Freedom to be sad: God’s care for the brokenheartedWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
You’re not alone. I’m here for you. I’ve got your back. Let’s talk.
Words such as these are showing up in TV ads and public service announcements, a welcome sign that stigmas around mental health are receding. What’s more, these messages model compassion toward individuals who are struggling with their emotional well-being.
But there is still a long way to go, not just in the wider society but also in the culture of the church.
More than anywhere else, the church ought to be a place where people feel safe to share their sorrows and their deepest hurts, to find compassion and help. Unfortunately, there are some believers who may feel pressure to paste on a Sunday smile and go about their lives in lonely, quiet desperation.
It hardly needs to be said that this shouldn’t be the case. In the Body of Christ, we’re all meant to find hope, and to be instruments of hope for our brothers and sisters. Thankfully God has given us a variety of helps and encouragements for our pursuit of those goals.
God invites us to be real
God created humans as holistic beings with bodies, minds, spirits and an entire palette of emotions. None of those faculties are any more or less important than the others. In fact, our emotions are part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Scripture portrays God as angry at injustice (Psalm 7:11; Proverbs 6:16-19), delighting in his creation (Genesis 1:31; Proverbs 8:22-31), laughing at his enemies (Psalm 2:4-6) and singing with joy over his people (Zephaniah 3:17). When his people turn away from him, his sorrow is like the heartbreak caused by an unfaithful spouse (Ezekiel 16; Hosea 2). He compares his love for his own to that of a father for his little child (Psalm 103:13-14) and of a mother bouncing her baby on her lap (Isaiah 49:14-15; Isaiah 66:12-13).
How sad, then, when the emotional spectrum for Christ-followers is reduced to being happy all the time and stoic in the face of suffering. Grieving is allowed for life-altering events like the death of a loved one or a terminal diagnosis, but even then, there may be an expected time limit, with questions like, “Aren’t you over it yet?” For those dealing with mental or emotional health issues, their experience may be dismissed as nothing but sin or unbelief. They may be urged to pray harder, read the Bible more, “snap out of it” and remember that others have it worse than they do.
This is not only terrible theology, but terribly destructive to men and women and boys and girls made in God’s image. All of us are broken people living in a fallen world and all our faculties – mind, body, spirit and emotions – have been affected by the fall. Our spiritual health will impact our health in other areas; we are, after all, holistic beings. But God is in the process of redeeming us as holistic beings, not disembodied spirits. He invites us to be real with him – even though he knows our innermost thoughts and feelings – to bring our deepest pain and rawest feelings to him and not pretend that everything’s fine (Psalm 139; Psalm 142:1-3; Matthew 11: 28-30; Philippians 4:6-7; 1 Peter 5:6-7). And he promises to heal our broken hearts and bind up our wounds (Psalm 147:3).
Examples from Scripture
Scripture is filled with examples of people being real with God about their most difficult feelings. In turn, God is real about the unkind reactions of others to such individuals. Job uses some very strong language to express his suffering but is commended in the end, while his three friends are condemned for their heartless responses to him (Job 42:7). Hannah pours out her grief to God in a mouthed silent prayer, unable to speak because of her turmoil, and is accused of being drunk by the high priest (1 Samuel 1:9-18).
By contrast, God meets people in their hardest moments with kindness and compassion. Hagar and her son, wandering in the wilderness and on the brink of starvation and despair, are saved by the Lord, whom Hagar had named “the God who sees me” (Genesis 16, Genesis 21:8-21). The mercurial prophet Elijah, whose moods swung from the highest highs to the lowest lows – from confronting the prophets of Baal to crumpling on the ground with his head between his knees – was fed, refreshed and cared for by God on more than one occasion (1 Kings 17-19). And even Jonah, extremely angry with God because of the Lord’s grace to the Ninevites, receives only the gentlest rebuke through the object lesson of the shade plant (Jonah 4).
Rather than suppressing their painful feelings, people in Scripture consistently bring them before God. The prophets record their acute sorrow over the devastation they witness. The Psalms contain numerous songs of lament, none bleaker than Psalm 88, a cry of despair written by Heman, the gifted song leader at David’s court who appears to have suffered from unrelenting physical and emotional pain. David himself wrote many of these lamenting psalms, crying out to God, expressing his loneliness and anguish with no one to comfort him, unable to eat or sleep, his body wracked by the effects of prolonged grief. Songs such as these form a legitimate part of worship for God’s people.
The compassion of Jesus
David’s experiences prefigured the coming Messiah, whom the prophet Isaiah described as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). Even though God has emotions and created us in his image to reflect those emotions, he became a man in the person of Jesus so that he might experience life and feelings from our perspective. He did this so that he might be our compassionate representative who was tempted in every way that we are, and yet without sin (Hebrews 2:17-18; Hebrews 4:14-16).
As a human being, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions. He enjoyed warm, affectionate relationships with his friends (John 11:1-7). He was angry at the heartless hypocrisy of the religious establishment (Matthew 23). When Mary of Bethany fell at his feet, crying her eyes out because her brother Lazarus had died, he wept with her (John 11:28-37). Not once did he rebuke anyone for their emotional struggles or attribute these struggles to sin. Instead, he welcomed them with kindness and respect, healed them and restored them. It’s a wonderful irony that outsiders and those considered to be sinners were attracted to Jesus, while the religious leaders hated him and orchestrated his death.
When Jesus knew that his time was near, he confided to his closest friends that he was sorrowful to the point of death (Matthew 26:36-46). Even though he knew he would rise again, he dreaded the prospect of experiencing his Father’s wrath for the sins of humanity and separation from him for the first and only time in eternity (Isaiah 53:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21; John 12:20-36). As Jesus prayed to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke the physician notes that he began to sweat blood, a physical manifestation of his extreme emotional turmoil (Luke 22:39-46). If the all-knowing, all-powerful Son of God and Son of Man could experience such feelings, surely his followers might expect others to have similar experiences and care for them with compassion.
Providence for our well-being
God cares about our entire being, not just our souls, but also our bodies, our minds and our emotions. In his sovereign goodness, he has provided a variety of ways to care for our whole person. Because we’re made in the image of the triune God, we’re also wired for loving, compassionate relationship with him and with one another. Our families, friends, social connections and church communities are all designed to be part of a support network in which we mutually care for each other.
Medicine and professional counselling are also among God’s good gifts to us. Our mental and emotional health can’t be reduced to merely spiritual factors any more than our physical health can be. When we’re physically ill, we don’t hesitate to consult a doctor and take medication or other treatments prescribed for us. In the same way, God has providentially given us medical resources and conscientious professionals to help us with our mental and emotional struggles. While there are some who treat such gifts with skepticism, they ought to be received with thanksgiving.
The apostle Paul urged the Philippian church to focus their thoughts on things that are excellent, praiseworthy and beautiful (Philippians 4:8). Being God’s image bearers, humans have a unique capacity to create and appreciate beauty. This is a powerful weapon in our arsenal as we fight for mental and emotional health. In the words of Tim Keller, “We are exposed to so much brokenness . . . we must constantly expose our hearts and minds to beauty.” And as a friend echoed, “I once heard the phrase ‘beauty is good for the soul’ and it really stuck with me. Isn’t it so true? I think God knew this when he designed fall colours. And snow and kittens and artists.”
Our hope, present and eternal
Jesus is building his church and has assured his followers that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). In a dark world full of broken people, the church is meant to be a friendly, welcoming home where the light is always on. Following the lead of her Lord, the church is to be the place where the brokenhearted are received with compassion and respect, where they can heal and find a new family and a renewed sense of hope as beloved members of God’s household.
Made up of fallen people in a fallen world, the church often behaves like a dysfunctional family, and it needs the constant grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to function properly. But like any good family, its members should feel safe to be real with one another. They shouldn’t feel forced to put on a mask and pretend everything’s fine when it isn’t. In God’s family, sisters and brother are to be kind, tenderhearted, bear each other’s burdens, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Ephesians 4:32; Galatians 6:2; Romans 12:15).
Jesus designed his church to be the outpost of his expanding kingdom, a foretaste of the world to come, in which he will redeem his cosmos and make all things new. In that new creation, there will be no more death, grief, crying or pain. God will live among his people, wipe away the tears from their eyes, and they will enjoy perfect loving relationship with him and each other forever (Revelation 21:1-7). Quoting J.R.R. Tolkien, Tim Keller summed it up: “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”
For daughters and sons of God, that is our present and eternal hope. God continues to heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds until he finishes that wonderful work in the new heavens and new earth (Psalm 147:3). In the meantime, God has given us the privilege of being his instruments in that healing endeavour. Jesus has redeemed us as whole people, body, spirit, mind and emotions. We show we’re his followers and members of his family when we care for others in the same way.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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