What do you think about feelings? How do you feel about your feelings (e.g., “I get frustrated when I feel anxious”)? Are you comfortable allowing yourself to feel and express your emotions, or do you tend to ignore them? I’ve worked with numerous men who have come into counseling and said, “I don’t see why counselors always want to talk about feelings.” Such a statement reveals how many men see emotions and feelings as irrelevant. How we develop our beliefs and views on emotions is heavily influenced by the culture of the home we have been raised in.
What we believe about emotions also derives from the people, culture, and time in history we live. For instance, many men, and women, who are a part of the Silent Generation (i.e., born between 1925 and 1945) were raised to not talk about their feelings. Men from this generation are often viewed as stoic. Whereas Millennials, (those born no later than 1980) have faced a drastically different American culture from that of the Silent Generation. Emotions are expressed more freely with Millennials in comparison to the Silent Generation. This is an example of how people, culture, and time in history can have a major impact on how emotions are viewed and expressed.
Many Christians can view emotions in ways that do not align with a proper Biblical view. Rather, their emotions are more influenced by the culture than by God’s Word. Christian psychologists Kim-Van Daalen and Johnson provide some common beliefs Christians can have related to emotions:
Many Christians react negatively toward a self-oriented and subjectively driven culture, particularly one that focuses on following one’s feelings. For these Christians knowing that God is the center of the universe and not the individual, has a major influence on one’s subjective feelings.
For others, the ability to regulate their emotions is seen as evidence of being spiritually mature. For instance, children can be viewed as lacking emotional regulation, which can be a sign of lacking maturity and wisdom. The same can be said for adults who are impulsive and express their emotions inappropriately. Therefore emotions expressed can be viewed as a sign of immaturity or weakness.
Many Christians believe that emotions are intrinsically sinful such as some of the negative emotions (i.e., anxiety, envy, sadness, bitterness).
The Christian perspectives of emotions that Kim-Van Daalen and Johnson provide are also often combined with common cultural views of emotions. Examples are: negative emotions are bad, not being able to regulate your emotions is a sign of weakness (particularly for men), you should learn to cope with your feelings on your own, a tactic to ignore unpleasant emotions is to distract yourself, and the only socially acceptable feelings to express are emotions such as happiness and joy. When I was in graduate school I became fascinated with studying the masculine culture in the US. Many of the studies I reviewed pointed out how many men are raised to be self-reliant, independent, and emotionally restrictive. My counseling experiences with men backed up the findings of these studies I reviewed (these findings aren’t restricted solely to males.) Regardless of gender, our culture often discourages expressions of negative emotions.
You may have grown up in a home where you were encouraged to be emotionally expressive and open, a home where emotions were nurtured properly and you learned that being emotional is a part of being an image bearer of God. If that was your experience you are in the minority. Be encouraged you were raised this way. For the rest of you, negative emotions may have been taught to be ignored, stuffed, or denied. You may have experienced an atmosphere where positive emotions were expressed openly while negative emotions may not have been dealt with appropriately. Sadly, there are numerous people who grew up in homes where there was not a safe space to process or engage negative emotions. After all, who wants to experience sadness, shame, guilt, or worry? These emotions cause us to feel bad and given most of us are pursuing joy and happiness we seek to dull the flames of negative emotions. Unfortunately, those flames don’t fully die and they occasionally leap to life invoking a quick desire to cover them up or dull them again. At times, the emotions become too overwhelming and we give into them. This can result in intense emotional outbursts. For instance, I have often seen this with men who present with anger problems. There’s an inability to regulate one’s emotions so therefore feelings erupt when they become too difficult to be kept bottled up. And so the cycle goes.
What does any of this have to do with feeling distant from God? For many of us, we are too busy muffling the loud powerful words we’ve abided in which invoke emotional reactions. When the emotional reaction we experience is painful or unpleasant our natural tendency is to quickly numb the pain and discomfort. After all, who enjoys feeling pain, hurt, and discomfort? When you have a bruise or cut what do you do when someone brushes up against it? You pull back and reposition yourself in order to protect yourself and minimize pain. Most of us seek to readjust our posture if we find that our bruises or cuts are causing us discomfort. We instinctively draw back when we feel pain or discomfort. The same is true for emotional pain and discomfort.
If we get into a pattern of only desiring to experience positive emotions (e.g., happiness, joy, excitement) and stuffing the negative emotions (e.g., sadness, guilt, shame, worry) then we find ourselves only seeking to experience God through the positive emotions. But what if we are able to experience God through the negative emotions? What if He’s to be found in the midst of the very emotions we seek to ignore and dull? C.S. Lewis famously stated, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”
In the book of Isaiah, the 53rd chapter, we are introduced to the suffering servant. Jesus is said to be the suffering servant who suffered to the point of death. When you think of Jesus do you picture him as a happy-go-lucky guy full of joy? Do you see him as a man who was always joyful and happy because of his relationship to God? Or, do you see a suffering servant as we see in Isaiah 53? If you don’t see Jesus’ suffering then you are missing out on knowing God at a deeper level. Jesus came to this world and what do you think he saw? He saw brokenness and depravity all around him. He saw God’s creation wasting away due to the cancer of sin spreading throughout human history. He saw the dead walking, thinking that they were alive. He saw the world residing in darkness, not recognizing light despite it shining brightly before their eyes. Not only did Jesus suffer greatly for our sins however he also suffered immensely by seeing the state of the world in decay. In Jesus, we see the image of the living God and we see a vast array of emotions expressed, ranging from grief, to anger, to sorrow.
What we believe about our emotions, how we think about them, how we express them and view them can be the difference between knowing about God and knowing God intimately. All of our emotions communicate something important. They can help us to relate to God on a more personal and intimate level. For instance, anger toward injustice is something we see God express throughout the Old Testament. God’s anger flared when he saw injustice occur. Sadness over sickness, pain and suffering helps us relate to God because he expresses sadness over the world he created decaying due to the impact of sin. In the garden of Gethsemane, we see Jesus plead with God to take away the cup of suffering he’s to endure. Jesus knows what it is like to plead with God to not have to experience great pain. We can draw closer to God through such emotions.
However, we can also abide in words that do not derive from God and such words carry the power to impact us negatively. The sources of these words we believe are lies we’ve taken for truth. In the midst of sadness, I can easily find myself believing lies to be true, which only serve to fuel my sadness. For instance, how do you think about your feelings? When you experience sadness or other negative emotions, how do you think about how you are feeling? Do you tell yourself to suck it up? Do you ridicule yourself for feeling the way you do? Do you think negatively of yourself for being sad when so many people have it worse off than you? Often, people's internal dialogue can be a form of self-contempt toward their feelings. For example, internal dialogue and an emotional reaction toward being anxious such as,“What’s wrong with me?! Why am I always anxious? I’m so weak!” This is an example of having a negative emotional reaction toward your feelings. Such reactions will likely cause you to feel even worse about your anxiety. Does this internal dialogue and emotional reaction reflect God’s view of you in that moment? In sticking with the example above, does God’s Word align with our words and reaction toward how we’re feeling? Sadly, many do not hear God’s voice because it is drowned out by their own self-contemptuous internal dialogue. This leads to efforts to protect oneself from experiencing any emotional discomfort. The act of self-protection is a form of taking control. This quickly spirals as lies are believed to be truth, at which point we seek to be like God by taking control in order to protect ourselves rather than leaning into God’s protection. Self-protection calls into question God’s trustworthiness and steadfast love for his children. As this downward spiral is occurring are you able to pause and listen to God’s tender voice and what He has to say in the midst of the lies that cause you to plummet?
How you manage your emotions, both positive and negative, will have an impact on how you experience God. As an image bearer of God’s do you draw closer to him through your emotions as a means to know him more intimately? If you are interested in learning more about how God is an emotional being and has given us emotions to reflect Him then consider reading the book The Cry of the Soul.
A prayer for you: Holy God, you have created us as image bearers of yours, which means you’ve created us as emotional beings. Help my brothers and sisters in Christ have wisdom through your Spirit to discern how, if at all, their emotions impact their relationship with you. May you fill them with courage to think about and feel things that may be unpleasant and uncomfortable. Fill them with courage, wisdom, and discernment to know who they can talk to if a listening ear is their need. Abba Father, we thank you for your suffering servant. We thank you that we have a great high priest who has walked this earth and knows the challenges we face in the process and dealing with our emotions. May my brothers and sisters seek Jesus’ face in the midst of their emotions and may your Son seek to draw them closer to himself.
Exercise: Take some time to reflect on and think about how you view emotions.
- Where did your beliefs about emotions derive from?
- Which emotions do you tend to struggle with most? Why?
- What is your internal dialogue and emotional reaction toward unpleasant feelings you experience? Is it more reflective of a loving Father or is it self-contemptuous?
- How do your emotions either draw you closer to God or distance you from him?
- How do you tend to respond toward other people's emotions? Is your response more reflective of a loving Father or do your responses tend to be contemptuous (which can fuel self-contempt in the one you are speaking to)?
The Holy Bible (ESV)
Kim-Van Daalen, L. & Johnson, E. (2013). Transformation in Christian Emotion-Focused Therapy. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Lewis, C.S. (1940). The Problem of Pain.
Dr. Ruel Tyer is the Director of Care and Counseling for OneDay Counseling at Portico church. To learn more about OneDay Counseling visit the website - www.onedaycville.org. Dr. Tyer provides counseling services for individuals, couples, and families. If you are interested in learning more about counseling services please contact Dr. Tyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.