I’ve worn glasses for a long time. Since 4th grade, I think. Without my glasses, the world beyond ten feet or so blurs into an indistinct mosaic of colored blobs. Not very safe for me to be out and about!
Each morning there is a moment of transformation when I put on my glasses for the first time. All those smeared colors and lines focus, and I can see the world. Really see it!
I’m grateful for that moment of clarity. It’s also the best comparison I can think of for what happened when I began to learn about how emotions work.
If you’ve ever wondered why a pastor is so wrapped up in talking about emotional health and maturity, I’m about to tell you. This is also why emotional maturity should matter to you, and to your church. Really.
I grew up in the church. My dad was a pastor. I did the whole program: kid’s classes, youth group, church school, summer camp, and prayer meetings. I’ve sat through, participated in, helped with, and eventually led more than four thousand church gatherings. Along the way, I added a degree in Theology and a whole lot of training through conferences, workshops, summits and a nearly endless stack of books.
I learned a lot. A lot about the culture of the church, and how to do churchy activities well. A lot about the Bible, ancient languages, and how my tribe read the thing. I learned how to study the Bible and pray and serve. I also learned a lot about the expectations for how to live a good and righteous life as a Christian man, and eventually as a pastor.
I learned a lot. What I didn’t learn was how to navigate the emotions I would experience along the way. My church tribe was suspicious of emotions at best. At times, we even treated emotions as if they were temptations from the Devil himself!
I was taught to do the right thing because it was the right thing. If it felt bad or was confusing, or it didn’t make me happy, that was just one of the sacrifices we made. Jesus died on the cross for us; at the very least, we could have our feelings hurt for him.
Oh, the consequences!
I spent more than three decades of my life doing my best to do the right thing no matter how I felt. Mostly, I accomplished this by ignoring how I felt. I did have one advantage. As a childhood trauma survivor, I was pretty good at disconnecting from my feelings. I was a faithful soldier fighting the good fight. How I felt didn’t matter.
Eventually, though, this came at a cost. The consequences of living disconnected from my emotions were brutal. After a lot of pain, and through the gracious intervention of people who loved me, I began to pay attention to what was going on inside of me. (You can read about all of that in The Wisdom Of Your Heart if you like.)
In my emotional recovery, I began to learn what I’d missed. I started learning what my emotions were saying to me. I learned what the twisting in my gut meant, and why my brain would go blank during some kinds of conflict. I learned why I felt such distance in my relationships, and how I was inadvertently hurting people around me.
It was like putting my glasses on. A whole world I’d previously been blind to became apparent. I started to see myself in a whole new way. Reactivity that had seemed entirely outside my control began to make sense. I finally had a handle I could grab onto.
Being able to see clearly has had wide-reaching benefits.
Of course, this changed my relationships. Being aware of my own emotions and what they meant allowed me to be much more mature and peaceful in my relationships with others.
This changed my leadership, helping me relax and trust others. Most surprisingly, it deeply impacted my spiritual life. It turns out that learning to be present to my emotions opened up a capacity to be present to God in a way I’d never experienced before.
How can you love God with your whole heart?
In a well-known episode, a young man asked Jesus which of God’s commands was the most important. A reasonable question since that man grew up in a religious tradition that had identified 613 different religious rules. Jesus’ response? (Matthew 22:34-39)
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depends on this.”
“The law and the prophets” was shorthand for the whole collection of scripture that contained those 613 different commands. Jesus didn’t pick out a single command to elevate above the others. He did something better. He gave the young man an operating system that would help him navigate all of God’s will.
“Love God with all you are and have, and love your neighbor in the way you want to be loved.” This is the essence of spiritual living.
I’d known these words my whole life, but it wasn’t until my emotional crash that I began to consider what Jesus’ words had to say about our emotional lives.
Without emotion, you can’t love.
Without a connection to your own emotions, you cannot empathize with your neighbor or feel the compassion that would allow you to love them. Without emotion, there is no way to obey Jesus’ command.
Our intellectual understanding and beliefs about God matter. The religious practices we hold to can be significant. But without love? It’s as the Apostle Paul said. Without love, all of that becomes just so much noise.
I’ve come to believe that emotional health and maturity is central to living a spiritual life. I don’t know if I can really follow Jesus if I’m not willing or able to follow Him into the deep places of my inner life.
Pete Scazerro wrote in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality that without emotional growth, there can be no spiritual growth. I have experienced the truth of this in my life. That’s why I keep saying this over and over. That’s why I wrote a book, and why I’m doing a new workshop (June 1st in Vancouver, WA). It’s why I write about it here so often.
I will be writing about other things. There’s more to an intentional spiritual life than just emotional maturity, but, I’ll keep coming back to it. Why?
Because I want to love God with all my heart, and I hope to help you experience that too.
This is central to growing up in Christ.