Growing up the youngest of 6 . . . and 4 of my siblings being brothers, meant I grew up believing that emotions were something to be shut down–tightly. Often they felt shameful. It was not uncommon for me to work very hard to suppress those tears lest I be made fun of. Walking around mopey or sad was pretty much unacceptable. The expectation was that we would be happy! All the time! And if we weren’t we needed to account for it and snap out of it. The belief was that you could will yourself to be happy if you just compared yourself to enough people who had it worse than you. You lost your favorite necklace? Be thankful it wasn’t your leg or arm. Then you might have something to complain about. You don’t like your dinner? Well at least you have something on your plate. Think of all those starving kids in Biafra. Where is Biafra? Your boyfriend broke up with you? Don’t worry . . . there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Shut down, chin up, and get on with life with a thankful and cheerful attitude. Anything less meant I was being selfish and full of self-pity and bringing the entire family down.
Fast forward 20 years . . .
What a shock it was when I learned that emotions weren’t something to get rid of, but something to welcome . . . even the so-called nasty ones. In fact, I learned that God created them for a special purpose and the more I welcomed and explored them, the more I began to understand who I really was. I learned that emotions are an expression of what is going on in the deepest parts of me and can really help me unpack not only what is going on for me in the moment, but point to patterns I have developed that keep me locked into destructive ways of approaching life. Further, I learned that the Bible welcomes emotions and does not have a negative view of them. David, a man after ‘God’s own heart’ penned beautiful poetry in the Psalms, pouring out his heart and emotions to God. He would express anger, depression, abandonment, forsakenness, but also inexpressible joy and love for God. His range of emotions was expansive! Job, as you can imagine, experienced raw emotions, one moment full of anger, and the next despair. Yet, nowhere, does God reprimand Job for his anger . . . even his anger toward God. He let Job know that God is God and Job is but a man, but he does not tell Job it was wrong for him to express himself to God. In fact, in Proverbs, there is an amazing verse that says: “Give me your heart.” God, the Creator of the Universe, actually wants us humans to give him our hearts. All of it. Not the pretty polished up heart, but the raw, broken, sinful, heart in all of its messiness. The problem in many Christian circles is that we confuse emotions as sinful, when in essence, they are neutral and indicate where there is pain and sin that needs to be dealt with.
In my former church, one of the members was upset that I had a sign in my home that said: “Follow Your Heart”. He assumed that meant that whatever my heart told me to do I must follow without any discernment or recognition that it could be ‘sinful’. Perhaps that’s what it meant to him but it sure didn’t mean that to me. Following your heart is more about living mindfully . . . having a self-awareness that asks the question, what is going on inside of me right now? Who am I really serving? Is it an idol? Is it self? Am I resting in the love of Jesus and experiencing the fruit of the Spirit or am I discontent, angry, and judgmental? When those negative emotions come up, it shows that I have an idol on the throne.
When we see our emotions as indicators or gauges as to what is really going on inside, we no longer have to be frightened of them or need to control them. We welcome them as the gift they are and a pathway to an exposure of our deeper sins. Now we can begin to uncover our thoughts and motives.
Since I have discovered my emotions and learned to navigate them, a whole new world has opened to me. The irony is that when I was busy shutting them down they were actually controlling me. Now that I know how to welcome them I have more control of them. I am freer, more confident and have deeper relationships with others. But primarily, I have a deeper relationship with God. Because I know I am completely covered by Jesus Christ, and God loves me even in my sin, I can expose the depths of my sinful heart to him and He will bring the healing.