What emotions should a growing Christian display? As followers of Christ, how should we feel? What comes to mind?
Is this what you described (with or without the hashtags)?
I’ve had several conversations recently with young women in my local church where they’ve expressed not feeling like they have permission to feel sad about circumstances in their life, particularly because of God’s sovereignty. (For example, if I’m currently single, then it must be God’s will for my life right now, and if it’s God’s will, then I shouldn’t be sad about it.) Or they compare themselves to someone who’s going through a much harder time than them and tell themselves that they should be grateful for how good they have it, all the while continuing to carry their anxiety or grief (but now also feeling guilty for it because of comparison).
Is it an expression of faithlessness to feel sadness, anger, fear, or any number of “negative” emotions? What does it look like to be faithful with our feelings? Does a “good Christian” only let herself feel “positive” emotions (happy, hopeful, thankful, peaceful, content, etc.)?
To clarify, there’s a difference between negative emotions and ungodly emotions. Name an emotion that’s unpleasant or unhappy. Simply put, that’s a negative emotion. But just because an emotion is unhappy or unpleasant doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sinful.
Anger, fear, sadness, guilt—emotions such as these can be productive and healthy to feel. They have a place. For example, if we feel guilty for sin and respond to the Holy Spirit’s conviction by seeking God’s forgiveness and turning from that sin—that’s a healthy sense of guilt for the wrong that we’ve done. That emotion is meant to point us to our need for the Lord. But if we wallow in guilt for something we’ve already asked the Lord to forgive, if we don’t turn to Him with our sin, or if we assume guilt for something that’s not sinful (or isn’t our guilt to bear because the guilt belongs to someone else), then these would be unproductive expressions of guilt. Negative emotions can be godly or ungodly, depending on the motivations, thoughts, and circumstances.
Coming back to the question of whether we as Christians are allowed to feel sad about God’s will, consider the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:37 tells us that Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled” in the hours leading up to His arrest; He even mentioned feeling “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38).
The Greek words used in these verses indicate Jesus felt distress, grief, intense sorrow, and heaviness. Now, Jesus knew the cross was before Him, and His death and resurrection had been God’s plan all along. Yet the experience of living out God’s will wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine for Him. It was the torture of being whipped, the humiliation of hanging naked on a cross, and the agony of death with His lungs filling with fluid while the nail piercings radiated pain and inhibited His movement. Do we expect someone in these circumstances to be proclaiming they feel #blessed?
In Matthew 26-27, Jesus felt negative emotions but was sinless in His expression of them. He also didn’t fake fine—either to Himself or to His close friends. But what Jesus did with His negative emotions is instructive for us—He went to God with His feelings and yielded Himself to the Father’s will.
“And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’”
“Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’”
Like Jesus, we can tell God that our circumstances aren’t our preference or desire as well as ask Him to change our situation. Whether it be our health, job situation, childlessness, singleness, or any other conditions, we can bring our requests to God, and we can be honest with Him about how we feel. (He already knows anyway, so we may as well acknowledge it to Him.)
We can lament the brokenness we experience in ourselves, our relationships, and our world. But in the midst of doing this, is there a sense of yielding to the Lord? In doing so, I’m acknowledging that I don’t know what God knows. I don’t know the purpose or the why. I don’t know the future. I don’t know the domino effects of decisions and circumstances. My understanding is limited; His isn’t.
I’m writing this in a week filled with grief and death. Hospice being called. Death of a friend’s dad. A young life cut short by cancer. Cancer aggressively ravaging the body of another dear one.
While there’s certainly hope, comfort, and peace because of Christ, this is a week of feeling helpless while watching loved ones suffer and feeling loss when they pass. But having peace and joy as a Christian doesn’t mean I must paste a fake smile on my face and pretend not to feel sad about cancer, COVID, and death.
Just because God uses our suffering doesn’t mean it’s part of His good design. And just because He allows suffering doesn’t mean He enjoys seeing His creation hurt. He didn’t relish watching His Son die on the cross. Neither does He take delight in our pain.
When we suffer, we should be careful not to allow our circumstances to interpret God but to let God’s Word guide us in interpreting our circumstances. Remembering truth about God and the gospel is part of what it looks like to pivot toward Him in our pain. Trusting in Him doesn’t mean we have to pretend everything is hunky-dory, for we can feel sad, have questions, and even wrestle with doubt and still be trusting in Him. Ultimately, we express our trust and hope when we turn to Him with our emotions and cares, believing Scripture when it says we can cast all our anxieties on God “because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).