Have you ever experienced a paradigm shift? This isn’t just learning new information. This is when you discover something that changes the way you see everything. It’s the difference between thinking that the earth might revolve around the sun, instead of the other way around. I’m in the middle of a paradigm shift right now.
A little more than five years ago, when my first child was born, cracks started showing up in my life. The way that I had been living started showing itself to be unsustainable. Things that my wife had just chosen to live with, no longer worked for either of us. Over the next five years, through a major job change, a number of painful relational experiences, and the addition of a second child to our family, those cracks widened and my life fragmented painfully…
From where I stood, I could see destruction hurtling down the tracks toward me. I could see it in my rapidly fraying marriage, my relationship with my kids, the little church I had the honor of leading. A crash was coming and all because of the way I was living.
I’m only in the beginning stages of untangling all of this. The healing I’ve experienced and the changes I’ve made seem small in comparison with all that’s left. But one area in particular that was causing pain to me and the people I cared most about what how I managed (or didn’t manage) my emotions.
I grew up in a small, conservative Christian church. I was also the preacher’s kid. That origin shaped me profoundly in many ways. But one particular area was what I thought about emotions. I learned some pretty specific things about them in church. They were supported by scripture, repeated by pastors, re-emphasized by youth leaders, talked about with intensity and concern at youth camps and conferences. These ideas came to be the truth for me.
What I have since discovered is that those ideas weren’t true at all. Some were well-meaning misunderstandings. Some were outright wrong. But all of them had pretty serious consequences for me. Here are five of the biggest:
1. God Doesn’t Feel Emotions.
I don’t think anyone ever said this sentence, in exactly these words, but that’s definitely the picture I got. Sure, the Bible says that God gets angry, or feels jealous. But I was told that when the Bible uses emotional language like this about God, it’s an anthropomorphism. It’s talking about God in human terms that aren’t really accurate.
The problem with this is that if God’s anger or jealousy are anthropomorphisms, then so is God’s compassion and pleasure. So is God’s love. There certainly are metaphors in the Bible about God. How could we talk about God without them? But God’s emotions are not metaphors.
The truth is that God is an emotional being, and we are made in God’s image. That means our emotions are made in God’s image. That’s why we feel. Sure, sin and pride have corrupted our emotions, like anything else, but in our best state we will still feel emotions. For example, when you feel intense anger over injustice, you are feeling like God does, and that’s a good thing.
2. Emotions Can Only Lead You Into Sin.
This one came up over and over again. Parents and pastors seemed intent on telling us that we had to make good, reasoned decisions, based on our beliefs, and that anytime anything felt good, or we got an “urge,” that was a temptation leading us astray.
Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. Thoughtlessly following our desires can take us into painful places. We’ve all seen it in our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. But that’s not the whole story.
Emotions can also lead you into Godly heroics. Those same pastors who were warning us not to follow our “urges,” were telling us to obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Well, what does that feel like? It feels like an “ought” that’s heavy on our hearts, essentially an urge to do right.
Think about those crazy Christians who think God is leading them to pack up their family and move to some remote village in Tibet, where they don’t know the language, on the hopes that they might make some difference for the Gospel. Those people are heroes, at least among traditional evangelical Christians. That kind of decision isn’t made “because it’s the right thing to do.” Those people had an “urge,” they had some internal sense that God was leading them, maybe even a passion.
Even Jesus, when He did the most important thing in His life, was guided in part by emotion. Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus endured the cross, “for the joy set before him.” He had a real emotional reaction to the good that He would do by making His sacrifice, and even though He felt other not-so-nice emotions anticipating the pain and loss, it was remembering this joy that in part motivated him forward.
The truth is that emotions move us. They push us toward action. The can move us toward sin. But they can also move us towards sacrifice, towards generosity, towards righteousness.
3. Emotions are not spiritual.
If the goal for Christians is to become more like God, then what we think about God matters a whole lot. If our God doesn’t feel emotions, then it only stands to reason that as we mature, we too will feel emotions less and less.
Again, no one ever said this out-loud, but it got telegraphed all the time. We were embarrassed by people expressing extreme grief, especially if it lasted too long. We were a little creeped out by people who were too happy. My tribe of Christians didn’t trust the Charismatic Christians who were always talking about how God made them feel. Even the portrayals of Jesus that I saw growing up showed him as a quiet, slow-walking, spiritual guru who never grinned or played He had too many spiritual things to think about for that.
That meant that if we were going to become more spiritual, we had to become less emotional. The problem is that our emotions didn’t just go away. Here’s a question. What happens when you live in a community that affirms you for how spiritual and mature you are, and you think that being mature means being non-emotional? Easy. You stop showing emotion. Maybe you even stop feeling emotions – at least you try. You stuff your emotion. You deny your emotion. You hide your emotions, all in an effort to look mature, or wise, or spiritual. But this pattern only led to a kind of Christian life that was inauthentic, disconnected, and shallow.
The truth is that maturing in Christ is about becoming more whole. It’s a journey of finding the freedom of who we were created to be, living fully the way God intended. And guess what – God made emotions. He created the bodies that we have along with the chemicals and electrical systems that make them work. He created our minds. He made the whole system work the way it does so that we could feel like He does, as we come to know Him. That means the more spiritually mature we become the more aware of our emotions we will be.
4. An emotional Christian is a shallow Christian.
Try something for me. Look in the mirror and say this sentence. “You seem really reasonable today.” Now, take stock of how that feels. (Apart from the silliness of talking to yourself in the mirror.) Now, say this: “You seem really emotional today.” How did that one feel?
So far in my own informal tests I’ve had 100% unanimous findings in this experiment. The first sentence sounds like a compliment. The second sounds like a criticism. Our culture views being reasonable as much more elevated than being emotional, and the church is no different. Someone who is reasonable is mature and trust-worthy, capable of handling important matters. Someone who is emotional is flighty and immature, lacking in self-control.
But this is a false dichotomy. You can be a rational person and still be immature and self-centered. You can be an emotional person and still make wise decisions. We act like God created us rational, but sin made us emotional. That’s not true. In the story of the Garden of Eden, where everything was perfect, Adam and Eve had both reason and emotion. In eternity with God, after we are perfected and made new, as best I can tell we will have both reason and emotion. Today, emotion is flawed by sin. That’s true. But you know what? Reason is also flawed by sin. God made us with both faculties, and speaks to us through both.
Want to know more about this idea? Here you go.
5. Ignore Your Emotions and They Will Go Away.
The more complete version of what I learned is this: If you experience an emotion that is uncomfortable, or worse, seems out of line with God’s will for you, double-down on what you know to be true, ignore the emotion, and it will go away. That’s called living by faith. Trust what you know is true, not what you feel or see.
This sounds really noble. It’s not. The thing I never learned in church is that your emotions always tell you the truth. They may not be telling you the truth you think, but they always tell the truth.
Think, for example, of the man who feels that he is no longer in love with his wife. She nags him. She doesn’t understand him. She doesn’t respect him. His heart is hard towards her. More and more he feels bitter towards her. He’s done, and he’s ready to leave. In the church I grew up in there were two possibilities for this man, two ways of experiencing what he was feeling.
First, he could “follow his emotions” and leave his wife. In my little conservative community, that would have been the height of sin and selfishness. His emotions led him right into sin and relational destruction!
The other option was that the man could ignore his emotions. He was going to do the right thing because it was the right thing, and stay – regardless of how he felt. That’s the path that my community would have affirmed. But it’s a soul-crushing path. Without God doing a miracle, it would never result in a life-giving marriage.
Instead of following his emotions, or ignoring them, the church should have encouraged this man to listen to his emotions. Listening to the emotion would not mean leaving. It would mean exploring it, and understanding why it’s happening, and then choosing to do something about it. Perhaps it would lead him to consider what he’s doing that’s lost the respect of his wife, or how his childhood story is making him react in unhelpful ways, or how ignoring his own emotions has made it impossible for his wife to have intimacy with him. In this way listening to the emotion could lead to a place where healing could happen.
The church can help us feel healthy!
The church should be at the forefront of helping people in this process. But instead I learned, like many other people, to stuff the emotions because they weren’t Godly. But emotions don’t stay stuffed. Ignoring an emotion does exactly the same amount of good as ignoring your “Check Oil” light on the dashboard of your car. Eventually the truth of that warning light will manifest itself in an unavoidable and painful way.
God made us as whole beings. Emotions are a part of that. I wish I knew that thirty years ago. My marriage, my ministry, my friendships would all be so much different, so much better. Even more importantly, my relationship with God would be so much better. You see, relationships are all about intimacy, and the language of intimacy is emotion. We do not feel intimate with anyone we are emotionally disconnected from. Thus emotions are a necessary part of a healthy, growing and intimate relationship with God.
If you grew up in the church, what did you learn about emotions? How have those ideas impacted your life and relationships? Are you ready to explore the idea that God might want to show you truth through your emotions?