Inside (Out) the Christian Life, Sadness and Depression

45173My family and I love most of the Pixar movies. We haven’t seen The Good Dinosaur yet, but Inside Out was no exception.

Inside Out tells the story of 11-year old Riley and her family as they move from the midwest to San Francisco. But there’s a catch. Most of the movie takes place inside Riley’s head and the main characters are five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

I don’t want to drop too many spoilers but let’s just say that the plot takes a twist when Joy tries to prevent Sadness from having too much influence over Riley. In fact, much of the conflict revolves around Joy trying to limit Sadness’ influence.

The assumption, of course, is that it is “better” to be happy than sad. So much so that Joy is willing to pursue this agenda even at the cost of betraying Sadness, generally belittling her and suggesting that Sadness has little to offer and generally made things worse. The optimal state, according to Joy and many of us is happiness.

Most of us would probably agree. We would say that we would rather be happy than sad. After all, Americans have dedicated our country to “the pursuit of happiness.” We deserve to be happy, right? Happiness means that things are better.

And it seems that much of this mindset has found its way into “American Christianity” (moralistic therapeutic deism). Whether it’s Joel Osteen telling us that we deserve our “best life now” because we’re children of God or local megachurches promising people they can “win at life,” much of “American Christianity” seems barely one-step removed from simply wanting to make people feel good about themselves.  Our worship gatherings resemble rock concerts and our preachers mimic self-help snakeoil-men.

But, of course, one of the things that makes Inside Out brilliant is that everyone, including Joy, is forced to not only accept Sadness but cherish her. Because, they realize that, without sadness, empathy is next to impossible. Without sadness, happiness is simply a hollow masking over of the circumstances. Without sadness, we’re willing to make harmful choices to keep up the thrill of “happiness”. We may not long for sadness but we cannot truly grow without it.

I wonder, then, why so little of “Christian worship” welcomes sadness into the chorus. After all, isn’t our “worship music” supposed to be an extension and elevation of the everyday? Then why is it all in major keys? Life is not always joyful and triumphant. Sometimes you feel as though you’ve been kicked one too many times and you’re just not sure you’ll get up this time and you just need to sing, “How long do I have to wait patiently for you, God?”  Where are the songs that acknowledge that God’s help may not come until the morning (Psalm 46:5) and the sun feels as though it’s barely set.

We have equated worship with a positive emotional response because we have come to understand that faith in Jesus is ultimately about making us happy. We have signposts everywhere telling us that we’re on the wrong path. But it’s so smooth and everyone else is on it. You really want me to go through that narrow gate that hardly anyone else is going through to that really difficult looking path (Matthew 7:13-14)?

But a faith that serves primarily to make its holder happy is not a faith that will stand the storm (Matthew 7:24-27). We even have “Christian counseling” movements that tell people that their depression/anxiety, etc. is a result of sin. And they’re simply compounding sin if they take medication to deal with their already sinful sin of disbelief that God’s Word is not somehow sufficient to deal with their unrepented sin which caused their depression in the first place.

We have pushed sadness and depression and anxiety and frustration beyond the city gates because they just bring us down, man. But following Jesus is so beautiful because it envelops all of life. Of course there is a place for sadness and of course Jesus can see us through it because He himself wept (John 11:35). Jesus could have simply told his friends that “God works in mysterious ways” and that He was working even this difficult situation for their good and rebuke the sadness. But He didn’t. He wept. Because sadness is real and must be accepted because it gives depth, it makes us richer, it brings us closer, it gives us empathy and shows us the true value of happiness when it comes. It also reminds us that it’s not realistic or healthy to expect to be happy all of the time.

I’m not sure what it looks like but I want a Christianity that’s ministry to me when I’m sad is not just to point out the reasons I should be happy or to rebuke for the reasons I’m not. There may certainly be times when rebuke is necessary but I wonder how much richer our faith would be if we were simply willing to meet with people in their sadness and sit with them? What if more of our songs, sermons and gathered worship helped us understand sadness and depression rather than try to give us tips to avoid them?

Maybe it means writing more worship songs in minor keys? Maybe it means simply reading more of the Psalms together? Maybe it means more preachers admitting that following Jesus is sometimes really difficult and it will not always feel like our “best life now”? Maybe it means recognizing that there are parts of the Bible that we’d rather skip over? Maybe it means that it won’t be until we values the lows as much as the highs that our faith truly means anything in the everyday?

Am I the only one who feels like “American Christianity” deserves the Flanders stereotype? I guess if I am, I’ve got issues other than depression to work through. But if I’m not, I wonder why so many churches seem to take the same approach. I’d love your thoughts.

In the meantime, here’s a unique take on a “Christian classic”:

6 thoughts on “Inside (Out) the Christian Life, Sadness and Depression

  1. Hi Brent, I’ve read your blog for a long time, even before you moved here, but rarely commented.

    It seems what you’re asking for is a Christianity in which people inside the body of Christ are authentic with one another. That term “authentic” has gotten misused, so in this context, I mean that people don’t put on the same fake front we are often forced to when we operate in the world. That it is okay to answer the question “how are you?” with “I’m really struggling and could use someone to listen and care.” The only way that would happen is an authentic “church,” one in which people were transparent and living in the real perspective that this life is filled with suffering, and that even Christians (though we are called to joy) can suffer with things like depression, doubt, etc. For me at least the problem is that you enter a church and everyone’s got shiny, happy faces on, so there’s no room for anyone to feel bad. Everyone has something. Why don’t we care more? I know it’s an effort, but still. We are called to love one another in this way. I want real fellowship with people who are willing to tell the truth and to whom I can tell the truth and know I won’t get the thousand yard stare or the surreptitious looking around the room for an escape.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughts, Jennifer.

      That’s exactly what I’m asking for.

      I’ve come to believe that most (well-intentioned) church programs exist because real relationships don’t. The main thing we’ve been called to is discipleship which happens best in relationships, not church classrooms. Since programs/classes are not real life, they’re not designed or equipped to deal with people’s real lives so we default by pretending everything is fine.

  2. Love this! When I was going through a time of just wanting to give up because Hudson’s health was so poor, I let our elders know how I felt. I actually told them how angry and sad I was that God wasn’t “fixing” my son. Do you know what they did? One of them came over and just cried with me! He actually sat with me and said, “I’m so sorry that you’re going through this,” and then he did the most amazing thing. He talked to me about how Jesus wept in the garden and also begged God to take away his circumstances too. He told me that Jesus wept and begged God perfectly on my behalf so that I didn’t have to wonder whether my grief was acceptable to God. It was ok for me to be sad about where life was at because Jesus was PERFECTLY sad in my place. He encouraged me to find joy in Jesus as my priest who truly did know how I felt. Where are those pastors? Where are more of those people who are just willing to come over and actually weep with you but encourage you with the sorrow of Jesus? That conversation has and continues to remind me that God is near to the broken-hearted. He isn’t scared of my sadness because he went through it.

  3. Thanks for your post Brent. You certainly aren’t alone in your assessment of the American church. We need pastors and leaders to re-read Hinds Feet in High Places on High Places where sorrow and suffering we the companions that the shepherd prescribed.

    We (the church) have bought into the consumer model that says come and eat and be happy and there’s no room for regret, sorrow, or lasting pain that stays for weeks or months. We need to keep people happy so they keep on serving and giving, so they can help grow the church and keep the machine going. There’s no time for resting or taking a break because of suffering.

    We need posts like these to be more common and yes we need worship songs in minor keys and times of worship that rebuild into the body of Christ a liturgy or sorrow and suffering. We need to learn to grieve with those who are grieving and create new, alternative ways of worshiping in minor keys and letting sadness be able to do it’s slow and beautiful work. After all, it’s death that is at the heart of the life of discipleship, and with our leader, Christ Jesus, we know that the tomb will become a womb.

  4. Linnea Hanold Baker

    I completely agree, Brent. I am a Mental Health Educator/ Counselor AND worship leader. I have tried leading worship Strongs that truly express struggles in life (some in minor chords that I’ve written! Haha) and was asked by my pastor not to do that anymore. That worship is for celebration. I agree it is for celebration but it is also coming to Jesus just as we are, as David the Psalmist did. Thank you for addressing this.
    ~Linnea Hanold Baker

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