Weeks after its release, I still see plenty of Christian thinkers reflecting on Pixar’s latest hit movie, Inside Out. What is it about this movie that is drawing the attention of Christ-followers? It contains nothing explicitly religious or Jesus-y. And what more can possibly be said about it that hasn’t already been said? Well, as a huge Pixar fan myself, I can’t help but throw in my two cents.
With a few exceptions (that I won’t mention), any movie by Pixar is well worth your time. The movie studio makes great stories that doesn’t dumb down the drama or emotional content for children. As a massive movie snob, I greatly appreciate that. And their latest, Inside Out, is no different. (FYI, light spoilers ahead.)
The film is about a girl, Riley, dealing with her family’s move to a new city. In her head live the personifications of her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust (I love her perpetual sneer of revulsion). Without giving the entire movie away, Joy thinks that she is Riley’s most important emotion and she needs to be happy all the time. When Joy and Sadness get separated from Riley’s “control center,” the girl becomes very emotionally unstable and starts behaving erratically. By the end of the movie, Joy discovers that all of our emotions, even the unpleasant ones, are necessary and important.
And this is where the critical lesson for us Christians kick in. As William Lane Craig states so well, we aren’t God’s pets. The health-and-wealth, prosperity gospel is a sham. We weren’t created for continuous pleasure; we were created to know God. There is nowhere in the Bible that states that we will enjoy an easy, pain-free life. In fact, we learn the opposite. Christians should expect greater suffering because we follow Christ. But this suffering produces endurance that produces character, which then produces hope (Romans 5:3, 4). So hard times are good for us.
Our negative emotions also enable us to show empathy. Sadness understood this. While Joy was so focused on her mission of making Riley happy, she ignored the pain of a fretful character. However, Sadness recognized it and took the time to listen to and console him. It’s easy to “rejoice with those who rejoice” but we cannot forget to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Pleasure-seeking makes us very selfish individuals. If we only care about fueling our own happiness, we are going to avoid the pain of others in fear of it bringing us down. But we are called to bear each other’s burdens and to love each other.
No one likes to be sad or afraid, but we need to experience the full range of emotions – at the appropriate times – to be fully-formed human beings. Just look at the blueprint of the Christian’s life: Jesus. He exhibited compassion for the sick and needy, sadness at death and suffering, and anger at hypocritical religious leaders. And if Jesus can experience the full range of human emotion, I think it’s safe to say that we can, too.
But it is not enough to have emotions. Feelings are motivators. They color our actions. At the end of the movie, Sadness wakens Riley from zombie-like indifference and enables her to avoid making a very poor decision. It reunites her with her loving family that fills her with a swirl of sadness and joy, sadness because she misses her old home but joy because she is embraced by her parents.
Instead of living our lives to fulfill our emotions, let our emotions – properly directed – call us to action. Jesus’ compassion led him to feed the 5,000 and heal the sick. In anger He chased the money changers out of the temple with with a whip (!). We should do the same. Clue in to a friend’s sorrow and be there for them. Be angered by injustice and take appropriate action to correct it. (But don’t sin! Psalm 4:4, Ephesians 4:26) Have compassion for the sick and needy and help them. Feel joy at the free gift of salvation and spread the Gospel to others.
Inside Out teaches the important lesson that happiness isn’t all there is to life. In fact, someone who only pursues pleasure is going to be a shallow, selfish person. We need the full spectrum of our emotions to be fully-formed bearers of God’s image. Negative emotions allow us to empathize with others and motivate us to help those in need. And our fears and hurts may even draw us closer to God, which is most important of all.