Christian, It’s OK to Be Sad


Jesus wept

Jesus wept.
—John 11:35 ESV

Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, had died, and Jesus felt the pain.

Jesus knew Lazarus would rise again soon. He knew the man’s two sisters would rejoice at that resurrection. Yet Jesus wept anyway. Sadness gripped Him in that moment despite all He knew was to come.

We Christians know we have a heavenly Kingdom awaiting us. We know every tear will be wiped away. We know we will live eternally in the presence of the Lord. We know the joy will last forever.

Christian, in this world, it’s OK to be sad.

We all know believers who go around perpetually cheerful, even in those situations when it is better to weep than smile. Frankly, those people are a scourge. They are positive thinkers rather than true believers. They’ve bought into a Pollyanna mentality that the Scriptures do not support.

Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
—Ecclesiastes 7:3 ESV

I dare any mentally healthy person to find anything good to say about a child dying. Who can go around cheery when a family member makes damaging choices again and again? What good can be found when a lifelong dream dies? Or when that hopeful union dissolves in tears and anger?

In this world, it’s OK to be sad. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
—Acts 8:2 ESV

Today, we rush to medicate people so they will not be forced to deal with sadness. We prefer the daze to sober reality. Escape over truth. To “make great lamentation” over anything is seen as problematic.

This downplaying of sadness is a frightening trend though.

Something in sadness restores a sober view of life. It forces us to confront pain and grow through it. When I look at the lives of the greatest believers I have known, the most distinguishing mark is their fidelity to Christ in the midst of overwhelming personal sadness. Whatever their experience might of been, they came out of it stronger, wiser, better. And because of their journey, they could impart a wisdom gained only by facing sadness and making it a part of their life.

Where we go wrong today in dealing with sadness is by not only medicating our sadness but also allowing it to become an idol in our lives. I wonder if our attempts to rid ourselves of sadness only perpetuates its stay. Better to walk through it with eyes wide open than to sleepwalk into the midst of it and then camp there.

What distinguishes the Christian response to sadness from the world’s is that Christians, by gaining Christ, have gained hope.

Depression is the scourge of our age. While some people suffer through it because of chemical imbalances, I believe we become depressed when we enthrone sadness. That idol not only changes the way we think, it rewires our brains physically. It’s as if sadness takes up residence by making our brains its home, remodeling the dwelling to suit its needs.

The hope we have in Christ wars against the idol of abiding sadness. It is OK to be sad, but like so much in life, we cannot let that feeling own us, because it will if we let it.

Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not OK to be sad.

But don’t let sadness make you its dwelling place either.

We have our own, better Dwelling Place and a mansion in Glory awaiting us. Sadness won’t last forever. Hope is ours always. Embrace it.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust– there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
—Lamentations 3:21-33 ESV



Between the silence of the mountains
And the crashing of the sea
There lies a land I once lived in
And she’s waiting there for me
But in the grey of the morning
My mind becomes confused
Between the dead and the sleeping
And the road that I must choose

I’m looking for someone to change my life
I’m looking for a miracle in my life
And if you could see what it’s done to me
To lose the love I knew
Could safely lead me to
The land that I once knew
To learn as we grow old
The secrets of our soul

–Excerpt from “Question” by The Moody Blues


In searching for some factoid last week, I stumbled into a piece about The Moody Blues and their top songs, one of which is “Question” (shown in the excellent video above).

I always liked that song. The plaintiveness of the question that erupts from the heart of the singer resonates.

Many people are looking at life right now and asking how it is we are where we are. Beyond the questions that afflict us all comes that one individual query, the one that haunts a lot of us who scout our personal situations and ask what happened to that place of refuge and hope from long ago, that “land that I once knew.”

I turn 50 in a few weeks, and I guess that’s good enough time as any to get introspective. Now more than ever, I run into fellow travelers paralyzed by the search for the land they once knew, for someone to change their lives, for some miracle to happen that will forever alter the inevitability of the road they find themselves on, the road that winds through the grey mists of morning that lead into forgetfulness and loss.

How is it that some people seem to find their mission and fulfill it, while other people look and look and yet the road never makes itself clear?

How is it that some people can clearly see where they have come from and where they are going, yet they never quite get to their destination?

How is it that some people find the opposition to their entire journey so strong that it never truly begins?

Where the trouble for me begins is that I know a lot of Christians who are stuck in these No Man’s Land locations. For whatever reason, they’ve been sidelined. All those things they hoped to do now seem less likely than ever. The vision that lit up their early lives now flickers, a cooling ember inside a broken heart. You can see that cool nostalgia in their eyes and hear the tremor in their voices when they tell their stories, especially when they reflect on what might have been.

Some wonder how it was that they had a yearning for foreign missions, yet every opportunity to do those missions blew up or met with seemingly pointless resistance.

Some wanted nothing more than to work with young people, yet the vicissitudes of life kept pulling them away, and now they no longer understand youth.

Some wanted to change the world for Christ, yet they got drawn into the embrace of the American Dream and saw their youth and enthusiasm sucked dry by it.

And some reflect on it all and wonder if they are the ones who put their hands to the plow but then looked back. And they wonder if there is any redemption for that very human failing, a second chance, a ticket back to that land they once knew, where they could start again and do it all right this time.

I think there are a lot of people who found that Someone who changed their life. And yet the finding somehow didn’t shield them from broken hopes and dreams, especially when those hopes and dreams were to be all they could be for that Someone.

There is no joy being caught in that time of discernment yet unable to tell the difference between the dead and the sleeping.  When the road we take from here seems obscured. I don’t know what to say to people when I see them struggling to find how to move on when there appears to be no place to move to. I hope that whatever words come out of my mouth have some of God’s life in them, but I don’t know myself how to answer the questions of how one finds himself here, because I’m not so sure of my own location.

At this point in my life, I wonder about systems and how people end up mired in them. Government, institutional religion, personal expectations, other people’s expectations– they seem to conspire to cloud rather than clarify. And the “land that I once knew” seems farther off than ever.

What do you do when you tried to do everything right by God and yet it led to this far off place that feels so alien and removed from where you think you should be?

I wish I had an answer to that question. I wonder if it lies back in that land we once lived in, but I don’t know how we get back there.


See also:

Sadness, Depression, and the Christian


He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
—Isaiah 53:3-4 ESV

It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
—Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 KJV

We live in an age when sadness is under assault.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a fellow Christian. At one point, I brought up some of the sadness I felt over the state of the world 2010 and some genuine losses in my life and the lives of family members. In the course of the discussion, he mentioned antidepressants.

Back in the dark ages of 40 years ago, depression was considered a debilitating mental illness. To be diagnosed with depression, one had to be nearly nonfunctional, unable to perform even simple tasks, such as getting out of bed in the morning. I had a college professor who talked about losing three entire years to crippling depression. He said he couldn’t think and could barely lift himself out of his favorite chair. Depression had rendered him completely inert.

I like to listen to Science Friday on NPR. Recently, they did a program on depression. During the interview, the two experts discussed the explosion of cases of depression diagnosed today and the reality that antidepressants are the most common drug prescribed, with one person out of every 15 in America taking them. And those numbers are growing.

Those experts noted disconcertingly that pharmaceutical company marketing departments helped manufacture much of the need, dramatically reducing the threshold for what is considered depression. Doctors bought into that marketing. Now, we have created an atmosphere of  “Sad? Well, there’s a pill for that.”

In effect, in many cases, we are using drugs to eliminate ordinary sadness.

A friend who works with mentally ill children attended a recent symposium. He later wrote that an expert on depression divulged that for most people, if left to a natural grief-resolution process that omits drugs, feelings of sadness equated to “depression” typically fade away on their own in about nine months. Intriguingly, that expert works for a drug company that sells antidepressants.

Something is terribly wrong in our society when we are unable to separate normal sadness from debilitating depression.

March 29 is turning out to be a sad date on the calendar for me. My mom, a woman greatly loved by everyone who knew her, died on that date nine years ago. In one of those terrible synchronicities of life, I got the news that the man who led me to Christ, the most Spirit-filled person I ever met, and the one whose life still serves as my example of what it means to be a Christian, died yesterday. He mentored me in what it means to live by the Spirit and to listen to what God is saying. He loved people unconditionally. God spoke to him and used him to always give a word in season. Fred Gliem was 90.

Even though Fred lived a full life and impacted many for the Kingdom, his death makes me sad.

Some Christians out there don’t like sadness. Like the society around them, they want to replace sadness with a sort of Pollyanna-ish happiness that never abates lest one discredit the joy of having Christ dwell in one richly. I hear about Christians who want to turn every funeral into a cause for celebration. Honestly, I wonder what those folks are smoking.

Here’s what the Bible says is the reaction of Spirit-filled people to the death of one of their own:

Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.
—Acts 8:2

Those devout men knew their friend was in the arms of Jesus. Still, they wept and wailed over his tragic loss.

I think one of the reasons why so few people know how to deal with sadness, why some want to toss medications at those who are sad, is because our worldviews allow no place for anything less than individual fulfillment and happiness. Sadness and grief are rendered deviant emotions.

Sadness also demands a response from others. While many emotions can go without comment, sadness can’t. Sadness asks for comfort. And comfort means availability.

Do we make time for the sad and grieving? Or do we prefer they pop a few happy pills and stop bothering us?

Job’s friends are almost universally reviled because God chastised them for speaking while ignorant of the facts. But one thing God did not do was criticize Job’s friends for their dedication to their stricken friend:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
—Job 2:11-13

Seven days and nights Job’s friends stayed with him—before they even said a word. They mirrored Job’s grief, tearing their robes and weeping as they took on the dust of his despair.

When was the last time you or I heard of anyone showing such devotion to a friend in his or her time of sadness? Isn’t our tendency instead to quote Romans 8:28 and casually discount another’s abyss? Man of SorrowsHaven’t we become people who blithely say, “You know, they have a pill for that,” so we can go on with our lives, make our next business meeting on time, and not be bothered by the natural outcome of living in a sin-soaked world?

If one of Christ’s titles were not “The Man of Sorrows,” how could we ever claim that He was fully human? No, we know Jesus was well acquainted with sadness. He did not run from that emotion. How then can we?

The Scriptures say that the fool’s heart is always in the house of mirth. The fool learns nothing of the breadth of life’s truths, including the truth that sadness serves a purpose. From its depths come a kind of wisdom that can’t be gained from always thinking happy thoughts. Indeed, a sad face is good for the heart. It grounds us in real meaning and makes us better people.

Listen to “Sad Face” by The Choir:

There’s a crystal in the window
Throwing rainbows around
There’s a girl by the mirror
And her feet won’t touch the ground
‘Cause she never saw the sky so bright
Isn’t that like a cloud, to come by night
Nevermind the sky
There’s a tear in her eye

A sad face is good for the heart
Go on cry, does it seem a cruel world?
A sad face is good for the heart of a girl
A sad face

There’s a woman in my kitchen
With a rainbow on her cheek
Well isn’t that a promise?
Still I never felt so weak
There’s a tiny spirit in a world above
Cradled so sweetly in our Father’s love
So you don’t have to cry
No there’s something in my eye

A sad face is good for the heart
Maybe just now I don’t understand
A sad face is good for the heart of a man
A sad face

A sad face is good for the heart
It’s alright you don’t have to smile
A sad face is good for the heart of a child
For the heart of a child
For the heart of a child
For the heart of a child
A sad face A sad face…