Sad Face/Happy Heart
By Anthony Casperson
Though more well-known for works such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote another novel that I have always found to be an interesting idea. The Screwtape Letters is a series of letters from the titular Screwtape (a demon in the bureaucracy of hell) to his nephew Wormwood.
The letters give advice to young Wormwood about how to undermine faith and promote sin in the life of “the Patient,” the man to whom Wormwood is appointed for this task. It’s an interesting take on teaching theology in a fictionalized format. And he does it through satire. (No wonder I find it interesting.)
However, the story goes that Lewis said after he had written the book that he would never try to write another story like it. It led to pretty dark times in his life. When I was told this story, it came as a precautionary parable for focusing on the darkness. “Focusing on dark things will just lead you to dark places, which aren’t healthy for you.”
Considering that I talk about the Depths so much, you can see how I felt about the precaution. When you live there, it’s kinda difficult to not think about the Depths. And to add to my point, Lewis did go back to Screwtape for a single addendum in the form of Screwtape Proposes a Toast. Even though the novel led him to a dark time, the author returned for a single chapter.
And so, I have come to hold that existence in the Depths of darkness isn’t something to be run away from, if it’s where God has led us to be. It can be spiritually healthy, even if it’s a bit draining on the soul. The healthy part comes from being where God is in our lives, not from the darkness.
However, earlier this week, I read a passage in the bible that affirmed my thoughts about the Depths, but also provided a caution. That passage? Ecclesiastes 7:1-18. Not all of the passage is important to my point, but it stands together.
In verses 2-3 I found biblical vindication for my perspective about the Depths, darkness, sadness, and other “negative” emotional states. “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (ESV).
It’s better to go to a funeral than a party. Better to sigh than to laugh. A frowny face will lead to a smile on our hearts. The passage goes on to say that the wise will go to the house of mourning, but fools to the house of mirth. (I can’t figure out why people call the book of Ecclesiastes depressing.)
This shows that there’s a value to discovery in the Depths. There’s something to be gained in “negative” emotional space. And those who are wise gain further wisdom by seeking it out. In a world where we constantly hear “Fake it till you make it,” we’re told that forcing ourselves to smile will cause us to feel happy. But the very Word of God says that by letting our depression live on our faces, a smile can come to our hearts.
How does that work? I think that part of the answer comes in another place where the phrase “sadness of face” occurs. In Nehemiah 2, while the Israelites were in exile, the author of the book stood as a wine steward of the foreign king. As he went up to the king, a frown came upon his face and the king asked what the problem was.
Fearing for his life because he looked depressed before the king, Nehemiah prayed to God, and then he told the king the truth. He had been thinking about the city of Jerusalem and its state in ruins. He was sad because the once great capital of his people had been torn down. And what does the king do? He asks what Nehemiah hopes to do about it. And after the wine steward asks the king if he could go back to rebuild the city, the king allows him to.
If Nehemiah hadn’t had a frown on his face that day, the one person who could help him with the problem never would have known about it. A smile came upon the heart of Nehemiah because a frown had been upon his face.
If we fake happiness, we strengthen the power of the darkness. But if we face our “negative” emotions, we might just find someone who can help us deal with the problems.
But what about that caution from Ecclesiastes? That comes a little later in chapter 7. Verses 16-18 speak this truth. “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them” (ESV).
It says don’t be too wise or too foolish. While wisdom can be found in the Depths, it’s good to not spend all of your life there. There’s a time to go to the house of mourning and a time to go to the house of feasting. It’s good to have wisdom, but none should withhold their hand from laughter.
But it should all be tempered by the fear of God. As long as we bow before the power of the Almighty, the place we find ourselves shouldn’t make that much difference. It makes me realize that I can come across a bit too over-reactionary while speaking about the Depths. In my endeavor to make sure that we who find ourselves often in the Depths understand how it can be a time of growth, I might push aside the value of happiness.
Both can be good. Both are good. If God has placed us there, that’s where he wishes to teach us. Though, we shouldn’t devalue what God can teach us in the other state of being. There’s a balance that should be held. One aided by the power of God. Who knows what he’ll accomplish through us if we stand where he calls us to be.