It’s Okay to Feel Bad

I get the impression from some Christians that if I am not always smiling, always cheerful, always feeling on top of the world, that somehow I’m sinning. We’ve all heard the old story now, about the man who went to church and the pastor asked him, “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine,” said the man, “under the circumstances”

“What are you doing under the circumstances, brother?” asked the pastor.

No matter how bad you feel, you can always be made to feel just a tad worse by some well-meaning person heaping a load of guilt on your back to go along with that burden you’re already hauling.

How does this happen, that certain emotions get black listed? The positive emotions—well, except maybe lust—are praised and extolled, but those we label as negative, are shamed. On top of feeling bad because we’re sad or dis-couraged, we are made to feel guilty because of how bad we’re feeling, because we’re not looking at the bright side, because we’re forgetting our “first love”, because we’ve taken our eyes off Jesus and like Peter, we now sink into the stormy sea. And so, already hurting and discouraged, we drop even lower thanks to the well-intentioned “encouragement” of our companions, or our own mental nannies.

This of course is nonsensical given both the nature of life, as well as what we see of life reflected in the Bible. Despair is not a sin. Feeling bad when you’re hurting is not a sin. As you regain consciousness after you’ve been hit by a bus, your legs broken, your arms fractured, your body in so much pain that even your hair follicles ache, you are insane if you smile and say “Praise Jesus, I’m so thankful for getting squished by that bus.” Being thankful in everything does not mean thanking God that you’re identifying your child’s battered body in the morgue. That is insane and that is foolish and that is imagining God is an ogre.

Moses felt despair, Abraham felt despair, and even Jesus felt despair. Sometimes, when you’re a human being living on the wrong side of morning, you need to feel despair.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!.” So said Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi (Philippians 4:4). This must be understood in the context of “Jesus wept.” as recorded by John in John 11:35 and that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” as recorded in Ecclesiastes 3:4. Circumstances do dictate how you feel. The Bible acknowledges this. Keeping your perspective does not mean you’ll not still feel awful when the bad times roll. Duh. Why should I even have to say such a thing? But I know Christians who think that they must always be able to rise above any and every circumstance and feel joy no matter what. I say to them: Jesus wept. We should pay attention to those two words. He was crying because Lazarus was dead. He was crying because everyone around him whom he loved desperately was sad. And yet, he knew that in only a very short time he’d be bringing Lazarus back from death.

Jesus despaired on the cross, even though he knew that he would rise from the grave in three days.

It is okay to feel bad. There’s something wrong with you if you don’t when something awful happens. We are not Vulcans and even the Vulcans have the same emotions, they just choose to suppress them. Maybe that’s okay for a fictional science fiction species. That is not okay for human beings who are not fictional.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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