(This article was published at Crosswalk.com)
Is your smile feeling a little strained lately? Worried that your joy cup doesn’t always “runneth over?” You might be relieved to know that God doesn’t expect Christians to be “happy” all the time. In fact, he fully expects us to experience sadness.
I know, sadness is not a “positive and encouraging” topic. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer. Certainly God isn’t asking us to live a sad life, but according to the Bible and scientific research, allowing ourselves to experience sadness actually activates good things that we need to be happy.
It turns out God designed sorrow to have surprising benefits for us and those around us.
I was struck by this thought one morning while reading David’s Psalm 22, the chapter that begins with the famous words Jesus repeated on the cross: “My God, My God, why are you so far from saving me…” The fact that this psalm (and all the others) is a work of art (poetry, song) that was intended for God’s people to recite as an act of worship in church, tells us that God not only sanctions the art form but also the form of expression: lament. Jesus affirmed this and the prophetic nature of this poetic lament, when he repeated David’s words in his darkest hour. According to the Bible and to Jesus, occasional sadness and lament is useful, normal, and even recommended.
Before we go any further, a disclaimer:
This discussion offers perspective on occasional sadness and sorrow, and is not meant to trivialize severe or prolonged sadness from loss or depression. Both can require therapy and/or medical attention. Depression can be a result of chemical imbalance that should be treated. Still, in dealing with these serious challenges we are assured that God will never leave us (Hebrews 13:5) and will provide strength in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:10). Ultimately, with time and perspective, we may discover that he works even these things out for our good.
So, the benefits of sadness:
1. Sadness can help us be well adjusted
When sadness presents itself, often the impulse is to immediately dismiss it or medicate it. But research shows that facing it will actually enable our brain to strengthen its ability to “reconfigure (sadness) into wisdom and grit,” and help us become well adjusted, well rounded people. According to Prevention Magazine,
When several psychologists asked nearly 2,400 people about their history of adverse experiences—everything from whether they’d been through a divorce or natural disaster to if they’d ever lost a loved one—they found that those who had faced some misfortune were actually more well-adjusted than those who’d had no bumps in the road at all. “Having to deal with challenges may toughen us up,” says Mark Seery, PhD, lead author and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, “and leave us better equipped to deal with subsequent challenges.”
2. Sadness helps us become more authentic and connected
David could’ve been a blues artist.
In the Psalms he and the other writers express their emotions with phrases like “my soul is full of trouble,” (Ps 88: 3) “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads,” (Ps.22:7) “I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow,”(Ps. 31:9) and many, many more. In fact, songs of lament outnumber every other type of psalm in the Bible. These weren’t meant just to be angst-ridden private prayers in David’s personal journal. They were written to be sung and recited in the community. In my Bible Psalm 22 is preceded by a note, “For the director of music. To the tune of ‘The Doe of the Morning.’ A psalm of David.” David starts by proclaiming his anguish, sure that God has abandoned him. But God did recognize and hear those cries, and in fact treasured them. And by having his Son speak them on the cross, he was saying to everyone who ever cried out in pain, and everyone who ever will, that it is OK. He hears and cares.
It’s true the world can be a scary and depressing place, and that Christ provides an antidote to that. We can be encouraged and uplifted by the presence of “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”(Col. 1:27) Jesus has overcome the power of sin and death, and in the afterlife there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4) I cling to these truths as billions of other Christians have throughout the ages.
But contrary to what is sometimes conveyed in the evangelical world, God does not ask us to maintain a constantly upbeat and smiling persona in order to attract others to Christ. (That is actually the Holy Spirit’s job. (Jn. 16:68, Jn. 6:44)) To not acknowledge sorrow in our lives, not be present to it and in it, is to deny an important and beneficial aspect of life and faith, and God’s intentional design for our emotions. Appropriate sadness is a sign of a healthy person. God uses the experience of sadness to mold us into healthy, humble, relatable people, and authentic Christians.
3. Sadness can grow our faith
Experiencing sadness can motivate us to fight for joy. And that can involve locking on to the promises of the scripture to get us through. Romans 12:2 indicates we can actually be “transformed by the renewal of your mind,” cleansing our mind and making room for faith when we meditate on verses like:
- “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Nehemiah 8:10
- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4
- “Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ, for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38
- “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalms 46:1
- “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalms 147:3
Persevering through sadness will set us on a path that always leads to hope. “…Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us…” (Romans 5: 3-5)
4. Sadness spurs change
Sadness can be an indicator that something in our life needs to be addressed. And the desire to overcome that sadness can be an excellent motivator for change. Research shows that:
When we feel happy, we naturally want to maintain that happy feeling. Happiness signals to us that we are in a safe, familiar situation, and that little effort is needed to change anything. Sadness, on the other hand, operates like a mild alarm signal, triggering more effort and motivation to deal with a challenge in our environment.
Thus, people who are happier will sometimes be less motivated to push themselves toward action compared to someone in a negative mood, who will be more motivated to exert effort to change their unpleasant state.
Of course, one of the ways that God brings about important change in us is through the sadness brought on by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. When we respond to that conviction with change, we often—sometimes even immediately–experience a strong sense of joy. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret…” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
5. Sadness increases empathy
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is extremely important for a Christian. It helps us relate to others with gentleness and kindness. Jesus modeled it when at Lazarus tomb, he “saw her (Lazarus’ sister) weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”(John 11:33). Allowing ourselves to feel and deal with sadness creates empathy for others in difficult situations. If we’ve experienced it, we are more likely to be patient with someone who is going through it. As 1 Peter 3:8 says, “Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.”
A recent article in Psychology Today referenced a test in which subjects who were exposed to even fictional sadness became more empathetic. The study compared people who had just watched a sad film and people who had just watched a happy film. The sad film viewers were more polite and compassionate in their interactions with others than the happy film viewers, who tended to be more oblivious and self-focused. If you were looking for an excuse to binge-watch Lifetime and Hallmark channel weepers, there it is: you’re increasing your empathy quotient.
6. Sadness can lead to compassionate action
Of course, empathy can lead to compassionate action on behalf of others. In fact, most of us might not act for others if we didn’t experience sadness at their plight. Think about it; nearly every charity that organization addresses suffering–whether its homelessness, human trafficking, or third world orphans–actives our compassion by first touching our sadness.
Sadness can also activate compassionate action in the form of intercessory prayer. If you’ve ever had a “burden” for someone, you know it’s essentially a sense of sadness. That sensation of sadness is an intense motivator to pray; a gift from the Holy Spirit that benefits the people or situations you pray for. It’s not uncommon, after pushing in to intercession, that there will be a point when that sadness lifts and I feel the intercession is done. I’ll often experience a unique release of joy in that moment.
7. Sadness increases our ability to experience joy
Jesus, the “man of sorrows” is our prime example of appropriate sadness. In addition to not hiding his emotions at Lazarus’ tomb, he was “troubled in spirit” when he alluded to Judas’ betrayal (John 13:21). On the eve of his crucifixion, he said “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matthew 26:38). Thorough experiencing sadness, he proved he could empathize with us, with our condition. He did this for a reason; so that we’d, “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
Sadness isn’t meant to be permanent, but recognizing it, learning from it, expressing it, and releasing it will actually lead to joy. The Psalmist acknowledged, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” In fact all of the psalms of lament end with the hope of joy, which points to the fact that sadness, although part of our journey, is not our destination. Joy is. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
So the next time you experience a touch of sadness, instead of immediately dismissing it, why not look for benefit in it? You might try asking God some of these questions: Are you trying to help me to be more balanced? More authentic? Are you trying to grow my faith? Does something need to change? Are you calling me to be more empathetic? More compassionate? Would you like me to intercede for something? You might be surprised how sadness can have remarkable positive benefits for you the people around us.
It’s God’s design; paying attention to sadness will ultimately increase your joy.
J. Scott McElroy is the author of Finding Divine Inspiration (Destiny Image) and The Creative Church Handbook: Releasing the Power of the Arts in Your Congregation (InterVarsity Press). He blogs at JScottMcElroy.com. Reach him at Scott(at)TheNewR.org