelings. I had met them in Peru, but had left them as strangers. My counselor was now telling me they could become my friends. He encouraged me to make room for each feeling, paying attention to it. Rather than running away into work or other distractions, I could listen to fear, to anger, and to sadness.
I made a faltering attempt. When I noticed I was having a hard day, instead of venting about it in hopes of feeling better, I just sat with it for a while. I allowed myself to feel sad when sad things happened. If Katie came home with discouraging news from a doctor’s appointment, I wouldn’t immediately launch into a new task after talking with her. Instead, I would take a few minutes to journal and pray, noticing my responses. Paying attention to negative emotions wasn’t a purely novel concept for me, but as I got counseling, it was the first time I really began to welcome these feelings instead of trying to “fix” them.
As I began to welcome dark emotions, nothing dramatic happened at first. I spent more time paying attention to how I was feeling, more time journaling, more time talking to Katie and to friends and others about my emotional experience. There was no noticeable change, just a growing familiarity with my feelings.
Then one night, after a particularly discouraging day and an overwhelming fight with Katie, I found myself at the end of my rope. I felt immeasurably sad. I was finishing the day by reading a Psalm, and that day it happened to be Psalm 21, which begins, “O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices, and in your salvation how greatly he exults!” (ESV). I did not feel like rejoicing. But I did feel like I needed strength. The song “Please Be My Strength” by Michael Gungor came to mind. I decided to listen to it before continuing with my prayer time.
Please be my strength.
Please be my strength.
‘Cause I don’t have any more.
I don’t have any more.
As I listened, I wrote, “Even as I’m listening, I find myself resisting it. I’m not that kind of Christian — weak, powerless. I mean, God helps them and that’s beautiful, but I just don’t need that kind of help. I’m good. I’m ashamed to need that kind of help.” I wrote a few more words, and then I stopped, because something was happening to me. I was crying.
Tears can be a gift. That night, as I cried, I felt a closeness to the Lord in the middle of my sadness like I had not known before. It was the kind of closeness I had felt in the past when crying with someone safe, a feeling of being known and loved, and somehow helped even though nothing about the sad situation has changed. It was the gift of being weak, the gift of being a bad Christian. I did not measure up. I did not have it all together. And God was there, loving me.
Somehow, my pain had become a place where I could experience God’s love. It was as though I needed the warm-up of paying atten- tion to my emotions more intentionally for a few months before it was even possible for me to experience something like that. As I got to know my emotions for myself, I now could share them with God. I could find God in the sadness.
This new awareness of sadness changed the way I pray. The experience of being with God in tears allowed me to talk with him about sadness and other difficult emotions more readily. For the first time, Scripture passages that gave voice to grief or anger also gave voice to my own heart. I recall one Wednesday morning, about a year later, when Katie and I were in a place of conflict and distance. I felt weak. The Psalm in my reading plan that day opened like this:
How long, O LORD?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
Psalm 13:1-2 ESV
I wrote out the words in my journal and prayed them to the Lord. Although I was still in pain, I felt that he was listening, and that he cared for me and Katie. Even while the difficult situation was ongoing, even before I felt happy, I found that God was with me. I now knew that even in the depth of dark emotion, God would hold me fast. Sadness took on new meaning as it became an opportunity for connection with God. Pain was still painful, but it was no longer pointless. It was a place for the love of God.
- What dark emotions have you felt lately? Do you feel like you have the skill of welcoming sadness and other difficult feelings?
- What would it look like for you to sit with such feelings when they come up?
- Can you offer a prayer to God, voicing what you’re going through?
Photo by kilarov zaneit on Unsplash
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