Growing up, I somehow picked up the idea that I wasn’t really supposed to feel certain things: anger, jealousy, fear, resentment, despair. Of course, I felt them anyway, but I interpreted that as evidence of some horrible character flaw. This was reinforced by the Gospel of Positive Thinking so often preached at church, as well as the cultural expectation that women in particular ought to be “nice.” I was so convinced that such feelings were unacceptable that I remember being too scared to confide even in close friends when I felt intense jealousy over a particular situation. I was sure people would think less of me for having such a reaction, that I’d be judged as selfish and not sufficiently loving. Often my response to a problematic emotion was to try to banish it as quickly as possible, sometimes to not admit even to myself that it was ever there.
It’s only in recent years that I think I’ve truly begun to see the cost that inevitably accompanies that way of living. Always being nice is, in effect, agreeing to not ever have any needs of your own. In addition, my experience is that to deny your actual emotional reactions to things leads to a feeling of being split, and a resulting sense of disconnection from life. As I’ve worked on learning to acknowledge and even listen to my negative emotions instead of just hiding from them or wishing them away, I’ve thought a lot about how this issue plays out in a religious context.
There are ways in which I think church can sometimes contribute to this kind of splitting. If the only acceptable stories are ones in which people manage to remain faithful, happy, and even grateful through horrendous trials, if there isn’t room for people to express real fears and doubts and struggles, the effect can be a feeling that the person you are expected to be at church doesn’t have much connection to the rest of your life. Religion then becomes something superficial, rather than something with the power to deal with even the darkest and hardest parts of being human. It’s not that I think we should throw out all discussion of life’s positives, but I think faith-promoting stories are far more faith-promoting if the people in them seem like real human beings. And there’s something to be said for stopping a while at Good Friday instead of skipping over it and going straight to the Resurrection.
I find it reassuring that a life of faith isn’t portrayed in the scriptures as looking on the bright side of everything. I appreciate the raw honesty in passages such as Job lamenting, “let the day perish wherein I was born” (Job 3:3); Jeremiah mourning, “oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughters of my people;” (Jeremiah 9:1) and Jacob in the Book of Mormon commenting, “we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.” (Jacob 7:26) Christ himself is described by Isaiah as “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)
One of the most powerful and comforting realizations in my own life has been that God can deal just fine with the negative emotions and bits of myself which I don’t like very much, that I don’t have to censor myself in my relationship with him. I once heard an analogy that I quite liked from a Jewish Rabbi: if you’re at prayer and you have what you consider an “inappropriate” thought, don’t try to squash it (because that will just give it more power) — instead, “put your prayer shawl around it.” Bring it into the conversation. One of my favorite passages from Chieko Okazaki speaks to the “mistaken notion that religion is like a special room in our house” which we carefully keep separate from everything else which might somehow sully it. She observes, “our spiritual lives should be our lives, not just a separate part of our lives.” (Lighten Up, 173) Exhortations to love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength, to “come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him” (Omni 1:26) suggest that God wants all the pieces of who we are, not only the ones we’ve labelled “good” or “pleasant”.
The atonement, by definition, is about integration. We’re broken by sin and suffering, and we find ourselves not only estranged from each other but from ourselves. Grace works to heal those rifts. As Karl Rahner puts it, “The love of God is the only total integration of human existence.” (Grace in Freedom, 214). I’ve sometimes assumed that grace was supposed to zap the bad stuff, but lately I’m wondering whether a more helpful conceptualization might be that rather than taking away or smoothing over our negative experiences, grace integrates them into our lives in a way that removes their sting. This might be what it means that if we come unto him, God will make our weaknesses “become strong.” (Ether 12:27) To be “perfect,” after all, is to be whole.