When The Church (And Your Friends) Are Terrified Of Your Negative Emotions
Editor’s Note: Between friends, family, church, and magazines, we are given some pretty intense messages on how to deal with our emotions, particularly the negative ones. Today’s post is by Kera Package. She blogs at kerapackage.com, and tweets at @kera_package. She also wrote 10 Things I Learned About Burnout for us in 2012, which is a must-read for workaholics and overcommitters. – Lauren
Last week, I shared how it felt to spend Christmas alone. My emotions ranged from angry to depressed to incredibly grateful. In response to my reflection, I received two messages.
Message 1: Cast out the demons of depression and take back your life.
Message 2: Thank you for writing this. Your honesty was encouraging.
Can I ask you a question? What is the appropriate emotion for your first holiday alone? If I were super excited, I’d be antisocial. If I didn’t care, I’d be a sociopath.
So, the natural response is a little frustration and loneliness, isn’t it?
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Emotions are natural. When someone betrays you, naturally you’re angry and hurt. When you don’t get the job you wanted, of course you’re disappointed. When you’re proud of your achievement, why wouldn’t you want to celebrate with your friends?
Feelings are okay, even the “bad” ones. When the world around us sucks, our response should be to cry. When God seems absent in the mess of our daily lives, both faith and doubt are appropriate reactions. When everything within me wants to run far, far away to someplace safe, my “flight” instinct is doing its job.
We were created to feel.
Need I remind you that Jesus – the epitome of humanity – was angry enough to flip a table, upset enough to weep, and distressed enough to physically sweat blood.
I can only imagine that He also laughed until he cried, danced like a crazy man to celebrate with his friends, and sometimes sat alone wondering why no one understood him.
The scriptures are filled with emotions; the verses drip with feelings. Not cliché expression of appropriate emotional proportions, but deep heartfelt cries of joy, sorrow, hope, and despair.
King David is overcome with joy and dances until his clothes fell off.
The Psalmists cry out in pain, anger, desperation, and fear.
Prophets rip off their clothes and wail through the streets.
Job is so distressed that he curses the day of his birth.
Need more proof? Read through Psalm 119 aloud in the Message or NLT Bible. It’s dramatic. It’s a group of people telling God how they feel about His law (the basis of their faith). It’s a weird tension of “my life is horrible, save me” and “thank you Lord for being faithful and compassionate.” And, it’s certainly emotional.
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How often do we, as a spiritual family, talk about how we feel about life, God, and ourselves? Not surface level chitchat, but the aches and the cries of our hearts?
We like generic terms: “I’m doing well” or “I’m struggling, but God is good.”
I like generic terms because saying “My heart feels like it’s being ripped to shreds by the injustice in the world and my gut says I need to do something about it, and I kind of want to throw up because my brain says I’m insane and is anxious about everything…” makes me sound a little unstable.
If I were to start cursing the day of my birth or ripping my clothes off to scream about current events, you’d have me committed for a psych evaluation. To some extent, I can’t say I’d blame you.
Sometimes we are overly dramatic. Sometimes our emotions do rule our life. Generally though, our emotions are more normal than we think.
There is a time and a season for every feeling from euphoria to rage to empty indifference. Unleashing those emotions is a natural part of human existence.
Not in an “I’m gonna unleash this can of whoop ass” professional WWE wrestling sort of way, but in a healthy “I’m going to allow myself to feel and then learn how to respond to what I’m feeling” sort of way.
Dealing with your emotions isn’t the same as controlling them.
In Jewish culture, mourning is viewed as a necessary process. At funerals, each person in attendance shovels dirt onto the casket in order to feel the reality of the loss. The immediate family tears their clothing to show their grief. They sit shiva for seven days of mourning. Then the grieving continues for an entire year as the family recites prayers for the deceased. Grief is a cathartic process; one must feel in order to move forward.
I think Judaism retained a valuable aspect of faith that Christianity tries to suppress: the emotional rollercoaster. By focusing on controlling emotions, we neglect the process: we refuse to give ourselves the freedom to heal, to rejoice, or to grieve.
We’re taught to reign in our emotions. Our heart is evil. Our feelings are lies. God wants us to have joy abundantly, and we must teach ourselves to be happy and perfectly content little Christians.
If something goes wrong, we simply say: “well, God must have a plan” or “everything happens for a reason.” Maybe God loves Machiavellian strategies. OR MAYBE, we come up with ridiculous explanations in order to ignore our own emotional health.
It’s much easier to translate a tragedy into a “divine message” or a “call to action” than it is to wrestle with our own anger, bitterness, and doubt.
When something horrible happens like a natural disaster or a mass murder, we’re forced to mourn. We see death, and we hug a little tighter because we’re anything but certain.
What about lament in our daily lives? Are we dealing with our emotions? Or are we suppressing them for the sake of being a “good Christian?”
The other day, the mere sight of Christmas tree made me bawl like a baby. I saw the twinkling little lights, and holiday memories of violence and drama flooded through my mind. God and I had a very heated discussion about how the “night of His Son’s birth” is one of the busiest days for emergency calls related to domestic disputes. And, I realized there was something within me I hadn’t allowed to heal.
Some of you are thinking, “Sounds like you need therapy.” Of course I do, we all could use a little therapy – especially because we live in a culture that tells us it’s not okay to feel. If we can’t experience the emotions, how are we supposed to move forward?
* * *
And, why are emotions viewed as a negative thing? Yes, bitterness is poison and chronic depression is destructive.
But, sometimes our emotions are God given tools to help us figure out how to be human.
Sometimes I’m angry because I am supposed to be frustrated. I should be pissed off when I see a man with five hundred dollars in his wallet give a homeless man a dollar. I should want to scream at the man who’s slapping his son in public. I should be furious with our culture for encouraging us to starve ourselves and buy lots of things we don’t need. And, at times, I should be angry with myself for knowing better.
Emotions can be a natural indicator that something is wrong. Sometimes I’m intimidated by people on the street because they are actually a threat to my physical safety. Sometimes I’m worried about the consequences of my actions because I’m about to make a detrimental mistake. Our gut instincts can be lifesavers.
On the flip side of things, our emotions can be positive indicators as well. Think about what makes you come alive.
When are you the happiest?
For me, there’s nothing better than looking at something beautiful and knowing I helped create it. When I’m writing or taking photos or dabbling in something artsy, something inside of me lights up. I feel the same way about leading discussions, public speaking, the streets of Ibiza, driving a 5 speed… these are the things I get excited about. My feelings are probably good indicators that these things should be a part of my life because they make me happy.
If I were fond of torturing puppies and shooting dope, it would be better to ignore my preferences. But even in those situations, my emotions aren’t lying to me. They’re showing me the reality of my brokenness. Emotions reveal where my heart isn’t aligned with God’s. We can reasonably conclude that Jesus wouldn’t kick a puppy or shoot up. From scripture and life experience, we know God’s character. When what we’re feeling inside doesn’t reflect God’s character, we know we have things to work on…
What does working through emotions look like?
I have no idea. It varies from person to person. It may look like an hour of crying in front of a Christmas tree or it may look like five years of therapy. It may be a six-mile run for one person and a few hours of journaling for another. We’re all different, but we all feel deeply. Even if that feeling is a disenchanting indifference.
While we must deal with emotions as individuals, we must also deal with them in community. When we take the time to listen to one another, we usually find we have more in common than we initially thought. “What, you feel self conscience too? You’re beautiful.” Though our circumstances may vary greatly, we share the same humanity.
How often you hear “me too” might surprise you. And, it might enrage you at first.
We take comfort in feeling alone in our mess. My pain and my joy are unique. How dare you say “me too”? Or those two words can be the most refreshing thing you’ll ever hear. Either way, one of the biggest lies Satan tells us is we’re alone and no one could ever possibly feel the way we feel.
In some regards, it’s true. I’ve never walked in your shoes. I’ve never experienced your pain through your eyes, with your heart, and in your mind. I will never understand. I can, however, empathize because I’ve felt my own share of pain. I can choose to listen and to walk with you. And, you can choose to do the same for me.
Sharing is scary, and rightly so. The Church generally isn’t a safe place to discuss emotions.
If I admit how I’m feeling, I risk being viewed as an outsider. People cry “spiritual warfare” and question my spiritual leadership. Next thing you know, I emerge from a “discipleship meeting” with an assigned accountability partner and homework and a list of things to memorize. I quickly become a project because I deviated from the cultural norm of “I’m okay, I promise.”
Maybe, all I needed was twenty-four hours of sadness and now I’m perfectly okay. Or maybe, I’ll spend a lifetime fighting with the tension between depression and trust in God like Mother Theresa. Is either unnatural if I’m still seeking to live my life as Jesus would if He were in my shoes?
The Church, as most of us know it, refuses us the freedom of unleashing our feelings.
“We are able to talk passionately about the dark night of the soul without feeling it as long as the worship songs are full of light, the sermons lay bare all mysteries, and the prayers treat God as an object there to tell us it’s all going to be OK. The institution treats God as a cow on our behalf. The worship songs affirm certainty so that we are free to celebrate uncertainty; the sermons relay absolute conviction so that we can freely confess our doubt; and our prayers never question the God of religion so that we can express our cynicism. The structure acts as a security blanket that enables us to speak of the Crucifixion without ever undergoing its true liberating horror.” – Peter Rollins, The Insurrection, p. 47-48
We quickly forget that Jesus cried out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” as He died alone on the cross instead of “I’m coming home, I’m coming home, tell the world I’m coming home… “
We also forget that a young Jesus wandered away from his parents and into the temple because he enjoyed being in His Fathers house (Luke 2). Even as a child, he followed His heart and did what He loved.
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As Christians, we hear all about “controlling our emotions,” but wouldn’t it be better to learn how to work with them?
Most New Years resolutions are abandoned because we set ourselves up for failure by resolving to do things we don’t want to do and aren’t capable of doing. No matter how many times we resolve to control our emotions, we will fail. Or maybe we’ll “succeed,” and choose a bland, boring existence instead of a passionate, fulfilling life. The only one who can align our hearts with God’s is God.
So, let’s do something a little different this year. Let’s resolve to have some emotional intelligence.
I refuse to believe God created us with beautiful hearts just for religion to reprogram them into following a moral code.
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