Unpublished: A Letter to My Class On Being Prepared for Sadness

In a recent lecture in my PSYC 120 Introduction to Psychology class I was talking about sadness and spirituality. My sense is that a lot the theology we give to young Christians is so optimistic, hopeful, and triumphalistic that they aren't prepared for sadness, loss and disappointment. Consequently, when these young Christians encounter pain their faith is shaken and often falters. They draw the only conclusion available to them: If life is sad then God has abandoned me.

So in class I said that you should learn to expect sadness and be prepared for it. Which sounds awfully depressing. So after class I sent the students an email trying summarize what I was trying to say. Here's the email it sent them:
Dear PSYC 120,
I was thinking about class today and wanted to say a bit more.

If you weren't in class this might not make much sense, but if you were in class you'll recall I said that life is often very, very sad. All of us will shed many tears before it is all said and done.

That's where I left it in class, but I wanted to follow up and say a bit more about all this.

My goal in sharing all this isn't to make you depressed. It's to help you prepare for the future. Now is the time, here at ACU, to construct a theology--a way with God--that prepares you for sadness, prepares you for difficult times. You need to have a theology that expects loss, failure, pain, abandonment, accident, illness and death. Otherwise, you will be knocked off balance when these things occur, and you will wonder why God has abandoned you. But God hasn't abandoned you. God is there, in the midst of it all. But we have to prepare ourselves to seek God in the darkness, to find God in the darkness.

To be sure, life is and will be filled with joy, wonder, and deep, lasting happiness. I pray these things will fill your life to overflowing. But be prepared for sadness and disappointment. Come to know that God is and will be waiting for you in those dark moments. Do not panic when the pain comes. Do not avoid or fear the pathways of grief. Learn to suffer patiently and wisely, knowing that even in midst of pain that you are deeply loved and that you are not alone.

Grace and peace,

--an unpublished post sharing, obviously, a letter I sent my class a few years ago

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8 thoughts on “Unpublished: A Letter to My Class On Being Prepared for Sadness”

  1. I have used this as an example before, but I think it fits so well with your very enlightening post.

    In the movie, TENDER MERCIES, Mack Sledge, a down and out country singer who has just found happiness with a new wife and son, experiences the death of his daughter from a former marriage. Later, while tending to their garden, Mack comments to his wife, "I don't trust happiness; never have, never will". But, minutes later in the final scenes he is playing catch with his new son.

    I think many of us have felt that way at times. But in giving it more thought, I have come to the conclusion that maybe its not happiness we should trust at all; perhaps, its life itself that we are to trust. And when life is trusted, even pain becomes part of the mortar and stone. Landon Saunders once spoke of embracing our scars, accepting them as part of who we are. I have had to do that. I have spent my time literally face down on the floor with tears and snot all over my face, and for months afterward having those moments when my entire being felt like it was going to explode into a trillion pieces and directions. But those pieces have remained, often jumbled and rearranged in ways I never imagined before, but they are here, as the stones of my life; some shaped and molded into fine, well defined blocks, while many others have the deep marks of the chisel.

  2. Richard,

    This post resonates deeply with me, not only as it applies to my own life, but also as I see reflections of it in the lives of people I have come to know and work with over the last few years, people involved in the legal system. Many of them get there because of problems with disfunctional families, alcohol and/or drugs, mental illness, or a combination of some or all of those.

    Probably my favorite old song/hymn/psalm of all time is Wayfaring Stranger. While the singer does not make reference to the specific struggles of her or his life, there are hints of the kind of struggles and pains you talk about in your post and letter: A world of woe, and a rough and steep way. I certainly get the impression that the narrator knows sickness, toil, danger, and a whole lot more quite intimately.

    As I read your call for students to prepare a theology, a way with God, I couldn't help but think of pilgrimage. And then a work just popped into my head: theovialogy. The fact that what we call Christianity today was initially known simply as "The Way"--which in Latin is via--is just well, Providential.

    Thanks again for a wonderful series on y'all tour, and for bringing up George MacDonald again.


  3. I have taken a turn for the worse

    and I do not like this path I am on

    Every part of me yearns for joy,

    for contentment, for worth-

    for without these what is life?

    Sorrow, pain and unfulfilled desires

    are hiding at every turn

    they leap at me, trying to latch on

    I beat them away but they always follow closely,

    waiting for another chance.

    When they surround me and I have nowhere to go,

    I remember my savior,

    How much sorrow did he feel as his own people wanted to kill

    How much pain did he endure when they beat him

    and drove spikes through his limbs?

    How he must have desired beyond anything that

    his people would believe, just believe.

    And as the darkness surrounds me I have to smile,

    for they have no power over me,

    Yes I will mourn, I will know discouragement, I will
    experience sad time,

    But they will not last long...

    For I have witnessed the light.

    The light of Christ.

  4. Mine too. If I was doing what I was supposed to do God would honor that and all would be peace and joy. It didn't happen so I thought I should be doing something else. Then I discovered GRACE.

  5. Richard, if you have time to listen between flights & engagements, I strongly recommend this talk:


    Fits right in with SOD, and I think takes the next step - at least reading what I have so far...


  6. Richard,

    Your class is blessed for having such teaching. One of the great errors of evangelical Christianity as taught to teens is that God is there to protect you from all sadness. He's your fairy god mother or Santa Claus. He'll make everything okay. As a result, many of our children find themselves in faith crisis when anything goes wrong.

    I've been especially blessed by John Mark Hicks' lessons on lament and his own stories of learning to see God in a better, healthier way when things have gone badly in his life.

    I would urge all Christian universities to be certain that their students, regardless of major, are taught this lesson. It's a key difference between Therapeutic Moralistic Deism and real Christianity.

  7. i think if I had been taught the 'whys' of addiction, been informed abt the ways trauma (esp early childhood sexual trauma) can take a person over so that they live in perpetual reactivity & symptoms of p.t.s.d. the problems i've had w inner stigma might have recieved exposure earlier & recieved intervention. I dithered around looking to heal my afflictions w religious platitudes for decades! Thank the lord that many religious addicts like me, in the last 5yrs or so, have limped away from churches that blame the victoms!

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