I remember exactly how it felt to walk outside into a glorious spring day like the one in the photograph. The sun felt warm on my face and body. The air was fresh and fragrant with the scent of soil and vegetation and farm animals. As I left the house I walked across the yard that was just beginning to turn green as the earth warmed from the strengthening rays of the sun. I could hear birds singing: sparrows, robins, crows, Canadian geese, blackbirds, magpies, and red-winged black birds. I could also hear the sound of frogs in nearby sloughs. The earth was coming alive. And I felt happy to be alive.
What a glorious feeling to walk outside on such a morning! My brothers, Allen and Arthur, had left for school. I had had breakfast. And I had put on my shoes and was able to wear my spring jacket, the one that I am wearing in these photographs. I loved that jacket! I liked the way it made me feel special when I wore it. It was red—though I think it may have been reversible, with the other color being blue. It had a white stripe running down each arm, and had white, metal snap buttons and stretchy, elastic cuffs. It felt sporty—even though it was a hand-me-down from one or both of my brothers, and showed signs of wear. I had put on the jacket in the porch where it hung on a clothes hook, along with my cap. This little porch was on the east end of our house, next to the kitchen. It couldn’t have been more than about eight feet square.
I spent most of my time on such days exploring the farm yard by myself. I would explore the barn, perhaps, or climb up the haystack and look out over the countryside from my lofty vista, or maybe I would walk among the trees of our shelter belt. My common companion on such explorations was our dog, Sport. When I walked about the yard or through the trees Sport was there at my side. When I stopped, Sport stopped too, and sat right beside me so that I could pet him. He showed his appreciation for such attention by licking his lips. I found it hard to stop because he was so appreciative!
In the spring, Lois and I sit without a care in the warmth of the spring sun. We sit close to the place where a pile of hay sat against the south end of the slab fence. Each morning some hay would be pitchforked over the slab fence to some cattle below. There are remnants of this hay scattered on the ground where we are sitting. I can imagine that there would have been some lingering smell of this hay, and perhaps there was still hay in a little haystack not far from where we were sitting. About fifty feet or so to the right of us was the barn, a favorite place for exploration.
Our mother took these photographs of my sister and me at home on the farm on a warm spring day in 1960, perhaps in April or May, when I was six and my sister, Lois, was one and a half. We are sitting here in the sun on a pile of lumber at the south-west corner of a slab fence that ran along two sides of the corral on the south end of our barn. In the photo we are facing west toward the house. The slab fence stood to the right of the barn (south). Lois and I sat at the end the fence shown in this picture.
Mom saw me outside from the kitchen window and quickly brought out Lois along with her black-and-white camera to take our pictures. I wonder exactly when these photographs were taken. Grandma Johnson, my mom’s mom, died that same spring, May 11, 1960 (a Wednesday). I imagine that the pictures above were taken before this, but I can’t be certain. In any case, mom found joy in her children and would have found comfort in being a mother even as she lost her own mom. She once told me how when she was a little girl she couldn’t imagine losing her mom. The thought of losing one’s mother is inconceivable to a child. I’m sure it was still hard for mom as an adult to learn that her mom had died. It happened less than a week before mom’s forty-fifth birthday (May 16, 1960). But mom’s sorrow was surely balanced by her joy at having children of her own. So as I look at these black-and-white photographs I also think of the one taking the pictures, my mother.
I have a specific memory from this time. It is about walking out our driveway and onto the road leading to Beda’s house (Beda Johnson). Mom and I walked over to Beda’s house so that we could watch the royal wedding of Princess Margaret that took place on May 6, 1960. This was the first ever televised royal wedding; over twenty million people watched it. It was a Friday. I have a distinct memory of this, of walking to Beda’s house, and of sitting in her tiny living room while we watched her black and white television. We didn’t get a television until just before Christmas 1963, so it was quite a treat to be able to watch television. Mom told me in recent years when I relayed this memory to her that she was sad that she wasn’t home that day because it was the last time that grandma was at our house. I had no memory of this. I imagine that grandma was at home babysitting Lois, while mom and I went to Beda’s to watch the wedding.
Life was simpler back then. Jesus invites us to become like a little child. When responsibilities and worries crowd my thoughts, I like to revist these happy places in my mind and imagine the wholeness I felt on those warm spring days in 1960.
3Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. 4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. – Ecclesiastes 7:3-4
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. – Luke 6:21
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5:4
In his essay, “The Meaning of Melancholy,” Romano Guardini describes good and evil melancholy. Evil melancholy leads one to hopelessness and despair (The Human Experience, Cluny Media, 2018). Good melancholy, on the other hand, is ultimately creative and life-giving. Such scripture texts as those above that describe sorrow, mourning, and weeping in positive terms should be classified as “good melancholy.”
Melancholy can be defined simply as “sadness,” that is, the opposite of “happiness.” Guardini says that melancholy “conveys the idea of heaviness of spirit” (p.51). Happiness and sadness are normal and universal human emotional responses to the good and bad things that happen in life. But “melancholy” may be used to describe a pervasive and persistent mood of sadness that is not caused by a specific disappointment in life. As such, it becomes a mood that seeps into our entire lives so that even joyous occasions take on its bitter taste.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gives vivid personal expression to the anguish brought about by melancholy: “the whole of existence is poisoned in my sight, particularly myself, Great is my sorrow and without bounds; no man knows it, only God in heaven, and he will not console me; no man can console me, only God in heaven, and he will not have mercy upon me.” (quoted in Guardini, p. 36). Here Kierkegaard sounds a lot like Job in the Old Testament. Job says, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me” (Job 10:1-2).
In the light of such negative descriptions, it may be surprising for us to think that melancholy can also be viewed positively, as a good and beneficial element in our lives. Since sadness is an unpleasant, bad feeling, and happiness is a pleasant and good feeling, it is easy for us to consider one bad and the other good. That is, it is easy for us to associate only positive, happy emotions with God, and to think that negative feelings, such as sadness, indicate that we are somehow separated from God and God’s blessings. But scripture suggests otherwise. “Blessed are you who weep now” (Luke 6). “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5). Such texts invite us to consider how the experience of sadness may be good for us, and that such unpleasant feelings may actually become an unexpected pathway to blessedness or happiness. Indeed, the Greek term translated “blessed” in such passages (makarios) can also be translated as “happy”. So, even though it sounds paradoxical, it is right to say, “Happy are those who mourn.”
Sadness may arise from witnessing the suffering of others or, indeed, from our own troubles. When my children were young, we bought a new bicycle for our daughter, Jill. But her brother Philip did not have a bicycle that worked, and the sight of him trying to get an old, dilapidated bicycle that we had inherited to work, caused Jill to weep for her brother. She was inconsolable, unable to enjoy her new bicycle because Philip did not have one that worked. To redress this wrong, we immediately got into our car and drove to town and bought Philip a new bicycle of his own—and that purchase turned Jill’s sadness into joy.
Feelings of sadness may also arise from our sense of loss in life. We lose loved ones through death. We may also lose our jobs, our children when they grow up and leave home, our health, and ultimately our very lives. It is a sad day when we learn that we are mortal, that we will die! This repeated experience of loss can cast a dark pall over us so that we live with a perpetual sense of gloom.
The question is, How can we experience good rather than evil melancholy? How can it lead to hope and joy rather than despair? How can we be “blessed” or “happy,” even though we and others endure countless pains and sorrows? Bad or evil melancholy is surely melancholy without God, a deep sadness arising from the sense that life is tragic, that there is no gospel providing a basis and source for abiding joy, that there is no ultimate hope overcoming the despair arising from the countless burdens and heartaches of life. Good melancholy, on the other hand, leads to hope and joy.
The Christian answer to melancholy is ultimately eschatological (that is, having to do with the future). This means that the scriptural promises regarding the God who raised Jesus from the dead may engender positive expectations concerning the future. Present sadness can be offset by future joy. Melancholy is therefore a temporary response to a state of affairs that is not permanent or ultimate.
But how exactly can the present experience of melancholy be thought of positively? Melancholy is positive in that it bears witness to the unacceptable nature of the present state of affairs—much like our daughter Jill’s tears for her brother’s lack of a bicycle—and thereby also gives testimony to the way things ought to be. Melancholy holds onto the dream of a world in which there will be peace, health, immortality, moral goodness, unspeakable beauty, and union with God who is love.
1) Melancholy is a God-given faculty that bears witness to that which is good, to that which is perfect and eternal, to that which is far better than what now exists in this life. It tells of another reality, another world, a better world. It refuses to accept the way things are, or to accept this present world as ultimate. It bears witness to an eschatological world, the world of Jesus and the prophets, that is, to the kingdom or rule of God.
2) Melancholy is a hunger or appetite for the kingdom of God. It keeps us from being satisfied with anything less than God. It will not allow us to make peace with the status quo, with what is not the way the way it should be. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
3) Melancholy is a response to the countless imperfections of this life. Guardini says, “Melancholy longs for the absolutely perfect, for the unattainable, for profound and intimate values, for the untouchably exalted and noble and precious” (p.70). He also says that “Basically it is a yearning for love—love in all its forms . . . “ (p.69). “Melancholy may be described as the birth pangs of the eternal” in us (p.72).
Every human being experiences sadness to some degree. I often feel more prone to bouts of melancholy than most people—but it is often impossible to know what others are experiencing. The sayings of Jesus quoted above, together with the insightful comments of Romano Guardini, help me to think of this common experience in a more positive way. It shows that there is kind of perfection meter within us (hopefully enlightened by the Holy Spirit) that is constantly evaluating and critiquing what happens and is done in this world (including by me!), and that points to a better world to come, the kingdom of God.
The LORD “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” – Psalm 146:3
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” – Luke 6:21
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Psalm 30:11
My father sharing a moment of joy with my sister, Lois,and me (late 1950s).
In Romans 5 Paul tells what it is like to live “between the times;” between the “already” of being justified by faith” (5:1-2) and the “not yet” that consists of present sufferings (5:3-5). Paul does not embrace a view of present glory where heaven overtakes earth, where weakness and heartache and failure are all in the past. Faith does not grant exemption from woe and pain, spiritual ecstasies do not overcome all agonies of soul and body. Yet, while Paul does not embrace an escapist “theology of glory,” he does affirm that faith transforms the way affliction is encountered so that it can now be met with confidence and even joy.
This positive orientation towards suffering is not a form of Christianized Stoicism, however. It does not deny or minimize present pains, but is instead built upon certainties about the future. Such certainties have their origin in the God who justifies the ungodly and makes enemies, friends. This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
After laying a foundation of certainty concerning the future for believers at the beginning of Romans 5 (“we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” Rom 5:2 – RSV), Paul goes on to affirm the universal benefits of Christ’s work (5:15-19). He does so by comparing the universal effects of Adam’s transgression with the similarly universal effects of Christ’s act of redemption.
Paul’s reference to Adam reminds us that Adam’s story (Genesis 2-3) is our story; his name in Hebrew means “man” or “human being,” and so includes us all. “Adam” represents or embodies all of us. And Adam’s tragic biography (in Genesis) prefigures humanity’s failure so that his fall from glory becomes the recurring theme of human history, where the promise of “what could have been” has been replaced with the disappointment and sadness of “what has happened” and “what now is.”
Sin’s consequence in Adam’s case, death, has also become the destiny of every human who is born, just as each person exhibits the same moral flaw with the same disastrous outcome. Mortality is now our common fate, and unlike other creatures, we must live with the knowledge that we all sin and that we must also surely die. And we are aware that death is more than a natural event; it is an evil power that rules over us as a fearsome foe.
Paul refers to Adam (in Romans 5; see also 1 Corinthians 15) because it allows him to speak about universality. The story of Adam tells us how we are all alike, all made of the same stuff, all subject to the same temptations, all living an exilic existence, all coming to terms with “paradise lost.”
Although we see hints of Eden even now about us, we know that we do not live in paradise any longer. Like the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3), we have, as it were, also been escorted from the garden, made to live in a harsher, crueler world, with only faint memories of what was once ours. And, despite our noblest intentions and loftiest ideals, our day-to-day practice is disappointing. We “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23, NRSV). “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—“ (5:12).
Adam’s transgression (Genesis 3; Romans 5) is the prototype of all subsequent sin. Time and again we ourselves prove to be Adam’s clone, repeating in our own lives the same acts of self-assertion, the same mistrust, the same grasping for what is not ours, and thereby also reaping the same sense of alienation and fear, as well as the knowledge that we also live under the same sentence of death. As Adam’s children, we are all now on death row, awaiting the fulfillment of our sentence (though we may try to deny it). And such death is not merely biological, but is a spiritual power by which we are alienated from God, the source of life. Thankfully, though, the apostle Paul goes on to articulate how through Christ, the second Adam, we may receive eternal life. Romans 5 ends with the statement, “just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:21). In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22).
In Romans Paul goes to the bedrock of Genesis not only to identify Abraham as the exemplar of one “justified by faith” (in Romans 4), but also to find in that primeval man, Adam (in Romans 5), a human being who unites the human family in a solidarity of sin and death (Rom 5:12). He does this before telling how Jesus, like a second Adam (5:14-19; see 1 Cor 15:45), has created a new, though contrary, human solidarity, this time a solidarity of life and salvation. Jesus and Adam are corresponding opposites. Adam has bequeathed to us sin and death; Jesus has left us with an inheritance of righteousness and eternal life. Just as the impact of Adam’s sin is universal in scope, so Christ’s act of redemption contains the promise of universal restoration. “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18, NRSV).