I woke up last week to the blahs, like Marie Antoinette’s claim, “Nothing tastes.” This happens to me when I’m tired, and ten restless nights had drained me. I felt exhausted. And melancholy.
I wasn’t irritable (at least no more than usual). It was just a sense of doldrums. I tried a couple movies, but they didn’t grab me; I tried some good books, but they bored me. Nothing tasted. As a distraction, I did deskwork, but it all felt so dreary. Like doing taxes with a toothache.
I also tried praying. It wasn’t bad. I even felt a flicker of inspiration, but then it flickered out. (“Typical,” I thought.) I wasn’t particularly sad, but I did feel kind of … emotional.
How are Christians supposed to handle our emotions? It simply cannot be limited to:
- The Emotional Prima Donna. EVERYTHING is SO EPIC! Like geysers they spurt tears at every Hallmark holiday. Their feelings make them the center of attention.
- The Emotional Volcano. Pissed at the world, they erupt at the tiniest insult and explode at a slightest sign of disrespect. Their feelings threaten the world.
- The Emotional Eunuch. Claiming to be mini-Spock’s, they stuff their feelings. But they lack his charm (and his cool, pointy ears). They seem like animated cabbage. Their lack of feelings make them alien.
Please, tell me I’m not the only one annoyed by these responses (although, come to think of it, maybe I am feeling a bit irritable).
Then—I kid you not—I read a quote by the pop star Madonna, and it began my recovery.
Come on, anyone but Madonna
Ah, yes, Madonna, my new spiritual mentor. Not really. I’m not a Madonna groupie, so don’t go down that road (remember, I’m feeling a bit irritable). Listen to what she admits,
“Every time I accomplish something, I feel like a special human being. But after a little while, I feel mediocre and uninteresting again. I find I have to get myself past this again and again. My drive in life is from the horrible fear of being mediocre. I have to prove I’m somebody.”
I like Madonna’s honesty about her blahs (I almost said her self-disclosure, but that would be distracting). But her solution is short-lived. She has to achieve “again and again” because she’s pumping air into a flat tire without fixing the leak. Her problem is etymology.
Many words have multiple meanings. When we accidentally mix those meanings, our understanding is hijacked. “Feeling” is one of those tricky words.
We usually equate “feeling” with emotions, but it has other meanings as well. When I feel a toothache, I mean physical pain; when I feel I took a wrong turn, I describe an impression; when I feel like a Coke, I express a desire; and (yes) when I feel sad, I mean an emotion.
There’s another important meaning for feeling, and that is belief. When Madonna says she feels uninteresting, she means she believes she’s uninteresting. Beliefs always—simultaneously—determine emotions, so we confuse the two. When Madonna “feels” uninteresting, she immediately “feels” sad. We can’t separate beliefs from emotions. But they’re different.
If we only address our emotions (and not beliefs that cause them), we’re just pumping hot air.
Our harmful solution leads to painful addiction
Madonna speaks the language of addiction. She feels emotional pain (from believing she’s uninteresting) and injects the heroin of acclamation. She shoots up with just one more show.
It’s just what substance addicts do. They feel bad about their marriage, so they stop at a bar and load up on alcohol. But the drink changes nothing. It’s a shortcut to a fleeting high. Tomorrow they’re the same person with the same problems. Which they just aggravated.
Even without chemicals, we try to fix emotional lows with emotional highs. We turn to some “drug” for a superficial, passing euphoria. Our drug may be: another romance, working harder, seeing our kids on the honor role, being liked, or acclamation. We mainline again and again.
We all take “drugs” that never satisfy. They’re shortcuts, and “Shortcuts make for long delays.”
Let’s become [healthy] emotional Christians
The world prescribes two remedies for emotions: either stuff your feelings (like the Emotional Eunuch) or surrender to your feelings (like the Emotional Prima Donna and Emotional Volcano). But both remedies are prescriptions for emotional disaster. There’s a Christian antidote.
First we acknowledge our emotion. If we feel angry, we don’t deny it (“I’m not the kind of person who gets mad”) nor do we just vent it (by banging oil drums with baseball bats.) We admit it. Madonna took the step of acknowledging her condition. But she shortcut step two.
In step two, healthy emotional Christians examine their emotions. (That’s what we do with all our other “feelings.” We examine our temperature when we feel sick; we examine a map when we feel lost; and we examine the refrigerator when we feel like a Coke.)
The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) literally means to “change our minds,” to change what we believe about reality. That means the healthy emotional Christian rejects emotional shortcuts and invest their time in … thinking. Christianity is a thinking religion.
But we think in the presence of God. We ask God, “Why am I mad (sad, ashamed, etc.)?” God will reveal our false beliefs (we believe we’re uninteresting) and then reveal a part of himself (he finds us incredibly interesting); and that new truth gives us a belief of the heart that lasts.
It’s not a shortcut, but it isn’t short-lived either. We gain a belief that quiets our hearts forever.
Although I wouldn’t say “No” to a good night of sleep.
P.S. Physical factors—like sleep, diet, exercise, and chemical imbalance—contribute to our emotions, but they only surface what we already believe. By all means, take a nap or begin a better diet. But don’t ignore what these feelings say to us. They reveal our beliefs.
Spot on, Sam. Thanks! Love this: “Shortcuts make for long delays.” As one who “mainlined” for way too long as a means of attempting to find joy, I can attest to this. One minor point of what I hope is clarification, though: While we can’t separate the occurence of beliefs from emotions (since they appear simultaneously), we can, and need to, separate them. I think this is precisely the work you are speaking about when you talk of acknowledging and examining our emotions. As a crude analogy, I notice a warning light on my car’s dashboard. I can ignor it (stuff the emotion), I can take a hammer and smash out the warning light (volcanic emotional explosion), or I can see the light as an indicator, and take a look under the hood to see what’s really going on…
GREAT response. Thanks.
Yes, absolutely, we need to distinguish between emotions and beliefs. They are separate and distinct. But they do happen almost simultaneously. But one is a cause and one is the effect. With dynamite, explosion is the cause and destruction is the effect. And our beliefs are really a kind of dynamite. They cause our actions and emotions. When we’re behaving and emoting in unhelpful ways, it’s always good to check the dynamite.
But I like your warning light metaphor even better. (Partly because it’s hilarious, and I’m always partial to humor.)
Thanks for the great clarification and tremendous illustration.
You packed a lot into this piece, Sam. Very nice! Your three steps are really great, and I’m going to recommend this to others. The steps remind me of what a Christian Counselor friend once told me was “The way of the Psalms.” Often the Psalms, particularly the Psalms of David begin with David lamenting, so acknowledging like you say, and then he turns to the Lord and begins to tell God all about it and examining why he feels like this, and then eventually he turns it all over to God. Often the Psalms end with joy and worship when they began in turmoil because the problem has been declared, examined and given over to God. We are far too logical today, unlike the Hebrew culture who wrote down the Bible. You’re right, rather than running from our emotions, let’s look at them with God.
Great reminder. I once heard a Bible scholar say the same thing, “There are only three things we can do with our emotions, vent them, stuff them, or pray them. And Psalms only teaches that latter.”
So basically, we ask God, “Why do I feel this way?” and “What do You have to say about it?” I highly recommend journaling as a way to slow down and think through such questions. My journal has been an important tool over the last few years.
Thanks for that suggestion. Yes, absolutely. Asking God, and journalling (which is a way of asking God.)
We desperately need to develop a conversational relationship with God. Too often we think of it as going to our General or King for advice or orders (and, yes, he is our king).
The final metaphor in scripture for our relationship with God is as his spouse. And the best marriages are relationships of conversational communication.
Thanks for this post.
I believe my greatest struggle in my faith is precisely the seemingly unwavering belief that God is disappointed in me.
That is everyone’s greatest struggle, though some refuse to admit it.
Someone once said, “No one disbelieved in God because he promised too little; they disbelieve God because he promised too much.”
It is true that we fail everyday. And the thing is, the more we grow in spiritual maturity, the more our spiritually sensitive hearts begin to sense all the times we fail.
But God never chose us because of our innate goodness. He chose us because he loves us. We can’t disappoint him in the same way we disappoint ourselves. When we fail, we are surprised that we failed once more. He isn’t surprised. he knew it all when he chose us.
But he still chose us and loves us.