[Spiritual Languages] Sad? Angry? Frustrated? Confused? Good.

The Gospel of Mark really focuses, more than any other gospel, on the human experience of Jesus. The reader sees him experience a whole gamut of emotions, particularly negative emotions, like sorrow, anger, frustration, and fear. I am deeply moved by Mark’s telling of Jesus at Gethsemane and his death on the cross.

The author of Mark, more than any other gospel author, elaborates on the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus upon his arrest. Only a few hours previously the disciples swore to Christ they would leave behind everything to follow him, only to, at Gethsemane, while he is still reeling from the daze of pain for which nothing could have prepared him and which he begged to end, leave behind everything to get away from him. [1] Jesus then suffers agonizingly on the cross for hours when suddenly, horrifyingly, God leaves him. Shocked, Jesus yells out to heaven, asking God why he, too, has abandoned him. Then, with a loud cry, he dies.

This is not a story of a stoic Christ calmy and peacefully enduring. This is the story of catastrophic failure of the community, and of God in lonely agony and distressed confusion. This is pathos at its most tragic.

I love the Gospel of Mark for this perspective. I love how the author fully embraces Jesus’ human experience and sees it as being central to who he was. The author does not see Jesus’ weakness and struggles as something to be whitewashed in favor of his strength and omniscience. To the author of Mark Jesus’ struggles are integral to his mission and message. Mortality is hard, the author seems to say, and Jesus gets it.

I bring up this story because I don’t think that any of us would suggest that Jesus didn’t have the spirit in those times he experienced anger or frustration or impatience or sorrow in the Gospel of Mark. In fact, the author seems to be reassuring Jesus’ followers that it was his experience of those very emotions that can give us hope in Christ. For one thing, Jesus can really understand, and this can bring us great comfort during our struggles. I think there is another message from this that is important, which is that Jesus can not only understand our negative emotions, but that he experienced negative emotions himself. Jesus experiences sadness, impatience, frustration; it is even more than suggested that the despair he felt from God abandoning him is what killed him. He did not accept all of this tranquilly and unquestioningly; he cried out to God for answers—and I don’t think any of us would suggest that he didn’t have the spirit during these times. Then why do we so often think that when we experience struggles and negative emotions it means we don’t have the spirit?

I think this is especially an issue in the United States where being cheerful is considered to be almost obligatory. Don’t get me wrong, I love being around cheerful people, and there is a good argument to be made that many times (though not always) being cheerful and happy is a gift we can give to others. But there is this prosperity gospel thing that has crept its way into our church culture that God only accepts our positive emotions, and negative emotions are a sign of lack of faith and loss of the spirit. But what if the spirit thrives on variety? What if a rich emotional life can actually help the spirit to grow? What if negative emotions can be an important way that the spirit teaches us kindness and wisdom? What if the negative emotions Christ experienced were not only part of his humanity, but also his divinity?

Think of the eternally significant things we can learn through negative emotions—compassion, patience, understanding, humility. These are things that we cannot learn from good cheer alone. They come from trial, and trial, by definition, is not enjoyable. I’ve heard people say in the church many times that we need to get to the point where we can enjoy our trials, but trials work as refiner’s fire specifically because they are hard. The sprit teaches us through the struggle, not in spite of or around it. This doesn’t mean we should throw ourselves into an orgy of self-pity and crankiness, but it does mean that sometimes life is going to be hard. It means that sometimes we are going to feel anger and exhaustion and hurt and frustration and impatience—and it means that those emotions are not signs we no longer have the spirit. In fact, if, as we have said, the spirit is the connection between us and God that helps us to gain divine understanding, experiencing and navigating these emotions may be some of the most spiritual experiences of our lives. It may not be in the way we want or hope or expect to experience the spirit, but that doesn’t mean these experiences are any less spiritual. It is important that these emotions are used in the Lord’s way, but that means they can and should be used for good. Because they can be used for good. Because, when we choose to use them for good, they are absolutely, beautifully, agonizingly, spiritual.

[1] Mark 14: 51-52

5 comments for “[Spiritual Languages] Sad? Angry? Frustrated? Confused? Good.

  1. On a serious note: this is a beautiful post, very well written. Thank you!

    On a lighter note: There are times that I want to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Cranky Old People. But getting serious once again, your post reaffirms that I can be a believing member of the Church and still be in a bad mood, whether that bad mood is caused by church members’ crackpot political views, or by a 10-year-old boy running through the chapel halls, nearly knocking down my very frail wife.

    Your insights in the Gospel of Mark are particularly apt.

  2. Thank you for this–it’s important. The Book of Mormon also has many examples of prophets having negative feelings and expressing them. Just two examples:

    2 Nephi 4 is particularly precious because Nephi both tells us about experiencing feelings that sound a lot like depression, and how he dealt with them.

    We often misread Alma 29 because the unfortunate chapter break (which didn’t exist in the original) separates it from the rest of Alma’s lament for the great war that had just occurred in the previous chapter. “O that I were an angel” is not about missionary zeal–it’s Alma’s “O God, where art thou?” moment. He’s saying that if only God would let him “go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth” then there would be no more of these awful wars that both kill people and send many of them to hell. (Keep in mind Alma apparently didn’t know about the three degrees of glory and seemed to assume that the miseries of spirit prison–that we really ought to just call hell–would continue forever.) He “sin[s] in his wish” because he’s implying God isn’t doing everything he can to avoid human suffering: he could send more angels to call people to repentance, like He did for Alma, and then all this could be avoided. I get that–part of me still believes that if my sons had just gotten stronger answers to their prayers or more “spiritual experiences” they’d still be faithful members of the Church, and is frustrated that they did not.

    Of course Alma starts to answer himself immediately, in the rest of Alma 29, and by Alma 32 he’s framed our entire progression around gradually gaining and developing faith, a progression that would be thwarted if we were “compelled to know” by signs, like visits from angels. But he would not have been prepared to teach Alma 32 if it were not for his frustration, anguish, and, yes, doubt in Alma 29. (His failure to change Korihor’s mind in Alma 30 also played a role.)

  3. RLD, I *love* your idea that Alma chapters 28 and 29 ought to be lumped together. I’ve always felt that strange shifting of gears between the two–and I think the main reason for that is the shift between the narrators. But if we let them flow together thematically then there’s a wondrous connection between them. Thanks for sharing your insight with us.

  4. I think the issue may be with any actions that are taken when subject to the “negative” emotions – so, feeling anger is not a sin that drives away the spirit. But lashing out at another person “because I was angry” could be, and the actions taken could be a cause for the spirit to withdraw for a season.

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