I have been considering this post for months. I could get to a point that I thought I was ready… and then I’d totally lose my nerve. In the end, I’ll probably still fail to say fully what I want to.
I think positivity is something people cling to when they shouldn’t. I believe that sometimes we’re positive when we should be penitent, and doing so fights against the moving of the Holy Spirit.
I hope I don’t come across as overly cynical, although I certainly feel that way sometimes. As a defense to the saccharine-sweetness of triumphalism, maybe it’s justified.
Triumphalism: focusing on winning. Seeing losing as an activity without merit and without value. It’s running loose in the American church at this moment in history, and yet the church is seeing its influence diminish so steadily that we really have to start considering what life looks like now that America is becoming steadily more “Post-Christian.”
I know this puts Christians on the defensive. To say that you’re a part of something that isn’t powerful is like a punch in the gut, but that’s only because power has so deeply become our measure of success, we can’t disengage from it. Not even to re-engage with the man who said, “the last shall be first,” a pretty clear indication that winning is not what Christianity is about.
happy but dying
My wife and I host a small group at our home. We’ve done so for many years, and there was a young couple in our group a while back who were just about picture-perfect. Young, happy, full of insight, and really fun to be around.
And then they split up.
It seemed to come out of nowhere, a rift so out-of-character that it was like someone else had taken over their bodies. They did call for help a few times. In our group one night, while prayer requests were being floated, the husband said out of nowhere, “Pray for our marriage. Marriage is hard.” With the equivalent of a slap on the back and a cheery retort, we sent them on their way to die alone.
Sadly, that is exactly what they did. Not literally, but certainly spiritually. In the space of their little apartment, two people who looked perfect and definitely follow Jesus participated in a downward spiral that nobody stepped in to stop. Again they would ask for prayer. Again we would pray for them. Eventually, she was gone, he was crushed, and the rest of us wondered what just happened.
An idea was born in my mind that disturbed me. Had we neglected to help because we just wanted everything to be okay? Were we more intent on preserving an alternate dimension where things always worked out, where the problems weren’t deeply cancerous, that we lived there instead of in reality? That’s probably too extreme to be true. I hope it is. Still, I remember exactly how I felt the first time he spoke up. “They’ll be okay.” She looked embarrassed. Maybe that was it. Maybe we just wanted to save them the embarrassment of getting in their business, of them admitting they weren’t perfect. Of our making them mad. Or maybe we really didn’t want to get too close to the sadness.
the other colors
There’s a strange treatment of sadness in the churches I’ve been a part of. It’s something to be avoided; if it can’t be avoided, you should get over it as soon as possible. It’s like we’re chasing a Jesus who said, “Blessed are the gleeful, for they shall avoid depression.”
Interesting that he doesn’t include that in the list from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 (NLT):
3 God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
4 God blesses those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 God blesses those who are humble,
for they will inherit the whole earth.
6 God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
for they will be satisfied.
7 God blesses those who are merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
for they will see God.
9 God blesses those who work for peace,
for they will be called the children of God.
10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
…the picture here is of God joining the poor, the mourning, the humble. How else could God bless them, but be present beside them?
Thomas Moore, in his book, “Care of the Soul,” has an interesting take on depression. Check this out:
The soul presents itself in a variety of colors, including all the shades of gray, blue, and black. To care for the soul, we must observe the full range of all its colorings, and resist the temptation to approve only of white, red, and orange – the brilliant colors. The “bright” idea of colorizing old black and white movies is consistent with our culture’s general rejection of the dark and the gray. In a society that is defended against the tragic sense of life, depression will appear as an enemy, an unredeemable malady; yet in such a society, devoted to light, depression, in compensation, will be unusually strong.
Interesting that gray isn’t something to be cast out and thrown away, and trying to banish it only give it strength. It is part of the whole picture. Sadness, depression, and misfortune are as deeply rooted to spiritual formation as joy and happiness are. If you take a few moments to read Psalm 30, I think you’ll see some really interesting stuff. First, the header above this says, “A song for the dedication of the temple.” (I don’t know if this was for the dedication of the new, restored temple or not… David never got to do that. So maybe it’s a celebration of failure?) It’s a short psalm, but it has sections. First, David thanks God. Then David remembers God rescuing him. Then he praises God. Then he observes sadness. Then he remembers how weak he is without God. Then he remembers crying out to God for preservation. Then he asks God for help– twice. He ends with saying that God “turns mourning into dancing.” From my experience, we really key on that last phrase: turn my mourning into dancing. I’ve heard it dozens of time in church. It’s really interesting to see David’s full progression… that victories match defeats beat for beat, making an almost steady up-down-up-down in the rhythm of the Psalm.
And don’t forget what this was for: the dedication of the temple. The language seems personal. This was David taking his personal struggle to the temple and presenting it to God in an offering of thanks. No purging of the negative away from the positive. It all fit together because it was the whole picture of his experience with God.
making a place for sadness
Psalm 30 is a pretty good bellwether for the book of Psalms in general. It’s not a bunch of poetry, disengaged from the human experience. The Psalms are gritty and earthy and full of struggle. How can we make our churches more true to that tradition?
I think we must make a place for sadness. Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, often holds services for lament following a national tragedy. It’s a bit unexpected for a large, Protestant church, but there’s solidarity in that exercise. Weeping together is not only a biblical command, but it’s a practical benefit as well, showing a willingness to stand with our neighbors to cry out to God. It allows for the whole canon of emotion to be caught up in the moving of the Holy Spirit within the community.
I fear we cast out negativity at the cost of losing our place as those who must bring blessing to the world. Certainly, we have a supernatural joy which we believe is unique to believers, but how can a supernatural joy be threatened by the presence of sorrow? If our joy comes from God, then shouldn’t we demonstrate our faith in God by joining others in their sadness? Do we believe that our joy may never return if we get too close to suffering? Don’t we believe that Christ holds all things together and that he will continue to hold all things together with or without us?
That’s the kind of Savior I want to participate with. Not one who is somehow lessened because we’re not smiling. One who did weep with those who wept, who took joy into the midst of sorrow. Not to banish that sorrow, but to participate in it; to bring the community found between himself, his Father, and the Holy Spirit to speak in the midst of it. This is the savior we need. It’s the one we should be imitating.