It’s not surprising that our nation doesn’t know quite what to think about the pandemic that is upon us. There are as many variables as you’ll find on a typical March Madness bracket. There’s the matchup between Fox and CNN. Numerous stats and graphs are competing for attention. Should we, for example, pay more attention to the direction of the stock market or the flatness of the “curve”?
What is surprising is that our hearts don’t quite know how to feel about it all.
Is it just me, or do you also find yourself experiencing a dozen different feelings in a given minute? You might laugh one moment at a comedic meme about toilet paper, and then—a half-scroll of the mouse later—you’re feeling a cold anxiety creep back in.
Have you ever played the multi-player ping pong game called “Round Robin”?
It’s kind of like table tennis-meets-cake walk. As everyone walks in a continuous circle around the table, each person takes turns hitting the ball and moving on. Mr. A hits the ball to Mr. B and moves on. Meanwhile, Mr. C picks up Mr. A’s paddle and returns the ball—but not to Mr. B, because Mr. B has moved on and Mr. D has picked up the paddle. Everyone circles the table taking turns hitting the ball until someone messes up. The person who messes up is out, and the game continues with whoever is left.
That’s not a bad metaphor for the bewildering swirl of contradictory emotions one coronavirus-aware person can feel in the span of a minute.
You can start out feeling isolated. Then one of your kids comes in the room wanting to show you a picture she painted, causing you to feel cozy and connected. She leaves, and it’s back to scrolling through the news. The pity you feel for elderly Italians dying alone while family is stuck in quarantine turns to dread when you realize that we could be a couple weeks behind.
The follow-up gratitude for good health so far is tailgated by the urgency of helping wherever you can. Urgency is quickly replaced by guilt, knowing that the needs will far outweigh anything you will be able to accomplish. Relief over the passage of the economic stimulus package is followed closely by numb sobriety: when the next crisis hits, we’ve got a go-to solution which will keep compounding an unpayable national debt.
One could almost make the entire alphabet an acrostic for the succession of feelings.
A is for admiration felt toward the heroic doctors and nurses. B is for bitterness toward whichever political party you feel is fumbling our future. C is for feeling confused and chaotic. And so on. If put in pictorial form, such a succession might resemble the blur of a slot machine.
One of the great reliefs we discover in the Bible is that there is no one emotion that true Christians are supposed to be defined by at all times.
We were wrong to assume that seriousness-in-God’s-sanctuary was the apex of Christian emotion. We were also incorrect when we thought that all the best Christians were defined by their bubbliness. Thankfully, it’s also inaccurate that the definitive Christian emotion is grumpiness toward the culture. Grumpy doesn’t equal godly, and we shouldn’t feel more spiritual whenever we punctuate our complaints with phrases such as “isn’t worth a plug nickel” or “kids these days, I tell ya.”
If Christians should imitate Jesus, then we need to get used to experiencing multiple emotions.
The “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3) also expressed exuberant joy (Luke 10:21). He who famously wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35) used humor as a teaching tool (e.g., Matthew 23:24). He who displayed an alarming confidence in the face of demons, diseases, disasters, and death found Himself agonizing over the crucifixion He was about to undergo (Luke 22:43-45). The playful Jesus who welcomed children into His arms (Mark 10:16) got frustrated by his dense disciples (Mark 7:18) and downright angry at religious leaders with upside-down value systems (Mark 3:5).
It’s not wrong to experience a swirl of emotions. Life can be a Round Robin of sunny, then shadowy; calm, then stormy.
What’s dangerous is when that swirl becomes a tornado trapping you inside its vortex.
Emotions are not to be experienced as ends in themselves, but rather as invitations to approach God’s throne. But you don’t visit empty handed. Rather, you take whatever you’re experiencing—fear, gratitude, sadness, joy, anger, frustration—to Him.
This is the pattern we see all through the psalms. The psalmist is completely open about his feelings—sometimes shockingly so! He starts where he is, but he doesn’t stay there. Rather, after delving deep into his soul, he digs up what’s there and offers it to God. The psalmist prays his anger (Psalm 137). He prays his fears (Psalm 7). He prays his frustrations, even his frustrations with God (Psalm 13). In bringing each emotion to the throne of God, the psalmist reenacts the ancient path of going to God in trust. And by the end, the psalmist finds himself reaffirming that, yes, the Lord is trustworthy.
The coronavirus pandemic has us experiencing a barrage of emotions, perhaps at a rate and depth we haven’t felt in a while. But there’s not a single emotion which Christianity finds too unfamiliar to sympathize with.
All that to say this: With each new emotion, don’t write a new theology for yourself. But do write a psalm. Don’t let the wind confine you in its tornadic twirl. Instead, let the emotion carry you to the throne of grace, where you’ll find mercy and help from a sympathetic Savior.