How do I know if I can trust my emotions??? Am I allowed to have/express negative emotions? How do I do it in a non-destructive way?
I won’t cover aspects of your emotional life you wish it would, and won’t obviously fit with every emotion you’ve ever had. I will cover – 2 things emotions aren’t, 2 things that they are, and 4 things we can do with them.
YOUR EMOTIONS AREN’T GOD
That is, feelings that come to you are not God telling you what to do. Now, this might seem more than a little obvious, but we often talk as if this is true. We say things like: I don’t feel a peace with this.
Now, Elijah is a bit of an Old Testament legend. He led Israel back to God Trusted God through drought. Stood up to the 400 prophets of Baal, with a sense of humour! Yet, in this moment, Elijah’s angered the queen, and he runs. He wasn’t afraid of 400 frenzied pagan prophets! But he’s afraid of the woman they serve.
It’s interesting where he runs. Because he doesn’t just anywhere. He runs to Horeb. Mt Sinai. Where Moses went up the mountain to get the 10 commandments, and then came back down to find the whole nation worshiping a golden calf. And at that moment Moses was so angry that he literally broke the law. He threw down the stone tablets and had to go back up the mountain to get a second copy.
God said to him, “I’ve had enough of these people. Moses, I’m going to destroy them and restart Israel just with you.
” Which is interesting because when God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah says,
I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1Ki 19:9-10 ESV)
Do you hear what’s going on? Elijah feels like he’s the only one left. So he goes back to the spot where Moses was the only one left. In a slightly back-to-front imitation of Moses.
In your times of deep emotion, do you ever have that sense of uniqueness? Unlike every other Christian on the planet? That you’re the only person at church who feels the way that you do?
So God tells Elijah, go out and stand on the mountain before me. Stand in that place where Moses had stood when I told him that he was the only one. And then God shows Elijah the kinds of things that we Christians so often take as signs. Signs from God as to what’s true. As to what we should do. And God makes an object lesson out of Elijah.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. (1Ki 19:11 ESV)
A great sign, but God wasn’t in it.
And after the wind can earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. (1Ki 19:11 ESV)
After the earthquake came a fi re, but the LORD was not in the fire. (1Ki 19:12 NIV)
Amazing signs, highly emotionally evocative, but ultimately that have no meaning
for Elijah. The LORD isn’t in them. But then:
And after the fire came a gentle whisper. (1Ki 19:12 NIV).
In the old KJV it’s a still, small voice. Have you heard this verse talked about before? People talk about listening to that still, small voice and going with your feelings when you can find that stillness.
But here’s the rub. Still, no mention of God. Nothing. Not a word. The still, small voice. Tells. Elijah. Nothing. When God communicates, it’s not in a mysterious still, small voice. He speaks directly and clearly. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah repeats his feelings. He’s alone. He’s been abandoned by everyone for Baal. His prophetic ministry, an utter failure. He’s the only one left. But God says “Are you sure?” Your feelings don’t determine me, Elijah. The fact that you feel alone, abandoned and like your whole prophetic project is a failure doesn’t make it so. I’ve got 7,000 who’ve not bowed the knee to Baal. I’m not determined by your negative emotions. Symbolically, I’ve got a 7,000. A full complement
of followers who’ve remained pure to me.
Elijah’s struggling here. He’s getting smashed in his internal world of feelings about his ministry. But God’s actually ok with how things are going. The still, small voice in the middle of Elijah’s emotions wasn’t God. How Elijah felt about Elijah’s ministry is not the same as God’s feelings about it. Your emotions aren’t God.
YOUR EMOTIONS AREN’T YOU
It’s just as important to recognise that your emotions are not you. You and how you feel aren’t the same thing. There is a distinction between how we feel and who we are, in essence.
I’ll show you what I mean. Have a look at what David writes in the introduction of Psalm 103.
Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits (Ps 103:1-2 NIV)
Those, ‘praise the Lords’ there are in the imperative.They’re commands. Why does David need to sing a song to himself, ordering his soul to praise God?
Probably because he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t feel like it. And yet, those negative feelings, those emotions, don’t determine David. They don’t define him. In fact, he goes to battle against them! He instructs his soul to bring to mind certain truths that will act against his emotions. To take to heart God’s blessings, when his heart is not naturally feeling thankful. Now while that may be a scary thought that you’re feeling a bit bristled by, this is actually fantastic news.
Particularly for folks who feel utterly worthless. For anyone who’s ever suffered from depression or anxiety.
Do you have scripts that play in your head that God probably doesn’t love you? That people must really not like you very much? Whenever something bad happens do you instinctively assume that somewhere deep down it must be your fault? Those feelings, of worthlessness, they aren’t you. They don’t define you.
There are things that are true
about you that you won’t
feel. There’ll be things that you will
feel about yourself, that aren’t
true. Your emotions aren’t God, or messages from him. Your emotions don’t define you. So, what are they? Well, here’s a couple of things.
EMOTIONS ARE A MEASURE OF WHAT MATTERS TO US
In Genesis 1 we discover that God created this world with purpose and meaning.
And as beings made in his image, when things go against that purpose, it matters
to us. This is not a universe of cold, blank facts…
When someone we know gets cancer, we FEEL it. It’s not just a bunch of cells that happen to not be dying. Because it shouldn’t be this way.
And our emotions are our barometer of what matters TO US. Emotions aren’t an always an accurate measure of what’s right or wrong, though.
They say more about how important something is to YOU. This might seem an obvious thing to say now, but it’s not so obvious when I’m having a fight with Mel and I feel completely justified in my emotions. And yet, in the cold light of day, I find out I was wrong.
The strength of my emotions… the depth of my conviction… was not an accurate measure of whether I was right or wrong, but of how much I feel hurt. See, emotions are more like the temperature gauge on the dashboard than the reversing camera.
It says something about what’s happening on board, than about the world around you. You might be overheating but it could just be because you’ve got no oil left.
As God asked Jonah when he was furious at God’s mercy, “Do you do well to be angry?” This doesn’t stop feelings being helpful, we just have to remember what they do and don’t tell you. If you find yourself having a strong emotional response to something, that’s helpful data. We can respond with curiosity. What’s going on in my heart that I responded like that? What was I feeling? Why did I feel that? Because if the temp gauge is maxed out in the car on a cold winter’s night, then there’s probably something going on under the hood. Which is good to know.
EMOTIONS MOVE US TO RESPOND TO WHAT MATTERS
Having alerted us to what is significant to us, emotions don’t let us go. They push into our consciousness, prod our consciences and poke our complacency. They move us to respond.
In Matthew 14:14 Jesus
landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion
on them and healed their sick. In Matthew 20:34 the same thing. In Mark 6:34 Jesus
landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion
on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them. Each time, Jesus feels compassion. Literally it got him in the guts. And so he responds to the need.
Or for a more tragic example, Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. He’s so upset by the fact that his brother was accepted and he wasn’t that he was moved to murder his brother. To remove that which had caused him so much grief. Only, it wasn’t Abel that had caused him grief. In the height of his emotions he let them not just move him to godly action, but to control him.
Ephesians 4:26 gives us a better way. “In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Anger feels yuck. We don’t like feeling it.
And what it’s meant to do is to drive us to mend relationships. It’s meant to drive us to protect the vulnerable when they’re being exploited.
When you feel angry at injustice, bullying, gossip, lies, sin… Be angry. And do not sin. Face the emotion, don’t obey it, and use it to move you to be an agent to bring peace and justice and love. It’s what Cain never manages to do. His is a self-serving anger that wounds. Emotions by their nature move us to respond to what matters to us.
FOUR THINGS WE DO WITH OUR FEELINGS
- Take them to God
- Face them
- We regulate them
- We do this, with people.
TAKE THEM TO GOD
How do you feel when you see commands in the bible to pray? Guilty? Don’t pray enough?
What if you saw them as an invitation? The invitation of a God who wants YOU. Who wants to be intimately involved in your life. Who cares about your thoughts and wants to hear you articulate them.
Last night I’m putting Fyody to bed I ask him if he wants to pray, say thank you to God for anything. He says, “Nah.” Which I like. Honest about his feelings. So I ask him if he knows that God loves it when he prays. And he says to me, “Why does he want me to pray if he knows what I’m thinking already?” Good question. So I say, “Because he loves to hear the sound of your voice.”
Now there’s other reasons: because it’s how we live out our trust in him, because it’s good for us, because it’s how God promises to grow us up into Christ (Eph 4:15).
But that’s right, isn’t it? This is what a massive proportion of the Psalms are.
John Piper called his series in the Psalms, “Thinking and feeling with God.” Psalms of lament, bringing negative emotions to God. Psalms of praise, bringing the opposite. But all of them, are invitations to turn TO God. To bring to him our true selves. Who we really are. Warts and all. Anger and all. Even if it’s directed at God! Because how do you demonstrate faith in God when you’re angry at him? Go to him as the one who can sort out the fact that you’re angry at him. Trusting that he’s the one to go to for this. The way we handle our emotions, positive and negative, is to take them to the God who is love.
FEEL OUR FEELINGS
Something that really helps in taking our feelings to God is actually having permission to feel them in the first place. And I don’t think that we’re very practiced at this. I think we’re far better at distracting ourselves from our feelings, disconnecting from our hearts, than we are at facing them.
You’ve heard of an honour/shame culture? According to sociologists there are also guilt/innocence cultures and fear-power cultures…
But David Williams who trains missionaries for CMS, has diagnosed Australia’s culture in a new way. He says that now, Australia lives in a ‘pleasure- pain’ culture. Where the definition of right and wrong is, “what makes me feel happy”.
Now look if that’s our culture and we’ve got Netflix and iPhones and the Premier League and careers and family and … we’ve got so many distractions we’re pretty good at having something to keep us busy. So we never. actually. stop. and feel our feelings.
Now, I’m not saying that the way to handle emotions is to wallow in them. Just bathe in them and perpetuate the same feelings forever. That’s really unhealthy.
You see, the Psalmist has a process. It starts with complaint, feelings, emotions, but it ends in praise. But if he doesn’t connect with and acknowledge the feelings that are actually there, then he’ll never be able to truly take them to God in prayer. So that he can be the soothing balm for them. And it’s the way to move forward to the other side.
You ever been on a bear hunt? Can’t go over ’em, can’t go under ’em, you have to go through ’em. It’s this process that moves David from his opening complaints (comes at the start of each lament) to the final lines where he says, “Yet I will praise you.” Let yourself feel your feelings.
WE REGULATE OUR FEELINGS
We don’t obey our feelings. But having been honest about them, feeling them with God, we regulate them.
How do you do that? Well, see how David does it in Psalm 103.
“Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits- who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,“
Who’s he talking to? He’s talking to himself. Rather than letting the thoughts that come to him get all the air time. The worries, the negativity. David goes on the offensive, and starts instructing his soul.
The great Welsh preacher Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones once asked his congregation:
Have you realised that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?
“Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” David asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”
We are the gatekeepers to our hearts and we need to guard our hearts and in Psalm 103 David opens wide the door to his heart and speaks something INTO it: Hey soul, don’t forget how much God loves you! Take that to heart! We can… a bit… regulate our feelings by what we allow to get into them. What we choose to listen to.
Now there’s a reason we’re talking about regulating instead of controlling. You’re going to feel what you feel. You can’t directly control that. Things rise up in us from circumstances, from past wounds…
Try telling someone with major depression to ‘just decide to feel happy’ and you’ll deserve the black eye you get.
But because emotions are connected to thoughts, we can make choices about what we let into our hearts, and what we allow ourselves to take personally.
The Bible has plenty of commands to move our hearts to feel in a certain way. We can talk back to our soul, and instead of letting our thoughts tell our story unbridled, we can break in with a truer story about ourselves. Our story with Jesus. We can narrate a truer story of our life back to ourselves: the story where we’re so loved that God himself died for us, so that he can be with us. We’ve got some levers with which we can… regulate them.
The last one is doing those things together. With people. With people you trust.
Paul tells the Roman church to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Rom 12:15). Just as sin thrives in secrecy, negative emotions grow and develop in the dark.
We are built to share our hearts with each other. We need it. It’s oxygen. Have you ever had a friend so good that you could tell absolutely anything to? Talking to those people is refreshment. There’s actually a science to this command, “rejoice with, weep with… ” Interpersonal neurobiology. Your very presence with someone in their difficult time, makes it a different experience.
Psalm 23 – Notice that God does avoid the valley of the shadow of death. But by being with us as we go through it, as we follow Christ, it is transformed.
Ultimately: our emotions are broken, just like every other part of us, but they’re also being redeemed. Remade after the image of Christ.
God uses the hard and the painful to bring about a maturity in us that would be impossible otherwise. But on the last day, our emotional range will be limited.
There will be no more crying, fear or pain.There is a time for everything, and the time for those things is in this world, not the next.