Negative emotions. We all have them. We all have struggled with how to deal with emotions like worry, anger, depression, shame, ambition, lust, or jealousy — even a psychologist like me who has devoted 24 years to helping people overcome emotional problems.
Of course, having an emotion isn’t a problem — it’s normal. But how do we respond to troubling emotions? The first step is to feel them! Have you ever seen the chart of “Feeling Faces?” This is a fun and helpful too for identifying our emotions and learning to use the language of feelings. This is a main purpose of the Psalms. (See “Praying the Psalms.”)
Emotions become “negative” when they are internalized or acted on in ways that harm yourself or others. Negative emotions are an energy drain and they may lead us into sin (see Psalm 139:23-24). We’ve all experienced this.
Learn from the Psalmist
“Do not worry… Do not worry… Do not worry…” The Psalmist repeats his counsel three times in Psalm 37 (verses 1, 7, 8). Just like Jesus did in Matthew 6 (verses 25, 31, 34).
“Do not worry.” This is not the empty reassurance of “Don’t worry. Be happy!” The Bible never advises denial of emotion. The Psalmist understands our emotional problems and he shows us the way to work through them in prayer, especially in the lament psalms, so that not only can we have peace with God, but also we can have the peace of God.
The way of the Psalmist — God’s wisdom — runs counter to the way of the world. So God wouldn’t have us to invalidate our real emotions, but neither would he tell us to “get them out” by venting. Negative emotion isn’t something to get rid of — it’s part of your inner self that needs to be cared for!
Expressing our emotions to someone who has compassion for us help us to be more aware of our emotions and it facilitates receiving empathy (validation of our emotional experience and needs and comfort) so that we know we’re not alone but are cared for and have help to carry our burdens.
The Psalmist’s venting of his emotions to God is constructive because he’s growing in his understanding of himself and his life under God, taking responsibility for himself and his life experience, and bringing himself into relationship with God and the people in his community. In these ways he’s reaching out in faith (trust and confidence) for God’s comfort and guidance.
The Psalmist’s therapeutic process also helps him and us discover the reasons why we struggle with emotions like anger and to take steps to resolve related problems. In other words, we need to learn from our emotional struggles and to take godly action.
Emotions and the Kingdom of God
One of the reasons why we struggle with negative emotions is when we are not fully submitted to God and his kingdom.
I want my way. I want things to work out fairly. I want to be happy. I want to feel in control. I want people to be happy with me. I want, I want, I want! It’s natural to have wants, but if our desires aren’t submitted to God and if we don’t find the Lord himself to be our portion then those desires will wreck havoc in our lives.
Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all that you need will be provided for you in due time” (Matthew 6:33, paraphrase). When you or I are overtaken by an emotion and react to it in an unloving way OR when we repress our emotion we can be sure that in that situation (and probably in the underlying psychological dynamics) we have not yet learned to relinquish and release to the Lord.
Pray Psalm 37
David’s prayer in Psalm 37 helps us learn to submit to God — to trust our Good Shepherd, to focus on our responsibility to do what is good and right (no matter how it feels), to wait for God’s provision and guidance, and, most of all, to find delight in what is most precious — knowing the Lord!
Do not worry…
Trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
Trust in him and he will do this: he will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
Do not worry… Do not worry (Psalm 37:1-8).
Which Emotion do you Need to Pray About?
“Trust in the Lord” includes the idea of owning and verbalizing our emotions and needs to God and to safe people who help us connect to God. Bringing our emotions into relationship is how we learn to not worry or be overcome by any troubling emotion.
With this in mind, try praying Psalm 37 by substituting for the word “worry” whatever negative emotions you struggle with. One at a time focus on an emotional struggle. Feel it. Imagine the situation giving rise to that emotion. And then submit to God by praying, “Do not react harmfully to _______ .”
Which negative emotions cause you problems? Try praying Psalm 37 for help with these emotional reactions. Receive the Lord’s word of comfort and strength: “Do not… fear (or… hurry… envy… remain angry… be ambitious… be competitive… lust… be greedy… be ashamed… criticize yourself or others… feel inadequate… feel insecure). Trust in the Lord…”
Pray that God would help you learn to become the kind of person David is describing: someone who finds such delight in knowing the Lord and doing his will that he or she can be at peace even when circumstances are not good.
Soul Care Groups
This devotional is an example of one of our Experiences which we use in our Soul Care Groups for pastors and leaders. We make all of our articles available for you and those you care for. You are free to use and share them as God leads — you do not even need to use our names.