Our culture tells us that "happiness is the truth." In this month's video, Dr. Marc Newman examines that claim through insights provided in Inside Out, and explains how pastors need to tell "the whole story" if we are to equip our congregations to effectively deal with disappointment and grief.
Your congregation is part of a culture that is bombarded with more persuasive messages than any civilization in history. Most of these messages essentially promise one thing: buy our product/use our service and your life will be happier. Pharrell Williams had a monster hit in 2013 called “Happy.” On Ranker.com the top two life goals are “enjoying life” and “being happy.” It is fair to say that happiness probably ranks pretty high on the life goal list for most congregational members.
So what are we to make of a film, seemingly aimed at children, but with a mammoth pull toward adults, that makes it clear that happiness alone is a trivial pursuit that does not lead toward a flourishing life? Happiness is, instead, presented as an immature goal that does not reach its potential in Joy without undergoing a difficult, sometimes painful journey through Sadness.
In Inside Out, an eleven-year-old girl named Riley moves from Minnesota, where she has lived all her life, to San Francisco where her father has a new business enterprise. We experience Riley’s life through her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger who reside in Riley’s “headquarters.” Joy is the leader of Riley’s emotions and sees her job as keeping Riley “happy.” Sadness, on the other hand, appears to have little function and is constantly being marginalized. Every day is designed to create another batch of happy memories that can be sent off into long-term storage.
But when Sadness accidentally contaminates a happy memory, and Joy tries to fix it before it is stored, things go wrong and both Joy and Sadness are sucked out of headquarters and into Riley’s long-term memory area. Most of the film is dedicated to the effect sadness has on Riley and the efforts of Joy and Sadness to make their way back to headquarters.
By film’s end, Riley has matured. But the important point from a theological and practical perspective is that Joy has developed as well. Her pursuit of Happiness and Fun for Riley was unsustainable and ill-advised. It left Riley unprepared to deal with disappointment and grief.
Our culture’s obsession with fun and happiness can also leave our congregants unprepared to deal with disappointment and grief. No one likes to hear that life is difficult, unfair, and tragic – often a quite literal “valley of death” through which we all walk. The Psalms are filled with people who cry out to God because they consider the pains of this life unbearable. The Apostle Peter warns us not to consider “fiery trials” something unusual. These Scriptures, that should serve to guide us, often ring hollow in the midst of being laid off, experiencing the faithlessness of an adulterous spouse, or the untimely death of a child. We cry out “it’s unfair!” And when we do it is not the objective sense of that term – that the same thing doesn’t happen to others. We cry out in the juvenile sense that I don’t like what is happening to me.
What gives us the idea that bad things will not happen to us? Why do we consider that it is somehow our due to live a life free from difficulty or loss? Such ideas certainly don’t come from the Scriptures. The Bible tells us that we labor under a curse. Our work is more difficult, there is strife between the sexes, and we will be, all alike, shadowed by death. It is our media that tells us we should be, deserve to be, happy.
The Scripture tells us that God has made a way for us from where we are now to the experience, not of happiness, but of Joy. It tells us that the road to Joy is attended by pain, a sacrificial death, and tremendous sadness. Only when we admit to the sadness are we in a position to experience Joy.
In God’s Kingdom we will no longer have to contend with the sin that so mars our current world. There will be no more sadness, it will no longer be needed. But in the fallen world we occupy, to not acknowledge sadness is to reject reality. Richard Weaver called it “hysterical optimism.” It is a kind of madness.
Inside Out touches people because it resonates with that truth. If we want to protect congregations against falling into the lie that we all “deserve happiness” we need to remind them of the whole story. When our congregants grasp the truth about the human condition, our separation from God because of our sin, the painful experiences we have from living in a fallen world and subject to the consequences of the sins of others, then we can glimpse the goodness of the Good News. God has come to set us free. He alone is the lasting source of Joy.