In a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Who Goes To Work To Have Fun,” British journalist Oliver Burkeman suggests something counter-intuitive, but obvious: the more you force someone to have fun, the less fun they’ll have. The money quote is this one:
Psychologists have shown that positive-thinking affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse; that patients with panic disorders can become more anxious when they try to relax; and that an ability to experience negative emotions, rather than struggling to exclude them, is crucial for mental health.
This couldn’t be simpler, and yet more misunderstood, especially by churches. Think about it: what’s the worst thing you can say to someone who’s in a bad mood? “Lighten up!” or “Get over it!” or “Think positively.” And to someone who’s suffering? “Tomorrow will be a better day!” These are the sorts of sentiments that get you punched, not thanked for your help and encouragement.
Yet people (and, by extension, churches) from one side of this country to the other do this kind of thing to themselves and others. We tell each other to “buck up” rather than be honest about our pain. We tell ourselves to relax rather than face the causes of our anxiety. And we expect people to get better without admitting their badness.
The Biblical Approach
The Bible couldn’t be clearer about this mechanism: Paul says that the Law (the expectation, the requirement, the exhortation) came in to increase the trespass (Romans 5:20). In other words, the law makes the problem shine; it does not (cannot) solve it. It reveals the issue, it does not remove it.
People who are hurting would, overwhelmingly, rather not be hurting, and if they could simply choose to be happy, they would. If the depressed could simply choose not to be depressed, they would. If those with panic disorders could simply choose to be relaxed, they would. That they can’t simply “snap out of it” implies a deeper problem.
And I don’t just mean in a “We’re all here because we care about you” sense. We need someone to come into our pain, into our depression, and into our panic. Christianity, alone amongst the world’s religions, philosophies, and systems of thought, posits a God who doesn’t wait (or ask) for the hurt to heal, for the depressed to cheer up, or for the panicked to chill out. Our God crosses the chasm to us, rather than waiting for us to build a bridge out of our pain and into his glory.
Everyone knows that telling someone in a bad mood to cheer up is a losing proposition…but we can’t stop ourselves. We don’t know any other way to be. It doesn’t stop us from offering platitudes to our friends or “Five Steps to a Better Blank” sermon series to our congregations. We figure that if people just have the right road map, they can get to a better place, despite the fact that that has never worked in our own lives!
Painful and uncomfortable as it may be at first, being upfront about our problems is the better route. Churches, especially, ought to be places where brutal honesty is possible. Too often, though, they are places where the truth is hidden: we want people to think that we’re on the spiritual path to glory, not hurting, depressed, angry, and panicked.
Law and Gospel
God’s first word — the Law — comes into our lives, not to give us the road map out of our struggles, but to magnify them to the point where they become impossible to handle on our own. Casual Friday and a company paintball trip only mask the issues; they don’t solve them. In fact, as Burkeman argues, they only serve to make us feel worse.
People need God’s second word — the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ — to break through the impossibility of our human problem. We don’t need to be encouraged to get out of our depression, we need to be given joy. We don’t need to be cajoled out of our anxieties, we need to be given peace. The Good News of the gospel is that, in Christ, we have been.
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