Disney’s Inside Out and Altar Calls

Recently Teckla and I watched the movie Inside Out. Being an analytical and philosophical scholar, I would have liked more sword fights and explosions, but I must admit the movie made me think. I liked how Joy and Sadness teamed up at the end. Earlier Joy had ruled the roost. She had even drawn a circle and instructed Sadness to stay inside.

Despite all Joy can do, Sadness has this unstoppable compulsion to express herself within the character Riley. Both Joy and Sadness end up outside the control center for Riley. The result is that everything shuts down and falls apart. I don’t think the word is used in the movie, but it looked like despair—a great emptiness.

Only as Joy and Sadness work together, each expressing themselves, are they able to restore Riley to emotional health and balance. When I tried thinking of real life situations where joy and sadness worked hand-in-hand, I thought of altar calls.

I suppose the term may date me or indicate the evangelical subculture in which I was raised. But I grew up in a denomination where at the end of a gospel message, people were invited to come to the front of the church and pray for salvation. In the older Wesleyan churches, the altar was called the mourners’ bench.

It was common to hear people weeping, sometimes loudly, at the altar. It was just as common to hear people shouting, “Glory to God” or “Hallelujah.” As people repented and committed their life to Christ, joy and sadness were interwoven. Celebration over salvation dried the tears of repentance.

I worry that the Church today, in its desire to be upbeat and seeker-friendly, has drawn a circle around sadness. Our encounters with God and relationship with God always contain great joy and deep sorrow. After the catch of fish nearly sinks his boat, Peter is filled with joy, yet falls at the feet of Jesus and says, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

Today I fear we would have sent Peter to Self-Esteem Seminar. But it is still okay to be crushed by wickedness of our own hearts, and then exhilarated with the depths of God’s grace and goodness. We need both sadness and joy, and not just at the point of salvation. I mourn over the areas of weakness—the doubt, feeble compassion, sloth—in my life, and yet humbly rejoice in the grace of God that is at work in me for His glory. I look honestly and with great sadness at the failings of the Church and yet rejoice is every evidence of grace I see.

I would like to just skip the sorrow that comes from honest self-examination (see I Cor. 13:5), and rejoice in the grace of God. Some preaching even urges this, but simply confessing I am “an overcomer” doesn’t make me one. In the movie Riley’s dad tries to cheer her up by asking, “Where’s my happy girl?” Sometimes when sad, I have felt like others were asking, “Come on Mark, where’s my joyful Christian?”

At my best, I am silent when challenged like this. (But I still think of all kinds of vicious responses of which I must immediately repent.) As the movie points out, the most serious threat is not sadness; it is emptiness.

In God’s hands, my brokenness and sorrow are transformed into something beautiful and redemptive. It is in my emptiness that my soul has been most imperiled. I suspect this is true of many who have been raised in the church. When we skip the “weeping” that endures for the night, we often miss the joy that comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). The result is that what joy we do manage rings hollow and we feel inauthentic.

I am thankful that the movie reminded me, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”


About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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