“Cheer Up!” And Other Obnoxious Advice

Tenth grade was bad enough without adding forced cheerfulness.

She arrived when I was in tenth grade and was very, very smart, virtuous, and lovely. I sent her a note, because that was what I did in tenth grade when overwhelmed by holiness or hormones.

She turned me down for some very good reasons: I was immature, hasty, overly romantic, and did not know her well enough to have any opinion of her.

In the midst of making her case, an effective one using Scripture, reason, and wit, she made a critical error.

She was nervous about her new school and told me so, but then worried (in her note) that this was a “bad confession.” She felt she had to deny her feelings to be holy.

Tenth grade was made worse, because a particular heresy had drifted into our Christian community. I came to think of it as forced cheerfulness put out by the ministry of cheer. These ministers made a simple argument having three main assumptions:

God is in charge.

If God is in charge, then all things that happen are good.

Our reaction to those things should not just be acceptance, and certainly not grief, but cheer.

This was most obvious in funerals of that time when the fact that “Bob had gone to be with the Lord” meant that we should all be cheerful about his death. If we were not cheerful, we lacked faith. Worse, in a magic more potent than any in Hogwarts, our confession of sorrow, doubt, or advice was a “bad confession” that would, almost certainly, bring on the very things we feared.

Like most heresies, lies told by Satan using the truth, the heresy helped a bit. It is true that God is in charge. It is true that our feelings are a bad guide for what we should do. However, it is not true that everything that happens is “good” or that our reaction, especially our verbal reaction, should be cheerful.

In fact, false cheer is harmful as is suppressing emotion. Because we confused “confessing” our emotions with acting on our emotions, we were too apt to stuff our feelings. After getting the note, I felt sad, but also compelled to cheer up. It must be God’s will and so I must cheerfully accept it. 

In fact, I as I reread the note (carefully preserved) from tenth grade I am convinced it was God’s will. My romantic life and desires were a mess and it be would years before I would come close to being ready for such a mature person. However, I am also convinced that our forced cheerfulness, she about her new school and me about my romantic “pain” was worse than useless.

Why?

It is a good rule for a Christian that when one becomes more pious than Jesus, one has gone too far. Jesus faced crucifixion willingly, but not with great cheer. I believe Peter may been given his sword by the Lord not to defend the Savior, but to cut off the head of any Minister of Forced Cheer who came to the Garden.

If Jesus could be sad, and say  he was sad, without sin, then so can we.

The word count limit fails to allow me to list the giants of the Faith who made “bad confessions” from Abraham to David to Paul. Great Christians have become great by admitting their pain, exposing it, giving it to God, and then being transformed. C.S. Lewis wrote “A Grief Observed” after all not “A Grief Unconfessed” and Mother Teresa journaled on her doubts and acted on her faith.

Her confession was her life.

At present no book of the Bible speaks to me more than Habakuk . . . a book so at odds with the Ministers of Cheer that their only excuse is that its undeserved obscurity suggests they have not read it. The prophet is mad at God, because the people of Israel are getting away with their sin. He complains loudly to God (saying harsh things!) and God answers him. God gives him the good news that judgment is coming from Babylon, but this did not cheer up Habakuk.

He pointed out that the Babylonians were worse than God’s people. God did not smite Habakuk for this complaint, but encouraged the prophet by promising just judgements for everyone, just not in the timescale of one human prophet’s ministry.

This left the prophet with a hunk-o-woe, but also this response:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

Notice he makes a “bad confession,” because the bad news is the truth. Stuff is going to get worse and it is not going to get better in his life. And yet the prophet will “rejoice in the Lord.” He will “take joy in the God” of his salvation.

Now the clever Ministers of Cheer, the few who had heard of this prophet, explain away this verse by saying that the prophet made a bad confession, before putting on his smiley button and cheering up with a good confession. Like all their lies, it twists the truth into a harmful thing.

The prophet lived in the real world, like the Lord Jesus did, and so had complex emotions. In this life, he knew he would be sad: he would not see victory and justice with his eyes. In the life of the world to come, he was glad.

I can testify you can have both emotions. Today I am sad for my sins, for our culture’s errors, and for my hurting and sick family and friends. I also rejoice in God, because I do not have to possess just one emotion, I never have, and I never will.

I tell the truth about my feelings and the world (when I am doing well) and act on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty as I can.

My Mom and Dad and my Christian school teachers had tried to warn me off from Ministers of Cheer and eventually, sometime around freshman year of college, I listened!

As for the tenth grade girl? Gentle reader, I married her.

 


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