“Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”
As someone who has been a Christian most of her life, I have struggled with the self-imposed judgment that I am not allowed to be unhappy. If I’m a Christian, shouldn’t I appear to be happier than people who don’t know Christ? When I see successful, happy, seemingly satisfied ‘nonbelievers,’ it is sometimes hard not to believe the lie that I should be happier, more successful, and certainly more satisfied than they are. . . .Right?
There are so many things wrong with these thoughts, not least of these that in the process of evaluating myself, I am judging the salvation of others. In truth, I am not even comfortable using words like “nonbelievers” – what do I know of their belief and their inner, intimate conversations with Christ?
The element of comparison here is just a mask for the real issue — in this case, two main issues:
1) When everything else is stripped away, what is my answer to the question ‘Am I happy?’
2) Is sadness a valid emotion for a believer in Christ?
Nehemiah’s response to the king’s question was a lot like our responses are, I think, when asked honest and simple questions like, “what’s wrong?” Nehemiah reveals that he had not been sad in the presence of the king before (verse 1) – of course he hadn’t! The king was, after all, the king, and Nehemiah’s direct superior. When Nehemiah’s defenses were down, perhaps he was caught off guard by the king’s rather personal inquiry. Instead of responding in truth, Nehemiah instinctively retorted, “May the king live forever!” (verse 3). This response is almost comical, and it’s so typical of our human instinct to protect ourselves using what we perceive as our own strength.
How often have you been quick to reply to questions like “how are you?” or “what’s wrong?” with an unusually high-pitched “fine!” or “nothing!”? It is always clear, however, what the real answer is when the person responding immediately stiffens, and somehow forces a strained smile that does not match the expression in the eyes. I know this is more typical than not of our culture, but why? Are we afraid to show weakness? Are we afraid we cannot trust the person on the other end of the conversation? Are we just too tired to bother explaining? Or do we not really know how to contend with the issue ourselves, let alone divulge our fears that are so difficult to articulate?
Nehemiah knew what he was really feeling. He says in verse two after being asked the tough question, “I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever!’”
Given the numerous examples in the Bible, it would be foolish to think that a Christian shouldn’t feel sad, afraid, or–dare I say–unhappy, but still I wrestle with what this means for my soul. The question isn’t really “am I allowed to be sad?” but instead:
What does sadness look like on the face of a believer in Christ?
It’s so important to me to be honest about this. The “Christian” part of me knows that the answer, or the difference, is contained in “a hope that does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5) and in “pure joy” despite any circumstance (James 1:2) – both of which are utterly dependent on belief. That is the given answer. So is “sadness of heart” really something that can consume a true follower of the One born to bring abundant life? I suppose it depends on what is making us sad, and, in accordance with the Word, what we end up believing. Do we believe the Truth, or the lies? What is the real promise of our Saviour? Is “happiness” a fleeting and frivolous pursuit in light of the depth of knowing Christ Jesus? Certainly it’s not wrong to be happy, but we know that’s not all there is.
“Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?” What a practical and insightful approach to the power of emotions expressed in our life!
Again, I think the key to considering this question is in the context of what Nehemiah is sharing. He says not to the king but in private disclosure to us, the reader, “Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
Nehemiah is grieved by a great loss, and compelled to pursue what God has called him to do: rebuild the temple. His sadness and his fear were legitimate, and his heart was focused on pursuing the work of the Lord. The footnotes in my Bible explain that this conversation between Nehemiah and the king occurred four months after Nehemiah began praying about the situation – and how much longer before that time had Jerusalem been in a grievous state?
For me, this means two things: 1) sadness should not consume me to the point of affecting me in a physical way if what grieves me is self-seeking; and 2) it is important to be patient in waiting for grief and sadness to be resolved. And in the meantime, yes, it’s okay to feel sad or afraid or even grieved to the point of unhappiness as long as I know in my core – where my belief is born – that “grieving lasts just for the night, and joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). God was not insensitive to Nehemiah’s months of sadness, and in due time, the king granted Nehemiah’s requests “because the gracious hand of God was upon [him]” (v. 8).
May the gracious hand of God be upon us all, comforting us wherever we are, and remaining an ever-present testimony to His promise of life over death for all who trust in Him. And when our faces are stricken with sadness, no matter the reason, may we turn them to Him, and seek a God who will “make His face shine upon [us]. . .and give [us] peace” (Num. 6:25-26).
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” Heb. 10:23