Ask anyone who has been through a faith crisis and nearly all will tell you that significant pain was central to their experience. Faith crisis involves great losses – from certainty and stability to relationships and community belonging – which must be grieved. Anger and sadness are nearly universal elements of the grieving process.
Unfortunately, religious cultures often frame these “negative” emotions as the products of wrongdoing or lack of righteous action or effort. Scriptural writings often warn against anger and tell us that sadness is a result of wickedness. Sometimes faithful, often well-meaning people will point to the anger and sadness of their loved one in faith crisis as evidence that they are doing something wrong and if they would just be faithful, all the pain would go away. If only it were that simple.
Anger and sadness are not inherently bad or negative. The Bible includes descriptions of how Jesus experienced these emotions (John 11:35, John 2:15-16). Psychological studies have found that the authentic expression of these emotions is vital to our well-being. When we perceive them as negative, we tend to ignore, deny or numb them. When we do not take the time to understand them, we can become reactive, blaming, or isolating. These tendencies can lead to destructive behavior – toward ourselves and others.
So how can we express authentic emotion in a way that will lead through the pain to greater joy and life satisfaction?
Authentic anger is a gift. It alerts us that we have been wronged, or that others have been wronged. It tells us that it is time to stand up for what is right, to speak up for ourselves or for others, or to set healthy boundaries.
The gift of authentic sadness reminds us that we have experienced something that we loved or brought meaning and comfort, but that now must be let go. It helps us honor what was, to show gratitude for it and to prepare for what will be. When we experience it fully, it allows us space for forgiveness and acceptance.
Some people can easily recognize when they are feeling anger or sadness. Others do not realize these feelings are there until they isolate, shut down, or the emotions are taken out on someone or something else. Regardless of how you get there, take a moment to reflect on how you are feeling.
You can meditate, journal, talk to a trusted friend or family member, or reach out to a therapist or coach to help you acknowledge your feelings and find a healthy expression for them. Try to determine the cause of your feelings, what you need to accept, and what actions you can take to set things right, gain acceptance or protect yourself from further mistreatment or abuse.
How might it change your outlook if you viewed anger and sadness with gratitude as gifts bringing growth, compassion and healing rather than as punishments or indications of wrongdoing?
Jana Spangler is a life coach who specializes in supporting and mentoring others who are experiencing pain in their spiritual life and relationships. She has recently been accepted into the prestigious Living School through the Center for Action and Contemplation of Richard Rohr.