When We Feel Sad
Adrian Reynolds reflects on receiving some bad news and explains why it's okay to be sad.
This last week we heard some tragic news. We often do in the FIEC office. Sometimes these are personal. Sometimes they’re about a pastor who’s got into difficulty; other times an initiative that’s failed to get going.
The particular details in this case don’t matter, but it came a little out of the blue and knocked us back a bit. Reflecting on the way I responded, I hope I did so in a godly way. I was certainly not angry with God, nor struggling with disbelief (though those are real emotions Christians go through). But I was incredibly sad.
At first, I felt a bit guilty about my sadness. Should I really feel this way? After all, God is sovereign and works “all things in conformity with the purpose of his will.” That’s a pretty comprehensive statement. Moreover, his power is matched with perfect wisdom, so not only is he in control of all things, but he knows what he is doing, and his plans are good and holy.
Dare I feel sad?
Yes. It’s okay to be sad. And here’s why.
First, applying a Christian worldview, we need to understand that we live in a fallen world. The world is not as God created it to be and the Fall has impacted more than just my heart. It has affected the world itself (Gen 3:17-19) and our living in it. In ways which I can hardly imagine, the entire creation is longing for the second coming just as much as I ought to be (Rom 8:22). This is especially true of death – an interloper in God’s “very good” creation. We are right to feel sad about the way that his perfect, marvellous, beautiful creation has been marred and scarred by sin.
Second, Jesus himself – the perfect man – felt sadness. I think that’s what is going on in John 11:33-35. Of course, it’s possible to argue away Jesus’ emotion and make it more coldly about a lack of belief on the part of Mary, but that seems to miss the plain meaning. Jesus understands the world perfectly, and the death of his friend Lazarus moves him to tears, for it reflects the brokenness of the world. And as the perfect man, Jesus ‘authorises’ this sadness.
Third, the song book of the Messianic King (otherwise known as Psalms) also equips us to feel this way. It gives us words and sentiments to convey to God in such times. We share this song book with The King, none other than Jesus himself. Carl Trueman is surely right to point us towards the Psalms as authorising this kind of response (see What Can Miserable Christians Sing?) and vocalising some of our pain.
Of course, we need to be careful. Too often godly responses cross over to, or are mixed in with, ungodly ones. Sadness, in particular, can quickly become self-pity and this is one of the ugliest sins in believers.
Nonetheless, sadness is okay.
I feel that we as Christian leaders have failed to grasp this. We think that happiness is therapeutic. I remember a tragic youngster’s funeral in which the coffin was brought in to a jolly tune and everyone was encouraged to be happy. The planning was well meant, of course, but at some level it glossed over the ‘wrongness’ of what had happened and – though I am no psychologist – kept people from being able to grieve. I would personally see rather fewer ‘thanksgiving’ services at death and a few more old-fashioned sad funerals.
It’s okay to be sad
And it’s especially so because this God-given emotion makes us cry out “Amen! Come Lord Jesus.” Happiness is also a God given emotion and a wonderful one of which I’m very fond. But if we respond with exuberant joy to the broken circumstances of this world, we will never hope for something better to come.
The Israelites knew this. In exile, they sang their sad songs (Psalm 137) and longed for a better place. Sadness is not only the right way to respond to the brokenness of the world, but it makes us long for a time without tears, grief, crying and pain (Rev 21:4). If we can’t help or allow our people to be sad and weep with them, then we are robbing them of the reality of the Christian life and the desire for a new heaven and new earth.
Amen! Come Lord Jesus.