All the Feelings

by julie ball

by julie ball

In Disney/Pixar’s latest release, “Inside Out,” the story’s main characters are the emotions of an 11-year-old girl named Riley: Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. The majority of the movie takes place inside Riley’s head as we see her emotions deal with things like moving to a new state, having stressed-out parents, and starting middle school.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Joy is used to being in charge. She takes pride in the fact that Riley’s core memories are all gold-colored, signifying that they were moments of joy. She relinquishes control to Anger, Disgust, or Fear for only the shortest of terms, and as she watches the corresponding red, green, and purple memories roll in, she seems to take it for granted that they won’t become core memories that define Riley’s personality. 

Then there’s Sadness, hovering around like a dark cloud, giving every memory she touches a tint of blue. Joy thinks Sadness is going to ruin everything, so she shoves her into a corner and orders her not to come out.

In my experiences, I've observed that we Christians can sometimes be a bit like bossy Joy when it comes to worship. We want worship to be based on joy and filled with joy every single moment. If there is an emotion other than joy that we’ll allow in worship, it’s guilt. Joy and guilt, joy and guilt. No other emotions need show up at 11:00 on Sunday morning.

Of course, I do think that joy is an indispensable part of worship. We should feel joy when we think and sing and talk and learn about our loving Creator. And, of course, I know that we must recognize our sins and shortcomings in order to repent and become better followers of Christ. But what about our other feelings?

In the movie, when Riley isn’t allowed – or, more accurately, doesn’t allow herself – to feel sad, she begins to fall apart inside. Maybe our worship services don’t actually fall apart when we ignore our other feelings, but I think we do jeopardize our emotional and spiritual health when we try to check them at the sanctuary door. Worship is more than putting on a show for God; worship is standing before God honestly – just as we truly are, and just as we truly feel.

So what can we do? I’m certainly not suggesting that worship leaders should – or even could – cater to worshipers’ moods. I am, however, advocating for ways to make room for all our feelings. We can begin by tapping into the wide range of emotions expressed in the Bible and in the hymnal. As hymn-writer Brian Wren perfectly puts it: 

In our [hymn-writers’] portrayal of God and the world, our lyrics will make space for both celebration and lament. The universe, the earth, life, and human life are marvelous and wonderful, themes for unclouded praise, thanksgiving, and delight. It is right, and always right, to praise God everywhere and always. Yet because our world also knows suffering, tragedy, and unspeakable evil, we cannot hide behind happy hallelujahs in a garden of parochial praise. (1) 

We call the place we worship a “sanctuary,” but that doesn’t mean it’s an artificial bubble. 

(Spoiler alert!) In the movie, Joy eventually learns that all of Riley’s emotions are equally important, and that events and memories can be “colored” with more than one emotion. Riley, like all of us, is a complex being. She can feel many things at one time. So can we. And you know what? God understands that. God made us to feel; Christ knows how we feel. We don’t have to pretend. (2)

Knowing that makes me feel, well, joy, but also love and gratitude and relief. 

(1) Brian Wren, Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) 176.

(2) Hebrews 4:15-16.