My wife’s eyes twinkled when she told me of her great discovery. There’s a place in a nearby town that makes and sells quality dinners about as cheaply as we can make them ourselves. Since she now works full-time, cooking for the family is challenging. So we took a drive and brought home a box heavy with a pasta dish. I opened the box, dished out a bowl, and took a bite. Hmmm. Not bad. But a bit on the boring side – bland. I’d guess that they make it that way on purpose for people with finicky stomachs. Once we added our own spice, the food was great.
The Christian life, without a positive emotional aspect, is the same – bland – mostly doctrine and rules with a bit of spiritual community service thrown in. Not much excitement or passion or joy. And that’s just how the Christian faith is for some of you listening to this. I myself have struggled with the dissonance between what I believe and how I feel about those beliefs. Emotions are meant to be an important part of our walk with Christ though. Last week I discussed why. This week I want to offer you some practical suggestions for coordinating our emotions with our beliefs. Let me begin with a disclaimer which has brought me great relief over the years and may encourage some of you as well. Here it is:
God judges our actions, not our emotions.
As I pointed out last week, our emotions are fickle and hard to control. Try making yourself joyful on command or causing your bitterness to go away right now! Doesn’t work that well, does it? This is why I believe that God ultimately holds us responsible, not for our emotions, but for how we choose to relate to them. If we, by an act of our will, seek to know God and to obey Him, we can please Him. If these acts bring us peace or joy, that’s great. If they don’t, we’re still being faithful.
This raises a question, however. If God doesn’t hold us responsible for our emotions, but for our choices, then what about verses like: “Be joyful always” (1 Thes. 5:16) which seem to command joy? I believe, in this case, that what the verse is commanding isn’t an emotion but an action. I can choose to rejoice whether I feel joyful or not. Rejoicing, in this sense, means choosing to affirm our gratefulness and hope because God is good to us. It’s an act of the will that reflects our faith.
This isn’t to say, however, that emotions don’t matter. As I stated last week, our emotions can greatly enhance our relationship with God or seriously hinder it. To legitimately enjoy God more, for instance, will only boost our relationship with him. Furthermore, our emotions are often indicators of our primary attitudes and perspectives. They can function as “indicator lights” on the dashboard of our soul.
How can I build a healthier relationship between my emotions and my faith?
· I begin building a healthier relationship between my emotions and my faith by getting in touch with my emotional life
When I was in seminary I took a psychological test and was stunned to discover that my anxiety level was off the charts. I’d had no idea. I also had quite a bit of anger, though I appeared placid on the outside. Sometimes, as believers, we’ve learned to just do what’s right and stuff our emotions when they don’t cooperate. This may work for the moment, but it’s a bad long-term strategy. I’m not suggesting that we overfocus on our emotions, just that we become aware of what’s going on down there, otherwise, how can we deal with emotions that need to be addressed? This leadsto my next observation:
· I build a healthier relationship between my faith and my emotions when I learn to process my negative emotions in a healthy way
There’s so much that could be said here, but let me give you a few basics. Learn to recognize your painful feelings. Accept them. Express them to God and, if helpful, to others you trust. Try to understand what has stimulated them. If there’s productive action to be taken (like seeking reconciliation, making restitution, or forgiving), do what you can. Without trying to suppress them, at some point, it’s usually helpful to set them to one side and focus on something else. Allow time for them to subside. If necessary, get help from a wise friend or therapist. For more substance, I recommend reading Christian author Larry Crabb who’s done fine work in the area of integrating our faith with our emotions.
· I begin building a healthier relationship between my emotions and my faith when I let the Spirit roam freely inside of me
The Bible speaks of being “filled with the Spirit”. This means that God’s Spirit is allowed full access to every part of our hearts. He can shine a light on every dark corner. He can correct every twisted thought. He can strengthen us, heal us and guide us. His presence is often comforting, sometimes painful, but, in the end, His loving hand will do more for our emotional well-being than any other resource. This is often best done, by the way, by filling our minds with the Word of God, since the Spirit speaks clearest through Scripture.
· I begin building a healthier relationship between my emotions and my faith when I choose to drain the toxic emotional swamp
I’ve already alluded to this. Toxic attitudes such as envy, bitterness,, malice, and anxiety, if not released, will sabotage our ability to feel positive, energetic emotions such as joy, peace and gratitude. With the help of the Spirit God wants us to forgive and release them. This may take time and help, but it’s worth it.
· I begin building a healthier relationship between my emotions and my faith when I make praise and gratitude a regular part of my life
God is good. Amen? It’s easy to lose sight of God’s goodness when we’re bearing the weight of daily life. Taking time to worship, taking time to say “thanks” restores our perspective. God really has “blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Lots of practical blessings here on earth as well.
The relationship between our faith and our emotions is an interesting one. On the one hand, our emotions aren’t made to be in charge. They’re too unstable; too easily influenced by the body or outside forces. Nor are they always a good measure of our level of spiritual health or maturity. On the other hand, our emotions can be strong allies in our spiritual life. They add zest, motivation, and power to our relationship with God. So don’t neglect the emotional aspect of your spiritual life. Seek emotional health. Do your best to feel your faith; to express it to God and others.