Slowly, with each day passing, you have probably become a little more jaded. As you have grown older, you have become more emotionally paralyzed and forfeited most of your emotional intelligence. It used to be only days between the times you cried, and now you can’t even remember the last time tears graced your cheek.
Please forgive me for my total transparency, but I have prayed this article will have one very specific impact on your soul: I want you to become a more sorrowful Christians.
I do strongly believe that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Yes, I do believe that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. But with the same ardor and force, I believe that the human capacity for sorrow is part of God’s plan to increase your joy and satisfaction in him, and if you are ignorant of that God-designed ability, your delight in him will never rise above flippancy.
This realization smacked me across my heart’s face one day while I was watching a film called Hector and the Search for Happiness. The movie is about a psychiatrist whose travels across the globe eventually lead him to two neuroscientists studying human emotions. And in the film’s final scene, the neuroscientists are performing experiments with a device that sits on the human skull and projects the brain’s activity to a screen. When the person is asked to recall a sad event, one part of the brain lights up. A happy event, a different part lights up. A scary event and you get the picture.
This scene forced me to ask the question: are there parts of my brain that I’m not using to the glory of God? God is not merely the designer of the human brain as a whole, he’s the designer of every part of the brain and its faculties. So, is there actually something devastating and stunting about the life that knows no sorrow? In light of this, James commands the early church to be more sorrowful:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:1-10).
This is a passionate church. So passionate, in fact, that our text almost reads like a soap opera. The fullness of the human emotional experience is on display: there’s fighting in verse 1, desiring, coveting, and passions in verses 2 and 3, even the Lord himself is “yearning jealously” in verse 5, and in verses 9 and 10 we see “mourning, weeping, laughing.” This text is like the Real World: Early Church Edition.
It would be a personal tragedy, but you could read this text superficially and wrongly draw the conclusion that God’s solution to this mess is for the church to pursue apathy. The text does, in fact, warn us of feeling passionate about at least two things, like:
- Things ungiven: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” In general, if it has a shelf life, don’t spend your passions on it. Things have a really short shelf-life, once you obtain them they lose their value. Physical pleasures have really short lives, whether sex or alcohol, they lose their value after a single night. Power and leadership have admittedly longer shelf-lives, but they do get old. If God hasn’t given you these things, don’t spend your passions on them.
- Things unprayed: “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions.” In general, if you would be embarrassed to ask God for it, don’t spend your passions on it. If it would embarrass you to pray for it in small group, don’t desire it.
But don’t throw away your passions altogether. It has been a personal pain to me to see apathy become stylish over the last decade. As a former teacher, it saddened me how often I heard high school students on a daily basis say “I don’t care.” The popular phrase was “long hair, don’t care” and the popular insult was “try-hard.” In youth culture, there’s nothing more damning to your reputation than appearing to care or feel. I fear that in church culture, sometimes there’s nothing more damning to your reputation than appearing to feel. Speaking to some churches and some Christians, you get the impression that our conversion to the Lord has nothing to do with a regeneration of affections.
In my church, I don’t ever want passion, desire, feeling, or longing to ever be spoken poorly of. It might need to be redirected by truth, shepherded by right thinking, but it should never be abandoned. God’s strategy for correcting warring passions isn’t to eliminate passion, it’s to remind them of God’s passion: “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scriptures say, “He (that’s God) yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” What causes God to feel passionate about us is the Spirit of God in us. In other words, what moves God is God.
God isn’t desirous of us because of anything insufficient in his character. If God were desirous of us because he needed something from us that he didn’t have in himself, God would shrivel. God isn’t jealous for you because you have abilities that he wants, he is jealous for you because you have the Holy Spirit whom he loves. And he is moved by what he sees in you because when God looks in you he sees the most intelligent, creative, loving, and beautiful being ever: the Holy Spirit!
But if you look at God’s passionate jealousy and even for one moment think: “that’s there because he needs something from me” your opinion of God will shrink. And once that shrinks, then your worship of God shrinks, then your passion for God shrinks, and as all these things wither in your life, you will find yourself capable of looking at your sin and experiencing zero sadness.
By God’s grace, you can regain your sensitivity, tenderness, and responsiveness. By the help of his Holy Spirit, you don’t have to continue to grow more emotionally paralyzed day-by-day. James gives a long list of application to the early churches in this text, but simply let your eyes rest on this one: “be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.”
Christianity and the church is a place where you need to practice sorrow. Don’t you dare retort to James by thinking, “I’m a thinker, not a feeler.” Don’t tap-out by assigning your apathy a category: “I’m an intellectual guy, not an emotional guy.” For years I played that game, convincing myself that I didn’t need to deepen my affections or give attention to the emotional life of those whom I was ministering to. But the Bible does not afford us categories like “thinker” and “feeler” to make sense of our identity, the Bible gives us this one category: “image of God.” You are made in the image of a jealously yearning God who makes his people like Job (“my face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness”) and like Peter (“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, ’Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And Peter went out and wept bitterly.”) and, most of all, like Jesus (“Jesus wept”).
Don’t ever forget that we have the exclusive manual for sorrow. Run to the Psalms and fight alongside Psalm 6: “Every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” Fight with Psalm 39: “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears!” Fight with Psalm 56: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” Ask him for tears, and if he answers not for five minutes, plea with him for forty-five minutes. Everything in your life is operating in your spiritual immune system like novacaine. The hours you spend at work, the social media that permeates your spare minutes, the never-ending scrolling on your cell phone, it’s all working so powerfully toward making you into a dull, lifeless, colorless Christian.
Consider once more the movie Hector and The Search for Happiness. When they place the device on his head, they quickly become frustrated by his inability to tap into certain emotions. He seems only to be able to light up the part of his brain responsible for fear, and they conclude that he has the emotional life of a child. But then, in the middle of the experiment, his girlfriend calls him. On the phone he breaks down, confesses sorrow for leaving her, confesses his fear of not spending his life with her, confesses his deep love for her, and by the end of the phone call, he’s covered in snot, tears, smiles. Throughout the whole conversation, the neuroscientists leave the device running and, on the screen, his whole brain is lighting up. All the colors, all the parts; they’re all glowing. One neurologist looks at the other and says, “which part of the brain is lighting up?” The other neurologist says, “All of them. And isn’t that the point?”
God created and designed your brain, and he wants every part and capacity of it to be brought into the Lordship of Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to light up every part of your brain, even the parts responsible for sorrow and mourning, for his glory and your joy.