A Theology of Emotions, Part 5
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” - Cormac McCarthy
If you’re new to this series, I’ve been exploring a “theology of emotions.” I’m going to conclude the series this month by looking at how to do all of this in a way that glorifies God while also helps us get to the root of why we feel what we feel.
In a conversation about doing this kind of work, I had someone push back against what I was saying in a way that helped frame why I even wrote this series. I believe his desire came from a sincere place, deeply wanting Christ to be the only desire of his heart. His challenge to me was something along the lines of, “How do you push for all of this focus on our own hearts when we really should be focused on Christ?”
If we do this work of acknowledging our feelings, expressing the emotion that is in us before judging whether or not it is worthy to be felt - how then do we move into doing this in a way that glorifies God and brings healing to our hearts?
Emotions as Guideposts
As I’ve written before, our emotions serve as a gauge to see where we are in relationship to God, ourselves, and others. They are telling us something. At times, what they are saying is easy to discern - Sally did something that was really dumb, and now I am mad at Sally because that hurt me. However, most of the time, there are several levels of what is happening with our emotions.
I believe we deprive ourselves of a deeper, richer experience with God and in life by avoiding the expression, feeling, and discovery of our emotions. I fear we have used the right desire to focus our gaze on Christ alone to turn our eyes away from exactly what is happening inside our hearts and hide.
The work of exploring these levels is where I believe we begin the journey of entering into a more honest conversation with God about the state of our hearts. I can ask for forgiveness for my anger and my outburst toward my wife...but what if I went to the root of that anger?
What if I discovered that some event or relationship in my past that has deeply wounded me and never been healed is part of what makes my relationship with my wife so toxic. Every time she belittles me, it takes me back to that moment, that relationship - maybe it’s even as “silly” as a moment in elementary school...an errant comment made by a teacher or classmate that deeply wounded me...that taught me something about the world that I held onto.
People often joke (scoff) at the work of a therapist being rooted in “mommy” or “daddy” issues...and I get it! Some of this is warranted when it seems like we can dissect these little instances that seemingly should have no power over us now. But that is where this gets tricky.
We hold on to these moments...these experiences...and they shape our emotions without us really being cognizant of it happening.
And don’t get me wrong - it’s not always “simple” or “silly” moments. You could be going back to the moment you were abused, the moment someone threatened to kill you, the moment your dad walked out the door and never came home. These are the traumatic events that shape us and our emotions deeply.
So is it enough to simply repent of a feeling that is steeped in sin? I would argue that it is not. I would argue the real work of repentance comes from seeking to understand where that emotion has its roots planted. And the goal is not necessarily to change that emotion.
This also does not mean that understanding the root is enough to provide freedom...and it is not to say that everyone can identify the root! I have worked with people who have no memory of a moment nor a memory of a specific relationship that would have caused a specific feeling. But the work is still meaningful for them because, in the process, they discover the lies their heart holds on to so desperately in an attempt to feel something.
Last month, I wrote out a process I go through at times to help identify and name my emotions so they do not have control over me. If I were to only practice this process and did no work on understanding where my feelings come from - I would perpetually be backing myself off the edge of the cliff. Sometimes we need to do the work of climbing down from the top so we are not near the edge anymore.
How Emotional Awareness Enables My Pursuit of God
When I approach understanding the root of my emotions, I can pursue God differently. The old, festering wound that consistently gets picked when an errant critical word hits my ears can now be fully opened and dealt with. This isn’t comfortable or fun. I get it. None of us want to revisit the old wounds. None of us really want to relive the pain. But by not going back, we are allowing those emotions to have more control over us than we realize. We’re doing the very thing we seek to avoid!
We climb down from the cliff’s edge by entering into God’s presence with the awareness of this wound and its origins. I can enter into God’s presence and explore his word with this wound - this experience - because it happened. I’m not in the realm of following my heart because it feels anxious. I’m now leading my heart and its anxiety to the presence of God by addressing where my fear (hurt, pain, obsession, lust) started.
I can’t stress this enough - I’m not running to God with my anxiety trying to get it soothed now (though that is still valid and good). I’m being honest about where it comes from and bringing this before him. I’m asking God to heal the brokenness in my family...the brokenness in my relationships...the brokenness in my own self. Instead of addressing the symptom only (“because Jesus told us not to be anxious!”), I’m entering a relationship with the God of the universe asking him to know me. This is transformational!
How can I focus on God knowing me when my gaze should always be on his holiness? These aren’t mutually exclusive. By entering into his presence and acknowledging the brokenness that has lead to so much pain and hurt in our lives, we are putting down every obstacle that gets in the way of knowing him more fully.
St. Augustine talks about how our anxiety is the smoke rising from a burning false god. By acknowledging our feelings and being willing to explore what they are telling us about ourselves, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God, I believe we can pursue the sin in our heart more honestly. I believe this brings us closer to God and ultimately frees us from the fear that comes with our emotions.
The author of Psalm 88 does not end on a positive note. The last words he writes to God are “darkness is my closest friend.” We know this to be theologically untrue. God is still near to him whether he feels it or not. But in his moment of honesty, he is acknowledging where he really is. He doesn’t have to qualify it, he doesn’t have to explain that his feeling is “wrong” because theologically he knows God is actually his closest friend. He finishes his psalm with his real, guttural, deeply felt emotion of isolation and loneliness.
Honesty leads to Intimacy
His honesty allows him to explore his gauges. It allows him to pursue God with freedom. He can pursue this God that seems so distant...so silent...because he is not posturing himself as someone who does not doubt. He is not posturing himself as someone who does not feel the loneliness we can all identify inside of us for different reasons.
We have to embrace this kind of honesty and exploration because through it, we are asking God to remove every hindrance that keeps us from knowing him more intimately. Our emotions are not the final word to what is true and real - but they are a great indicator of where we are and what we need. May we all begin to express them more fully with the desire to know how they can bring us closer to ourselves, others, and God.