“In the Protestant West today,” writes theologian Ben Myers, “smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well-ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.”
This is especially true of evangelicals. We save our best faces for Sunday morning; we hide terrible secrets and unspeakable suffering behind the veneer of a firm handshake and a “just fine.” Our brave smiles evince our faith in the cult of Christian happiness. “Evangelical churchliness,” writes Myers, “is the ritualisation of bare-toothed crassness.”
But this wasn’t Jesus’ way. Scripture never tells of Jesus smiling, though he certainly wept. Instead, Scripture calls Jesus “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Jesus—who knew better than anyone the promise of eternal joy—was not a jolly messenger of cosmic bliss, but a suffering servant. The icons of church tradition never show a smiling Christ. He gazes back at us with a look far beyond all happiness and frivolity. It is the gaze of pure joy, tinged with grief: it is as different from our plastered Sunday smiles as a lover’s laughter is from a supermodel’s dead-eyed stare.
The relationship between joy and sadness is at the heart of Pixar’s new film, Inside Out. The film takes us inside the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley and depicts her emotions as anthropomorphic characters. Chief among these is Joy, who has dominated Riley’s childhood experiences until now. Joy and Riley’s other emotions have never quite figured out what to do with Sadness, portrayed as a blue blob and voiced by Phyllis Smith with captivating despondency. The situation changes, though, when Riley and her parents move from their small town in Minnesota to San Francisco, where her father has started a new job. Riley’s emotions struggle to cope with the upheaval of a cross-country move. Initially, Riley is confused by her sadness and pushes it away, but gradually she learns to accept it as an integral part of her identity.
At the crux of Inside Out is its gentle acknowledgment of the important function of sadness in an emotionally healthy person. Sadness is not portrayed as a negative emotion. It is not a necessary evil to be pushed away until it’s absolutely unavoidable. Instead, Riley needs sadness. It’s the only appropriate response to the turmoil and confusion she feels.
Sadness—in the movie and in real life—can be a positive emotion. It is not the absence of joy, or a stubborn, Eeyore-like refusal to look on the bright side. In its proper place, sadness is merely right. At such times, no other emotion will do.
Early American theologian Jonathan Edwards taught that true religion consists of “holy affections.” Edwards defined “affections” as our deepest emotions, our most powerful aspirations and motivations. Our actions, he said, are motivated by our affections, and the Christian life can be understood as the ongoing realignment of our affections to reflect the reality of God and of our place in his world. True religion, says Edwards, is manifest in “rightly ordered affections.”
The believer with rightly ordered affections will find sadness to be their frequent companion. The Christian life begins with sadness—sorrow over our own sin—and that sorrow continues throughout our life as layer after layer of our soul is peeled back and revealed to us. Much of the psalmist’s grief is of this kind. “I am feeble and crushed,” he sings. “I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (Ps. 38:8). The despair and grief of repentance is the necessary prerequisite to the joy of restoration. Ash Wednesday always precede Easter Sunday.
As our eyes are opened to the plight of the world, our focus starts to shift away from our own worries and desires and onto the needs of other people. We find ourselves surrounded by people to grieve with, and terrible situations to grieve over. Jesus’ grief in the gospels is our example. He wept at the terrible suffering he saw all around him and at the hardness of people’s hearts. As we are conformed to Christ’s image, we weep with him. To meet the sadness of the world with easy answers or optimistic platitudes is not only insensitive, but also an affront to the divine sadness of Jesus, who always weeps with those who weep—and his grief is no less bitter than theirs.
The path to Christian joy always leads through sadness. In the first half of Inside Out, Joy flits around anxiously, trying to ensure that Riley’s desires are gratified and that her happy equilibrium is maintained. But as the story unfolds, Joy herself undergoes a transformation. By allowing Sadness to occupy a more integral role in Riley’s experience, Joy discovers a fuller, more transcendent version of herself than she had ever known before, poignantly illustrated in the climactic moment of the film.
Before, Joy had only been concerned with Riley’s happiness, the satisfaction of Riley’s desires. But real joy doesn’t gratify desire. In his book Salvation In My Pocket, Ben Myers speaks of joy as the purgation of desire. “Joy does not fulfill desire but exceeds it so majestically as to obliterate it.... Joy is the baptism of desire, its drowning and rising again.” Because joy comes through the denial of our desires, it is closely related to suffering and deficiency. As the Preacher said, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Eccl. 7:3). Only after desire and its attendant pleasures have been stripped away are we free to recognize the source of real joy: the sad eyes of Jesus. Rightly ordered, our desires are satisfied in him.
Our faith is predicated on sadness. As we grow in Christ’s service, we begin to recognize ourselves in Christ’s sad gaze in the icons. The sadness of Jesus exemplifies the sadness of Christians everywhere, and through it the whole world is redeemed. For the sadness of Jesus is not an ultimate sadness: the Bible also promises the end of sadness, and the wiping away of all tears: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).
Ethan McCarthy lives in the Chicago area with his wife and two children. He earned an M.Div from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and works as an editorial assistant at InterVarsity Press. He tweets @zemccart.