When I was a little girl, I sang a song that went like this:
If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…
If you’re happy and you know it stomp your feet…
If you’re happy and you know it shout Amen…
When my girls were toddlers, we got a Christian video (I think it was The Donut Man? Anyone else remember him?) and it went the same way.
Then I took my kids to a playgroup at a local school, and it changed.
If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…
If you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet…
If you’re sad and you know it say Boo Hoo….
Wow. You’re allowed to have emotions other than happy? It was one of those wake up calls when I realized how important it was to help my girls identify their emotions and validate them. Being sad, being angry, feeling lonely, feeling apprehensive, none of these things are bad, in and of themselves. If we read Scripture, we see that Jeremiah was despondent; David was lonely and scared; Hannah was forlorn; even Jesus was apprehensive and lonely at the Garden of Gethsemane! And Jesus was definitely angry at the temple, when He drove the money changers out.
Emotions are not bad. Emotions are normal human responses to an imperfect world, and they signal to us that action may need to be taken. I want to give a few random thoughts about emotions today and try to wrap them up at the end.
I’ve been feeling recently that I don’t spend enough time with friends.
I talk to my girls quite a bit, and I live with my mom, and I’m great friends with my husband, so I have great people to chat with. But they’re all related to me. And I know that’s not healthy.
Keith and I thought that maybe we should join a small group at church this year since our lives have calmed down a bit (we’re not on the road speaking as much this year since we’re planning Katie’s wedding in February). So we tried one in September. But it just wasn’t a fit for us. Then I had this thought: I don’t really need to meet new people. What I need to do is spend time with those I already know and love but don’t have enough time with.
So I decided that I would start my own small group, just of friends. At our first meeting recently, I talked about a book I’d been reading recently, In the Middle of the Mess by Sheila Walsh. One thing Sheila (isn’t that a great name?) asks is if we as Christians too often feel as if there are only a few acceptable emotions to God, and that we have to be joyful and have it all together or else He’s upset.
I latched on to this, and I was talking about it with my friends, when one of them turned to me and said, “Do you always feel like God is disappointed in you?” Why, yes, I said. I thought everyone did. Turns out they don’t. My friends didn’t. But I did. So we started thinking about why. And I think it comes back to not really feeling, at heart, that I am good enough, which is likely a legacy of my parents’ divorce and my father’s abandonment. Some wounds are deep and stay with us, even when (as I learned when my father died in October) most of the inter-personal healing is done.
I do often feel like God is disappointed in me. Where does that stem from?
I found that Sheila Walsh explained it so well in her book, and I want to share a few excerpts with you to see if it resonates with you, too.
Sheila’s story is quite an amazing one. She was working hard for God. She was hosting a big Christian TV show. But inside she was falling apart, unable to maintain this happy face when she had such sadness and doubt. And so she had a nervous breakdown on live TV, and ended up in a psych ward for a few months afterwards. She finally was able to confront some deep wounds from her childhood (she believed that she was responsible for her father’s suicide, which occurred when she was 5). And in her healing journey, what she’s found is that she spent most of her life trying to do what she thought God wanted her to do, rather than trying to be honest before God.
For years I’ve kept a journal beside my Bible so that I may write down anything that I feel the Holy Spirit is saying about the text that day. Recently I looked at things I’d written in the past, and it was eye-opening. I was as truthful as I knew how to be when I wrote those words, but I question some of those insights now. Being raised in an extremely conservative church since I was a child, my knee-jerk response to most of life was to say the right thing, whether or not it felt true at the moment.
I wrote recently about an insight I had about forgiveness.
We often think that we need to forgive in order to be healed. But what if the order is the other way around? What if as we’re healed, we’re able to forgive?
And how does healing happen? We’re honest before God, we see God in the middle of the mess, we feel and learn truths about God, and then the healing comes.
Here’s what often happens when we read Scripture:
- We see Paul talking about how joyful he is in the midst of trials;
- So we feel that God wants us to be joyful in the midst of trials.
- Therefore, if we’re not joyful in the midst of trials, God must be mad at us.
But what if God’s joy is the result of encountering God, not the precursor to encountering God? What if we have the order all wrong?
Yes, God allows us to be joyful in the midst of trials. But that only happens once we encounter Him, and we can’t encounter Him without honesty. It’s okay to let our guard down. God doesn’t want us to ignore our pain or paper over it super fast so that we’re still a good witness. God wants us to experience Jesus in the middle of the pain.
Isn’t that freeing?
I’ve especially been ruminating on these paragraphs from the book. After the death of her mother, Sheila wrote about a miserable encounter she had on Facebook:
Comment after comment streamed through my feed, but the one that bothered me most came from a woman who wrote, “Just think how God is going to use this next part of your story for His glory, Hallelujah. Our pain is His purpose.” It read like the worst kind of bumper sticker. I wondered if she’d ever had any pain. I wondered if she had thought about what it would feel like to receive that advice if she had been the one to lose a dear family member. That’s when I recalled some advice from my friend, Barbara Johnson: “When the pain is the freshest, the words should be the fewest.” A woman left a heartbreaking response below the commenter’s bumper-sticker comment. She said that she had just lost a son and didn’t want God’s purpose. Instead, she wanted her boy back.
Looking at those comments, I thought back to the lies I believed from childhood and how they impacted my relationship with God and others. I spent so much of my life trying to bury the grief in appropriate Christian platitudes—Our pain is His purpose!—or squeeze it into a mold that resembled something hopeful or some testimony of resurrection. But burying the grief in good Christian slogans is only an avoidance tactic, and avoiding the truth is still a lie. Lies can cripple even the strongest legs.
If you’re struggling today with that idea that “your pain has a purpose”, I invite you to read In the Middle of the Mess. Meet the Jesus who wants to meet with you, even in the midst of your pain. No more happy faces all the time. No more avoidances.
Just the real you.