The other day, I woke up at 2am to an unwelcome visitor. Unfortunately, I have become all too acquainted with this presence. I don’t know how to explain it. When it is around, I am confused and somewhat embittered at myself as I begin to think of the wrong turns I have taken that have led me to this place. My thoughts are not rational, and my emotions are a freight train. Their power, noise, and persistence do not let me look the other way.
Let me say this: For the most part, I’m okay. For the most part, I don’t have to fight against this foe. If you see me during the day and I seem alright, I probably am. I am not that good, yet, at putting on an act. But for the last few years, there has been this dark side of my brain that activates. I don’t really know the triggers (although I have some ideas) and I certainly cannot think my way out of it. I realized its presence when I opened my eyes an hour ago. I tried so hard to go back to sleep. But it is noisy and relentless. It transfers all the activity of my brain to this place.
As I normally do, I begin to think about what originally started this. When I talk about it with other people, I usually say that it all started in 2010. But just now I decided to look up a blog post that I wrote right when it first started. It was titled “Crying for No Reason At All.” I could not find this blog, but the title says all you need to know. But, to my surprise, it was 2008 when it began. It has been over five years! That is so hard to believe.
This unwelcome visitor causes me to cry. Back then, I called it “crying for no reason at all.” But I don’t think it is for no reason anymore. I mean, the gravitational pull to this place is very definite. It calls on me to think of the past. Specifically, it points me back to my days in Frisco, TX, when I was a student at DTS and then a pastor at Stonebriar. It says to me, “Those days were so much better. You were so much more stable. You had everything going for you. You had everything figured out. Today is dark and sad, and it is not going to get any better. You had a right to serve God then, but somewhere along the way, you made a bad decision and broke your calling.” It is something like that. The point is that the past is always so much better than the present. It is a relentless case of nostalgia and when it is present, I cry about anything and everything. What was is better than what is.
At this point, my emotions wrestle my rationale to the floor and, with ease, make it immobile. I try to talk myself out of it (as I would always encourage others to do), but the whole thing is irrational. “Remember Michael . . . things were not that good back then. Think about it. What was really better? Your kids are all healthy and wonderful. You have your bills paid. Remember how you used to shelve books at the DTS library, while at the same time you were on the verge of crying, thinking about how bad your and Kristie’s marriage was? You guys are doing so much better today. Things are better now than they were then. Get your mind straight.” But no matter how many lines of evidence the attorney for the right side of my mind can produce, this dark side has the power of immediate dismissal. For some reason, my rational side cannot get on the witness stand.
Emotions are incredibly powerful. For some reason, every moment defines who we are. What I mean is that whatever state we are in at the present time is the state that, for some dumb reason, has the power to name us. “You are just a depressed person. This is reality. When you think back to earlier when you were not fighting back the tears . . . that was counterfeit.” That is how the darkness speaks. Unfortunately, there is no borrowing from yesterday, when you were driving down the road, and just about everything you saw brought you joy. Hope for the present and excitement about the future would not let any nostalgia have a place. You did not even have to fight it off. It was just absent. But that was yesterday.
Now part of your mind had taken over and there is nothing you can do about it but endure. Those of us who have been through this know to hold on. It will pass. It will pass. It will soon pass. This is repeated over and over in our minds. In the best times, there is some other part of our mind that, while not having an emotional contribution, does believe that it will pass. Those who are going through this experience for the first time panic, and then it escalates to terrifying thoughts and actions. This is where my sister went in 2004. She is no longer with us, as the darkness took her to a place we did not want her to go.
Your darkness may be the same as mine, or it may be different. Maybe, it is not nostalgia. Maybe, it is a series of panic attacks. Maybe, it is the sudden fear you are about to die, or something is going to happen to your kids. Maybe, it is a bout with doubt. You suddenly feel that you are not really a Christian, that God does not love you, or that He is not real. Maybe you are suddenly consumed with what a bad person you are and feelings of worthlessness torture your heart. Or maybe, it is more circumstantial: You are going through a divorce, or you have lost someone very close to you, or you cannot pay your bills and take care of your family. Or maybe, you are stuck in a sin and cannot seemingly get out of it. I could go on and on, but the reality is that most of us have this dark part that torments us… some, sadly, more often than others.
It is hard to be a Christian and have this present darkness. We don’t think we are supposed to experience these seemingly wayward emotions. We think that God must not be with us or we must not be with Him; otherwise, this would not happen. We think of that dreaded verse that someone unfortunately put to song: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phi 4:4). Guilt is then added to our pain. Rejoicing is not possible at this point, right? Doesn’t my suffering cancel out all joy? I mean, even the Pope says, “A Christian can never be sad.”
I don’t think we have to go there.
Just think of all the passages of Scripture that seem to normalize sadness and mourning, even for God’s people. Christ said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). To be “blessed” is to have a definite movement of God’s gracious activity in your life. But how can we have God’s activity in our lives if we are mourning? To mourn is to lament, to be sad, to cry (sometimes for irrational reasons). Christ goes on to say to those who are crying, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt. 5:12). What a dichotomy! We are not told to stop crying, but to rejoice in the presence of our sadness. There are no guarantees that the sadness and pain will end in this life. In fact, the implication is that those who mourn will do so progressively until heaven.
Now, that may not comfort you too much when you hit the wall, but it should at least begin to remove the stigma of being a sad Christian.
Really, do we have to go any further than the Psalms to see this? David was about as up and down as they come. Can anyone say “bipolar disorder”? I guarantee that David would be on meds, if he was alive today. Yet, his emotions were put on display for you and me to gain comfort. It is the same with Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” who wrote a book called “Sadness,” better known as “Lamentations.”
“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom 15:4)
Do these people give you hope? They are meant to.
If that doesn’t convince you, just look at Romans 8. It is about the “testimony of the Spirit” which lets us know that we are children of God. And what is the essence of the “testimony of the Spirit”? Sadness. Listen to this: “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:23). The word here for “groaning” refers to discontent. It is not a positive word. It is about the recognition that things are not the way they are supposed to be. It is about a mourning for our present circumstance in a fallen world. BDAG defines the word this way: “to express oneself involuntarily in the face of an undesirable circumstance; sigh; groan.” Get this: undesirable sadness may very well be the primary evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in you. There is maybe no greater sign of God’s activity in your life than in your sadness.
Christians can be sad just like anyone else. In fact, because of our deep belief that things are not the way they’re supposed to be, we may be sadder. However, this does not mean that this sadness is without hope or rejoicing. The presence of the sadness is intensified by our joyful knowledge that we live in a fallen world that is, one day, going to be redeemed. When we cry out “Abba, father” in desperation, not even knowing if He is present, we may have received the greatest sign that we are in his hands.
You may be like me. You may have bouts of sadness. I offer no advice about how to make this darkness disappear. Nevertheless, I do call on you to rejoice, for yours is the kingdom of heaven! It will all be over one day. He is coming again!