'Inside Out' and Christian Sadness
Image: Disney / Pixar, 2015
Inside Out

“In the Protestant West today,” writes theologian Ben Myers, “smiling has become a moral imperative. The smile is regarded as the objective externalisation of a well-ordered life. Sadness is moral failure.”

This is especially true of evangelicals. We save our best faces for Sunday morning; we hide terrible secrets and unspeakable suffering behind the veneer of a firm handshake and a “just fine.” Our brave smiles evince our faith in the cult of Christian happiness. “Evangelical churchliness,” writes Myers, “is the ritualisation of bare-toothed crassness.”

But this wasn’t Jesus’ way. Scripture never tells of Jesus smiling, though he certainly wept. Instead, Scripture calls Jesus “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Jesus—who knew better than anyone the promise of eternal joy—was not a jolly messenger of cosmic bliss, but a suffering servant. The icons of church tradition never show a smiling Christ. He gazes back at us with a look far beyond all happiness and frivolity. It is the gaze of pure joy, tinged with grief: it is as different from our plastered Sunday smiles as a lover’s laughter is from a supermodel’s dead-eyed stare.

The relationship between joy and sadness is at the heart of Pixar’s new film, Inside Out. The film takes us inside the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley and depicts her emotions as anthropomorphic characters. Chief among these is Joy, who has dominated Riley’s childhood experiences until now. Joy and Riley’s other emotions have never quite figured out what to do with Sadness, portrayed as a blue blob and voiced by Phyllis Smith with captivating despondency. The situation changes, though, when Riley and her parents move from their small town in Minnesota to San Francisco, where her father has started a new job. Riley’s emotions struggle to cope with the upheaval of a cross-country move. Initially, Riley is confused by her sadness and pushes it away, but gradually she learns to accept it as an integral part of her identity.

At the crux of Inside Out is its gentle acknowledgment of the important function of sadness in an emotionally healthy person. Sadness is not portrayed as a negative emotion. It is not a necessary evil to be pushed away until it’s absolutely unavoidable. Instead, Riley needs sadness. It’s the only appropriate response to the turmoil and confusion she feels.

Sadness—in the movie and in real life—can be a positive emotion. It is not the absence of joy, or a stubborn, Eeyore-like refusal to look on the bright side. In its proper place, sadness is merely right. At such times, no other emotion will do.

Early American theologian Jonathan Edwards taught that true religion consists of “holy affections.” Edwards defined “affections” as our deepest emotions, our most powerful aspirations and motivations. Our actions, he said, are motivated by our affections, and the Christian life can be understood as the ongoing realignment of our affections to reflect the reality of God and of our place in his world. True religion, says Edwards, is manifest in “rightly ordered affections.”

The believer with rightly ordered affections will find sadness to be their frequent companion. The Christian life begins with sadness—sorrow over our own sin—and that sorrow continues throughout our life as layer after layer of our soul is peeled back and revealed to us. Much of the psalmist’s grief is of this kind. “I am feeble and crushed,” he sings. “I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (Ps. 38:8). The despair and grief of repentance is the necessary prerequisite to the joy of restoration. Ash Wednesday always precede Easter Sunday.

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'Inside Out' and Christian Sadness