The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

The Insult of “We Just Want You To Feel Happy Inside”


One of my most favorite people in the world wrote about a difficult time her 4 year old daughter was having.  Her little one was acting out a bit at pre-school, unsuccessfully trying to control the actions of her friends, and the girl was confronted about this and had some pretty strong feelings.  Apparently her teacher tried to help her by telling her “We just want you to feel happy inside.”   My friend said it just killed her to hear this part of the story as the teacher told it.  And those words hit a particular nerve with me as well.  I mean isn’t that what all of us want for our kids and ourselves: to feel happy inside?

Any parent would experience that sentiment uttered in regards to their children as heartbreaking.  And my friend wondered, as most of us would, what it all said about her and her parenting.  Was it some sort of candy-coated personal indictment, issued oh-so-sweetly as only a pre-school teacher could?  Maybe it’s just my love and natural defensiveness for my friend (and admittedly myself, because obviously I’m identifying pretty closely here) but it strikes me as ironic that the teacher tried to comfort the little girl with these particular words.  Being able to change the way someone feels just by saying that you want them to feel a certain way seems infinitely more out-of-touch with the world of things we can and cannot control than were the actions of the little girl.  If only it were that easy, just wanting someone (or ourselves) to feel happy inside. I’m guessing that the little girl pretty much assumed that her actions and attitudes were in the best interest of her happiness.  I mean, it seems like wanting to be happy drives most of our actions in this world, doesn’t it?  It’s practically written into our DNA.  Ok, maybe it’s not actually written into our DNA, but the pursuit of happiness is written into the actual Declaration of Independence.  Alas, if only achieving it were as easy as wishing for it.  Or writing it down someplace.  Ahem.  Or Amen?

If you’ve read a few of my blog posts you know that I’m not an overly light person.  Often, my thoughts and feelings are deeper and heavier and darker than I’d like them to be.  Growing up, I found it difficult to relate to other kids who could much more easily remain focused on fun and happy things.  I’d do my best to try to stay there with them as long as possible in the bright sunlight in which they played. But it wasn’t natural for me.  I wasn’t comfortable lingering interminably in that place with the sun glaring infinitely and the seasons never changing.  It started to feel like a betrayal of myself or at least the parts of myself that called me towards a habitat of more variegated tints and shades.  As I’ve grown older, most of the friendships I’ve made and kept are with people who will go to those places with me from time to time.  But throughout my life, I’ve frequently heard phrases like, “Lighten up!” or “Don’t take life so seriously!” and yes, even the seemingly compassionate but actually rather condescending, “We just want you to feel happy inside.”

Me too.  It would be nice if my internal landscape were purely a happy one. Who wouldn’t want to set up camp in one of those paintings from Bob Ross where all his happy trees live?  And I want my children to live there, too.  Because a light life is an easier life.    It’s not that I’m not happy, mind you.  I just don’t always feel happy.  I think it’s important to differentiate those two things.  Even happy people feel sad sometimes.  But I wonder if I were just a more cheery person, maybe I’d be better off.  My relationships would be less complicated.  I’d probably be more easily contented.  I wouldn’t feel like I was burdening others by always having to be so “deep.”  And If I were just a smiley, perpetually pleasant Pollyanna-type personality, wouldn’t I be a better Christian?  Because that’s the kind of person people are attracted to.  That’s the kind of person others point at and say, “Wow, wonder what/who she has?  She just seems so happy.”

You know that place in the Bible where Paul says that he asks God to take away the thorn in his flesh that he says was given to him by Satan to torment him?  We aren’t told exactly what it was, but obviously it was something that caused him great anguish and he prayed several times that it would be taken from him but it wasn’t.  Instead, God just tells him that “my power works best in weakness.”

John Piper wrote about this passage at the beginning of this year.  He blogged about it, encouraging us not to “waste our weakness.”  As a person with a lot of weakness, Piper had me excited at first with this resolution.  I was with him through his exhortation to identify and exploit our weaknesses.  I found hope as he began to talk about how God could turn our weakness into something that could be used for positive things.  But then I felt utterly deflated when he finally shared his weakness:  Not being a quick reader.  Really?  That’s it?   I mean, I know everyone faces their own hardship and that this one was obviously a significant one for him.  But reading slowly is not exactly a character flaw or a moral weakness, it’s really barely an intellectual limitation.  And yes, of course God can use those.  Because John Piper was not any less Christian-y just because he was a slow reader.  He wasn’t any less holy. But what about my gloom?  What about my discontentedness?  What about the anger or the melancholy or the doubt?  Why not take those things away.  Aren’t they just a detraction from the good of God? Who wants them?  Who wants to be around people who are like that?  And why would God not want his people to be identified by characteristics which more naturally attract others? Like feeling happy all the time.

But somehow I’m stuck being this way, yes even despite my praying to change.  And I don’t know how God will use it for the good, but I do trust that he will because he promises exactly that.  He tells us that His strength is made perfect in weakness.  And I’ve got a lot of weakness so I’m expecting Him to bring forth a whole lotta his perfect strength through it!

I’ve had a few people approach me with concern about how I seem sad or unhappy in my writing.  Yes, I do sometimes feel down or hopeless or desperate or despondent and I write about it. But what I hope I’m conveying in my writing is that those darker places are not abandoned or forsaken places.  They are richly inhabited by the promises of God.  More importantly, those places are richly inhabited by God himself.  He is with the weak, the broken, the lowly, the obscure, the broken-hearted, those who mourn, who are sick, who are poor in spirit, who hunger and who thirst for righteousness.  Those characteristics all describe me at some time or another.  But my prayer is that people who read my blog will not be left seeing a grim landscape littered with my weaknesses.  Rather I pray my writing is a place where one might encounter someone who sometimes finds herself inhabiting those darker places but whose view is of a far greater and more glorious hope.

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