We are a road-tripping family. With four people, three of whom are males with high food-consumption rates, life is pricey. So, when it comes time to visit family or enjoy out-of-town fun together, we don’t head to the airport- we pack our cooler with sandwiches and drinks and fill up the gas tank.
I have a love/hate relationship with my emotions. On one hand, they are part of experiencing the fullness of what it means to be human. I love feeling the curiosity of a character in a good novel, experiencing the swell of joy in a vibrant piece of music, feeling the sadness in a movie scene. I try to memorize the exuberant face of my sons when they’ve received the gift they’ve longed for, or triumphed in an area they’ve been working on. I close my eyes and drink in the peace and promise of a crisp, fall morning. On the other hand, I feel helpless when someone I love experiences deep grief or loss. I hate myself when I can’t seem to shake feelings of being down, disappointed, or frustrated. I feel guilty for feeling guilty, anxious about being anxious, stressed about being stressed. When the emotions are all negative, I hate my humanity, and question God for giving me emotions that I can’t seem to control.
Emotions, though, are simply are signs on my road. When I feel strongly they’re telling me, “This is important to you. Notice this. Over here, here’s that street you’re looking for. But this way, this is a hazard. Turn back. Go the other way.” My emotions give me information, both good and bad, about how I view the world. They can motivate me. They can make me take action, or keep me from doing so. My grief over the loss of someone tells me that I loved them. My frustration in a life circumstance tells me something needs to change, in the circumstance, or in me. My joy tells me this is something good that I should slow down and appreciate, be grateful for. My anger tells me something is unjust, or isn’t working the way it should. My guilt tells me I have done something wrong, and need to take action to correct it.
When Christians read Scriptures like “be anxious for nothing,” (Phil. 4:6) or “Do not worry about your life,” (Matt. 6:25) we can feel guilty for our feelings of anxiety or worry. We read “Fear not, for I am with you,” (Is. 41:10) and feel weak because we are afraid. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” (Phil. 4:4) and we can feel ashamed that we can’t come out of our “funk.” Philippians 4:8 tells me to think on what is good, lovely, excellent, and praiseworthy, so I am in error if for a moment I have dwelt on what is stressful, irritating, sad, shameful, or ugly.
We can begin to redeem our emotions when we begin to recognize their purpose. They were created by God, as we’re created in His image. Didn’t Jesus feel angry in the temple, frustrated at the Pharisees, and sad when his friend Lazarus died? What about David, whose Psalms are chock full of his despair and distress in one passage, and praise and joy in the next? He was called a man after God’s own heart. There is, as Ecclesiastes says, a time to cry, a time to grieve, and a time to laugh and dance. Psalm 30 says, “Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” and “you have turned my mourning into dancing.”
We must feel the negative- really feel it- in order to process it in a healthy way, and we can’t do that if are caught in the lie of believing all emotions are sinful. There is no sin in feeling what you feel. You must simply use those feelings for their God-given purpose- as a sign- rather than allow them to carry you away toward an extreme. If you internalize them, they can become excessive, even chronic. Fear that’s meant to tell me “That’s not safe” becomes anxiety that says “Nothing is safe.” Guilt that’s meant to tell me to course-correct becomes shame, which says not, “You’ve done something wrong,” but, “There is something wrong with you.” Yes, allowing yourself to feel your negative emotions is very uncomfortable, but you need to confront and process them in a Christ-centered way in order to find resolution to them. A counselor used to say to me, “Feel, then deal.”
Lysa Terkeurst says in the bestseller, The Best Yes, “Feelings are indicators, not dictators.” I have often, when counseling children with poor emotional expression, used the analogy of a thermostat. When it’s too hot or too cold, you ask yourself, “What should I do to get back to a ‘normal’ range?” Once you’ve asked yourself that, and changed the temperature on it, you have to realize that sometimes it takes a little time for the temperature in the room to actually come up or down- it’s not instant the moment you’ve pushed the button. You have to also realize that the temperature could still change- it ebbs and flows with the seasons- as well as that “normal” is a range. At some point you have to be content, rather than constantly fidgeting and fretting over the thermostat when it’s a degree or two more or less than ideal.
In a lecture on emotions, psychologist and theologian Eric Johnson encouraged listeners to ask themselves, “What would Jesus feel in this situation?” The point is to recognize that sometimes anger or sadness or appropriate. He said, redeemed by Christ, “rejection, abandonment, sadness, and anxiety are mysteriously mixed with divine love, and become forgiveness, compassion, and empathy.”
The Scriptures aren’t meant to condemn us or tell us that what we feel is sin. Certainly, when we let emotions lead us rather than truth, they can lead us towards sin. When we let them simmer and fester we can catch ourselves in sin. However, when our heart posture is right and we are simply feeling human, we can read some of those passages as encouragement. Allow “be anxious for nothing” to remind you that God can be trusted, rather than to make you feel condemned over your concern. Let “Rejoice in the Lord always” remind you of Paul, his shipwrecks and troubles, and how in all of them, he learned to keep rejoicing in a God who was- who is- still good.
If we pay attention the signs along the way, our journey becomes easier. We feel better prepared, better informed, and better able to experience and enjoy it. We learn to read the signs of others, and to enjoy our relationships more. We even begin to put up a few signs of our own. Would yours say “Keep Off the Grass,” or “Welcome Friends”? “Stop,” “Yield,” or “Children Playing”? I’m pretty sure mine would say, “Next Exit, Starbucks.”