When my husband was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer at age 28, I was confronted with a whirlwind of emotions. I was devastated, frustrated, confused, heartbroken, anxious, and terrified. The only cancer patients under 60 I knew were from stories, and they centered on being brave, positive, and happy despite hardships. And yet, here I was, sobbing in bed. I could barely make out my husband’s silhouette through the tears. I didn’t feel brave, positive, or happy.
Enter another emotion: guilt.
I concluded that I was doing it all wrong. I had this challenge, dramatic enough to describe in a news story or devotional, but my response was far from inspiring. Who would be inspired by this puddle of tears? Who would want to hear the story of the woman who screamed, “I hate cancer!” into her pillow without an ounce of grace or dignity? Why didn’t I respond with optimism and strength? Was I lacking faith?
From the moment of diagnosis, I never stopped praying. I didn’t doubt God’s love, but I was still sad. Why didn’t I have the emotional fortitude I heard so much about? Why couldn’t I smile through every chemotherapy appointment and shrug off a day full of CT scans, radiation treatments, and blood transfusions? Why didn’t I feel the cheerful attitude I thought I was “supposed” to radiate?
Then I thought about the life of Jesus Christ. The shortest scripture became the most powerful: Jesus wept.
When Lazarus died, Jesus didn’t smile, bring a casserole, and dismiss everyone’s worries. He wept. He didn’t tell Mary and Martha that if they were just stronger or more faithful, they wouldn’t feel sorrow. He cried with them. Of course, he knew he would reunite with his brother. He knew death was temporary, but he didn’t push aside emotions. He felt deep sadness. After the death of his friend, he had good reason to cry, and he didn’t feel any guilt about it.
Jesus Christ experienced a wide range of emotions. He felt frustration when his temple was abused and disappointment when people didn’t believe his teachings. He felt heartbroken when he was betrayed and discouraged when his apostles lacked faith. He felt intense pain, both physical and emotional. He even pleaded for relief from the agony in Gethsemane.
Yet for some reason, we are tempted to think we should always be happy. We expect to face hardships with eagerness, and beam with joy through pain and sickness. We label ourselves weak when we break from our jovial disposition.
It’s not fair to put that expectation on ourselves.
Our responses to challenges don’t have to match anyone else’s or fit in a neat little box. We can embrace our emotions, even the difficult ones, for they truly facilitate growth. Sadness can lead us to empathy. Frustration can lead us to stand for the right. Uneasiness can lead us to prayer. And heartache can lead us to Christ.
As I look at my tear-stained face in the mirror, I realize I AM doing it right. It’s OK to be devastated that my husband has cancer. It’s OK to be concerned about our future. It’s OK to feel frustrated when his medications don’t work or disappointed when holidays are spent in the hospital. It’s OK that we cry together as I spoon-feed him Jell-O and wrap his body with bandages. It’s OK that we plead with God to take this cup from us if it aligns with His will.
None of this means we lack faith.
If Christ’s tears inspired many, so can mine. His heart ached to see his loved ones suffer, just like my heart aches when my husband moans in pain from his hospital bed. Christ probably hated leprosy as much as I hate cancer. The Bible doesn’t say Christ smiled in the face of agonizing situations. Some days I’m the first to smile and laugh in the hospital waiting room, but other days I remind myself Jesus wept, and it’s OK if I do, too.
By facing my feelings head on, I am finding true joy. I no longer criticize myself for emotional responses to difficult situations. I no longer expect myself to always be positive and cheerful, regardless of painful circumstances. I am using my experiences and emotions to lift others through understanding and empathy. My pain, heartache, sadness, anger, frustration, worry, and disappointment are helping me learn, grow, and support the people around me.
Because Jesus Christ allowed himself to feel emotions deeply, I know I can, too.