An article in a psychology journal recently made a case for the importance of human emotion. Though the discipline of psychology is certainly grounded in such an understanding (perhaps at times even at risk of elevating the position of feelings too steeply), the author's argument was fairly pointed: Emotions exist to warn us that there are specific underlying beliefs or behaviors that are endangering us. Thus, deeming emotions like fear, doubt, or despair as negative or unwanted, we distract ourselves from heeding their warning. We use food, drugs, work, consumerism, and even positive thinking to banish these emotions to unutterable depths. Doing so, the author contends, is like calling our smoke alarms "negative" and proceeding to attack them with baseball bats.
From news hour to news hour, it is an image that rings powerfully true. Who can argue that we are not a people torn with inconsistency, a world offering every material comfort, encouraging the pursuit of assurance in our overwhelming array of options, while behind our storage units, despair and depression refuse to be bought. Warnings ring throughout families and communities, while smoke alarms are silenced and fires go uninvestigated. Of course, the other extreme is also possible; ever investigating the fire will not put it out. So what good are emotions?
In the weighted words of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took the strenuous commandments of the law and the prophets to an exhausting new level. He explained that it was not merely murder that God forbade, but anger burning toward another person. It was not just adultery that corrupted God's intention for marriage but even lust at all. He carried the sins God abhors to the emotions they are rooted in, inviting us to see the power of our emotions and the creator in the midst of them. Our actions do not come merely by impulse, but by a system of values to which a life is committed. Emotions, like pain, are the alarm system of the body. They will lead us to God or further away from God.
Grieving at the tomb of Jesus after having witnessed his excruciating death, Mary was weeping as she went to prepare Jesus's body. When she found his remains missing she was horrified and desperate at the thought that someone had carried him away. It was at this heightened point of emotion when a man approached her at the tomb and asked, "Why are you crying?" It is a redundant question at any grave sight, but Mary's grief went deeper than could even be verbalized. She was mourning the death of the only person who saw her beyond status and stigma and shame. She mourned the death of Jesus and with it the death of hope; the new life she was given in Christ was taken also as she watched her only advocate put to death.
"Why are you crying?" the man asked. Mary didn't even try to explain: "If you have carried him away," she said, "just tell me where you have put him."
The questions Jesus asks always seem to inquire of more they than the first appear. Why are you crying? What emotions have you silenced or given up trying to explain? What might your soul be telling you? Like an alarm warning the owner that there is something amiss in the building, our emotions hint at what is moving in our depths. They can point us to God or block our vision of the need that is crying to be heard. Mary's tears were so heavy she didn't recognize that the one she was crying for was standing right in front of her. She thought it was the gardener until Jesus said her name.
The depths of our souls call to the depths of creation and creator. "Why are you downcast, O my soul?" the psalmist cried. "Why so disturbed within me?" Admitting his sorrow honestly, though he may not have understood it, he allowed it to lead him to God. "My soul is downcast within me;therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, from the heights of Hermon from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep."
Indeed, hearing her name spoken by Jesus as they stood beside the empty tomb, Mary's grief was answered by the only one who could reach it.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.