What emotions should a growing Christian display? As followers of Christ, how should we feel? What comes to mind?
Sometimes, these hashtags and feelings ring true for us. But they can also express what we as Christians think we should feel while our hearts tell a different story.
In several of my recent conversations with young women in my local church, they’ve expressed that they don’t feel like they have permission to be 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 going through a much harder time than them and conclude 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).
Understanding Negative Emotions
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 unpleasant or unhappy 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 those would be unproductive expressions of guilt.
Negative emotions can be godly or ungodly, depending on the motivations, thoughts, and circumstances. For an emotion to be sinful means that it goes against God and his commands. Consider examples such as bitterness, envy, resentment—these are feelings that go against God’s commands to love, forgive, and be content.
Understand the Example of Jesus
If you or someone close to you feels unable to express sadness over 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 by asphyxiation while the nail piercings radiated pain and inhibited his movement. Do we expect someone in these circumstances to proclaim that 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.’” -Matthew 26:39
“Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’” Matthew 26:42
Like Jesus, we can tell God that our circumstances are painful as well as ask him to change our situation. Whether it be our health, job situation, childlessness, singleness, or any other condition, we can bring our requests to God and 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 our sadness, is there a sense of yielding to the Lord? In doing so, we acknowledge that we don’t know what God knows. We don’t know the purpose or the why. We don’t know the future. We don’t know the domino effects of decisions and circumstances. Our 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 God allows suffering doesn’t mean he enjoys seeing his creation hurt. God the Father didn’t relish watching his Son die on the cross. Neither does he take delight in our pain.
Informing Our Understanding with Truth
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).
Meet the Author:
Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Young Adult Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, and she’s the author of It's Not Just You: Freeing Women to Talk about Sexual Sin and Fight It Well. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. When she's not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer's market or trying some new local restaurant.