Emotions get a bad rap in many of our Christian circles today. They’re vulnerable and get broken. They’re messy and don’t look right.
We prefer thinking, analysis, doctrine, and three steps to a better life. “Believe and do what’s right,” is the typical message for how to follow Jesus and grow spiritually. “Emotions are the caboose. They can’t be trusted.”
Yes, some people have the problem that they empower their feelings and desires and just do as they please. But mostly we do not see that in spiritual leaders.
Often the feelers are kept out of spiritual leadership positions. The spokespersons for Christ in our pulpits, power seats, academies, executive halls, and elder board rooms usually elevate thinking and suppress emotion.
We’ve seen this split churches and families. We’ve also seen these systems calcify with religious smugness and judgmentalism. Tender-hearted people and those who don’t look or act right, stay away or sneak away to a therapist office or support group for a safe place.
But emotions are essential to being human. Without emotion, we become bored, inauthentic, and empty. Without emotion, we become disconnected from people and God, and our life becomes arid.
It’s with emotion that we read other people, access our intuition, and use creative thinking. E-motions can get us going in a good direction.
Even spiritual directors and teachers may diminish emotion. If someone can’t feel God’s love we’re quick to say, “Oh, you’re in a Dark Night of the Soul. This is a season for you to wait on the Lord who is doing a deep work in you.” Maybe.
Or your heart’s feeler has become calloused.
If you don’t want to feel sad, hurt, needy, afraid, anxious, insecure, confused, doubting, discouraged, lonely, frustrated, or angry, then your feeler will begin to numb and you’ll start losing the ability to experience the warm, deep, and life-giving relational experiences that foster love, joy, and peace.
Furthermore, when you repress your feelings, they leak out in moodiness, crankiness, emotional reactions, addiction, or depression.
Many people don’t realize that when they deny their painful emotions they start losing pleasurable emotions. We call the first group “negative emotions” and the second group “positive emotions,” but there can be health and unhealth on both sides.
Why do we let our heart’s feelers become calloused? Here’s what people tell us:
- “Numbing my emotions helped me cope with the abuse (or addiction, or chaos) in my family.”
- “Emotions get in the way of my performance. I need to be strong and quick thinking at work.” (So she treats herself like a productivity machine.)
- “I don’t like being sad — I just want to be happy.” (So he entertains himself to death.)
- “I never learned how to feel. We didn’t share our emotions in my family growing up. I didn’t even know what empathy was.”
The cure for over-weighting thinking or feeling is to learn to keep them together. We like to refer to our inner state as “feeling-thoughts” because they’re a two-way street, even in our brain. We put feelings first because little children have emotions and desires before they have thoughts and logic.
The primary way to keep our feeling and thinking in balance is to “process” or verbalize our experiences in “love one another” relationships, in which we take turns listening and offering empathy and prayer. This is what the Psalmist models for us with the Lord and authentic community. (For instance, check out Psalm 55.)
Listen to the companion Soul Talks podcast, Emotions: Befriending our Emotions.