Growing up, my friends and I were pretty much in the “happy-and-you-know-it” camp. At Vacation Bible School we sang the happy-face song, stomping our feet and clapping our hands in rhythm before shouting “Amen!” As teenagers we learned the secret of joy (a topic for another column) because that’s what we were all about. We had the joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.
I’m not so sure about all of that now. The trouble isn’t in finding deep joy in our faith. The trouble comes when joy is used as the barometer of faith. Doing so marks those who are sad or depressed as less than faithful. In its most direct expression, this joy-centric faith tells people if they are sad or depressed then it’s their fault; they just need to pray harder, trust more and have more faith.
In a slightly more subtle expression, people are made to feel guilty for even having such emotions. If we truly believed in God, how could we be sad?
“The trouble isn’t in finding deep joy in our faith. The trouble comes when joy is used as the barometer of faith.”
Such a joy-centric theology betrays us. It splits feelings into “good” or “bad,” “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Such labeling can make us feel shame for our “weakness” in succumbing to the “unacceptable” feelings. When we feel shame, we try to distance ourselves from these emotions and never admit them to anyone (most of all ourselves).
Shutting ourselves off from difficult feelings, we wind up distancing ourselves from the joyful, fun and happy feelings as well. It’s like the paper guide in my printer; slide one side in and the other side moves in as well. We cannot live the fullness of life that God intended with only half of our selves.
We have painful and difficult feelings because sometimes life is painful and difficult. I was getting a few things at the grocery store when the young woman behind the checkout counter commanded me to smile. That morning my mother had unexpectedly been moved to ICU and in a day or two we’d be making the decision to take her off life support. No, I wasn’t going to smile.
We have painful and difficult feelings because sometimes they are the best way our hearts and souls have of getting our attention. Working with clients for many years, I’ve seen such feelings emerge as markers of old griefs that have gone too long unacknowledged and unattended. They are nudges that our work doesn’t work anymore or that a relationship isn’t healthy anymore. They are an alarm going off that our lifestyle doesn’t bring us life. More and more research is helping us understand that depression is multifaceted and can spring from an interplay of how we think, how we eat, how we move, how we sleep, etc.
“If we truly believed in God, how could we be sad?”
Sometimes we have painful, difficult feelings because that is where our souls feel most at home. This is not because we are some kind of spiritual masochists but because all of the hand clapping, feet stomping and amen shouting never resonated with us. Following the death of his wife, church historian Martin Marty wrote a beautiful book entitled A Cry of Absence. Marty delves into the psalms of lament as a counter to American Christianity’s incessant praise band culture. He draws a distinction between “summer” and “winter” spirituality.
Christians with summer spirituality are the ones giving the testimonies about their joy in Jesus. We look to them as examples of great faith. By contrast, winter spirituality people are seldom asked to share their testimony because who wants to hear about all that doubt and not knowing? Those with winter spirituality may wonder if they really do believe because the mountaintop is never a part of their faith journeys. And yet, Marty argues, their faith is just as real and valid as any other, just sung in a different key. He finds their kin in the psalms of lament.
When we model and teach only one season of faith in our congregational life and worship, we give the implicit message that only one season is acceptable. The result is that some Christians feel forced to put on a happy face in order to participate – or they choose not to attend at all.
Ken Medema sings of authentic Christian community and worship in “If This Is Not a Place”:
If this is not a place where tears are understood
where can I go to cry…?
If this is not a place where my questions can be asked
where can I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my heart cries can be heard
where can I go to speak?