On emotions, and what they are good for
I never really knew what to think about emotions when I was growing up. They just seemed confusing, especially the negative ones, which just seemed to get in the way of my Christian life.
I would feel angry, but I couldn't express my anger because it wasn't "Christian". I would feel miserable and like I needed a good cry, but I would be told that I should stop focusing on myself and that if I looked at the needs of others and served them, I would feel better.
I couldn't understand why God had made me with emotions – and such a lot of them – if all I was supposed to was to fight them at every turn in order to be more like Christ. It seemed like being a Christian meant not having any negative emotions at all.
At our school, we were taught the acronym JOY, which stands for Jesus first, Others next and Yourself last. Follow this formula and you would of course have joy. I tried following the formula but it didn't seem to bring me the kind of joy that lasted. There was still a pool of unhappiness that surfaced every so often and seemed in solvable.
Then I came across people who said that you should be true to yourself and listen to yourself and do what your emotions tell you. I tried this for a while as well. If I felt like staying in bed I would stay in bed. "I need to do this," I would say. But it didn't seem to work either. At the most basic level, I didn't get much done. And there didn't seem to be a lot of joy in it either.
It is only as I have grown older and a teensy bit wiser that I have worked out how to handle my emotions – and even to love them – because now I understand what they are for.
Emotions are like a signalling system. They let us know what's going on inside. In some ways, they operate similarly to our nervous system. If we feel pain in our hands, we know that we need to take them off the hot stove. If we feel thirsty we know that we need to drink.
If we feel sad, we can take it as a signal that there is a need that is not being met somewhere inside. Anger is a signal as well. So is betrayal, disappointment, grief, horror, discomfort, nervousness, fear and crying.
Seeing emotions as a signalling system means that we can deal with them by looking inside and seeing what our needs are. When we find a way to have the need met, the negative emotion will dissolve. The need may be deep and require talking to someone experienced, kind and wise for an extended period. Or it may be as simple as going to bed early and having a good sleep, having a hot bath and a drink of milk, or saying, "yes, clearly my hormones are acting up today."
Dealing with negative emotions by suppressing them or dismissing them or getting cross with yourself for even having them is like driving a car straight through the traffic lights. You might feel like you're going faster and more efficiently, but eventually you will crash, and probably in a big way.
Dealing with negative emotions by embracing them and doing exactly what they tell you to do (i e. I feel angry, so I will punch that guy in the face) will get you into a crash as well. Probably quicker.
Acknowledging negative emotions and seeing them as a useful indication of the inner state of your soul and body is a far better way to go. Ask yourself, "what do I need in this situation?" And then pray and ask God to meet that need.
At the core of everything, is our need to be loved. And the ultimate answer to that need is to accept the overwhelming, all encompassing deep, sweet love of God in Christ.
Ephesians 3:17-19 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-- that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.