Emotions are a Gift
by Stephen Trout
“Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality. Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God. . . . Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice. . .” Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
We may take them for granted, but emotions are good gifts, part of God’s design to know (and enjoy) him and respond appropriately to the world around us.
Jesus himself validated emotions, demonstrating a healthy range of celebratory joy, righteous anger, and overwhelming sorrow and grief.
Far from being something to avoid as “unspiritual,” they’re meant to help us express ourselves honestly in conversation with our Father. Just look at the Psalms – the prayer and hymnbook of God’s people. They’re woven through with resounding joys, sorrows, humiliations, and hopeful longings – the full range of honest outpouring of our hearts to God.
And yet we also keenly feel how emotions can be distorted, complicated by sin, and even result in denial and disengagement. So how can we understand emotions better, especially when our hearts are so often deceitful? (Jer. 17:9)
Signposts to Diagnose the Heart
As opposed to viewing emotions as urges to always be obeyed (the “just follow your heart” mantra of our culture), we can begin to examine our emotions – as any good physician does – by asking some wise, diagnostic questions.
Take anger, for example: “In this situation where I felt so angry (and possibly distrustful, attacked, annoyed, hurt, or shamed – take note of these additional emotions as well), what is it that I wanted or desired most?
Another way to say it is this: “What was the outcome that my heart was set on as a “non-negotiable,” a “must-have” that’s now being blocked? What did I want or desire most? (Try to be specific here). Was it possibly validation? To be approved of, recognized for my accomplishments, or esteemed?
Further, did I feel hurt when I wasn’t acknowledged, or given that raise, or shamed and belittled? Unmet desires are often common flashpoints for anger.
Instead of playing the blame game (“my outbursts are really everyone else’s fault”), what if I took responsibility for my own desires and behaviors, recognizing that it was my own heart that determined my “must-have.” It was me who decided to respond in a caustic way and treated others badly. Sure, someone else’s actions may have provided the occasion or “temptation” for an outburst, but I still had a choice.
Why It Matters: Inner, Outer, and Others
Why does this inner heart analysis matter? Because unless we get to the root causes of our emotions, we’ll effectively stay enslaved to them and our responses. We’ll never be truly free to respond well to others – with the kindness and consideration we ourselves would like – when we’re needing to have our controlling desires met for our well-being and happiness.
Rather, we’ll become thin-skinned, feeling cheated and angry when we don’t get what we want. We might paste on a happy face, (the tip of the iceberg, just above the surface), with most of our true selves hidden.
“It’s just the tip of the iceberg!”
Visualizing the massive, floating berg reminds us that we only see 10% of the emotion picture, with the other 90% being hidden below the surface. Yet in an age that craves authenticity and physical well-being, emotional health in the church doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.
Side-stepping our Emotions
We have reasons for this, of course. In the press of life’s busyness and ministry “to-do” lists, it’s easy to think that the 90% simply doesn’t matter. Often, it’s only when there’s a problem impacting relationships that we start to think about someone’s emotional health.
When we do address emotions, the responses can run the gamut: “Hey, if I get a little emotional and someone gets their feelings hurt, what can I do about it? That’s their problem, not mine!” Or, we may see the opposite: “I need to suppress my emotions as much as possible and “be nice. I’d hate to appear ‘unspiritual.’” (Author Peter Scazzero calls this maintaining the “glittering image.”)
Note how in both cases emotions are viewed as suspect, primarily negative, and maybe even out of our control. Might there be a third, healthier way to understand and express our emotions, and if so, how do we find it?
Become an Observer
Becoming self-aware begins by observing, taking note of your body’s physical responses (tense muscles, racing heart, fight or flight urges, etc.). We’ve all seen how stress can actually age a person more rapidly over time, and lead to things like high blood pressure and heart attacks.
In addition, we need to ask ourselves, “What am I really feeling?” Here is where emotions can function as both gifts and signposts, pointing us to look deeper into the “heart of the matter” (or the 90% below the surface).
A quick side-note: Contrary to the popular view of the “heart” as just a metaphor for a mass of complex feelings, the ancient view understood the heart as a kind of central “engine” which drives us – the primary source of all desire, emotion, love, and goals. Far from being a superfluous part of us (as we sometimes “feel” emotions are), the heart is actually linked to feeling as well as thought and brain function. Or, think of it as a perpetual spring of water (also an ancient, biblical description) which bubbles up, and outward into the things we say and do.
Emotions – a Vital Part of Us
So let’s take stock: as much as we might choose to write off our emotions as unimportant, unnecessary appendages to efficiency, our emotions themselves tell us differently. We know we’re intended to be much more than superficial, one-emotion beings (happy all the time), or mere “Vulcans” of logic. (Remember how Star Trek played with this tension? It was never enough for Spock to respond with cold logic, even while all the scientific facts were coming in. It drove Bones crazy. A more “human” response – whatever that looked like – was always desired.)
The truth behind those quests also matters to us. Even if we were taught that emotions simply don’t matter (stoicism), or have been “burned” by them in the past – we should know that emotions have a way of making themselves heard, in a myriad of ways.
Take anger for example. While we’re actually commanded to “be angry, but do not sin,” (Eph. 4:26) – angry about the right things – most of us know someone who is “blissfully ignorant” of how angry they are with others. They like to pretend they’re fine when inside, really they’re a teapot that’s boiling over. Whether it seeps out slowly or explodes loudly with a shrill sound, they often end up scalding those around them. (Maybe even the person staring back at them in the mirror?)
Unfortunately, the spillover of poisonous anger can also lead to poisonous responses from those it touches. Family members and friends grow hard, slowly becoming the very thing they hate: angry, disgusted, cynical.
Before long, heated emails fly, and cold wars ensue. In the fellowship, morale begins to sink, negatively affecting the desire to love and serve. Before you know it, the church splits. Are we exaggerating? It happens, more than we’d like to admit. (See these Top Ten Symptoms of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality.)
Of course, as mentioned, there is appropriate, “righteous anger,” such as when others are being hurt and we’re spurred to loving action on their behalf. But the emotion that becomes toxic anger is more often the common variety – and those who have it are often the last to know.
Anger is just one emotion to be explored. We should be diligent in our exploration of all – even the “positive emotions.” (If I’m happy about another person’s hurt, for example. Why might that be?)
Increasing our “emotional IQ” depends on this vital inner diagnosis. Rather than being enslaved to our emotions, we can actually learn to follow them to their source and examine them. Doing this can help us respond more appropriately to our amazing, yet often perplexing world – from an appreciation for other’s work to gratitude for glorious sunsets.
Rather than suppress, we can also face the more distressing matters in our lives with the empathy and kindness we long to have from others, and even grieve well when that is the appropriate response.