A friend recently posted that his daughter had to go back into the hospital and as a result he was experiencing some anxiety, My heart cringed when I read his post because it read like a confession, and I drew the conclusion that he thought the anxiety he was experiencing was a sin. I thought back to other similar posts and conversations I have had with people over the years who felt guilty because they, too, experienced uncomfortable emotions like fear, jealousy, anxiety, sadness, grief, or anger during difficult circumstances, on going trials, hurtful relationships, huge losses, traumatic events. Their guilt is conveyed through statements like: "I know I shouldn't feel this way," "I know I should be over this by now." "I know what I am feeling is wrong."
There are several reasons we tend to judge emotions or the people who experience them so harshly. First, our western culture tends to down play the importance of the emotions we experience. From early childhood on, we are told things like: "Oh, don't feel that way." "Oh, don't cry, just think happy thoughts!" "It's time to move on." Isn't it weird that we can bury parents, spouses, siblings, children, or best friends and then be expected to be "fine," feel happy, and go back to work asap. When we experience trauma's like rape, domestic abuse, and betrayal, everyone wants us to pick ourselves up by the proverbial boot straps, forgive, and move on as if nothing happened. It doesn't matter how big the losses, the trials, the hurt, or the trauma we are often admonished for the emotions we experience, causing us to experience guilt that comes when we have emotions lying just beneath the surface that we are expending enormous amounts of energy to push down.
Second, many churches demonize the uncomfortable emotions we tend to view as negative ones. These are emotions for which people are most often shamed. I have heard pastors even say things like, "We confess our sin, ungodly words, unkind actions, and feelings to you." I have heard people shamed in Christian circles for sharing they are experiencing fear in the face of a cancer diagnosis, grief a week after they buried a loved one, anxiety after someone broke into their home, anger experienced over the abuse of their child, hurt experienced in the betrayal of a spouse, or disappointment as dreams go unfulfilled due to infertility, job losses, broken relationships, or accidents or illnesses that leave us struggling. The shaming statements come in the form of: "Haven't you ever heard of forgiveness." "Good Christians don't feel anxious." "If I weren't so controlled by the Holy Spirit, I would be crying, too." "Christians are supposed to be joyful!" "Fear is wrong!" "If you trusted God more you wouldn't feel that way."
We, as humans created in the image of God, would do well to understand an emotion is simply a chemical reaction to an external stimulus designed to be messengers that can help us navigate life. For example, fear can tell us we are in danger and need to take action, freeze, or flee. Anger can tell us something harmful is in a relationship and needs attention to safeguard the relationship. Grief can tell us how much we love and /or value God, people, things, dreams, or concepts. Loneliness can tell us we need to reach out to others. Jealousy can motivate us to put boundaries in place and do the work necessary to safeguard our marriage.
It is also important to know the experience of an emotion is neither good or bad, it just is. However, since the fall, we have the tendency to misuse, misinterpret, and over think the emotions we experience. If an emotion rises and we simply observe it it will wash over us and quickly dissipate. But we often view an precipitating even through distorted lenses that cause us to magnify it or minimize the experience or compound it assumptions or with a ton of guilt. The experience of an emotion is not a sin, but the we use distorted thinking to interpret them and fuel them may lead us to sin.
It also is important to know the Enemy is continuously prowling around seeking who he can destroy. He is not a gentleman who sees us go through trauma, broken relationships, disappointments and thinks, "Poor thing, I will let her recover from this before I tempt or taunt her." Nope, he goes for broke, planting his lies and half truths in our minds when we are most vulnerable."
As I read through the Scriptures, I often wonder what the enemy was saying to people and what emotions were evoked. We know what Adam and Eve heard from the Enemy and I believe his words stirred dissatisfaction in their souls. That feeling didn't become sin, until they chose to eat and seek something apart from their God. They could have taken that dissatisfaction and the lies they were being to the Lord and worked through it with Him. That would have reminded them that the satisfaction they felt in God's presence was enough.
In the same way Cain's jealousy could have driven him to obey God's directive for worship the way Abel did so he might the same intimacy with God Abel had.
Twelve spies went to scout the Promise Land and saw a land flowing with milk and honey. They also men who were as big as giants. I bet all twelve felt an initial jolt of fear when they saw the men. In this case God had given them specific instructions and promised He would deliver the land to them. Ten forgot God and His promise as they nursed their fear and refused to enter the land and got the whole nation to agree with them. But there were two who remembered God and His promises and believed God would go before them and fight on their behalf, they tried to get people to follow them in, but no one would go. In the face of our emotions God can grant us godly wisdom to know when fear is legitimate and needs to be honored and listened to, when it is irrational and to be reframed through Truth, or when it is rational but something to be worked through fostering the growth of courage which enables us to do what God has instructed us to do in His strength.
The story of Naomi and Ruth gives us great insight in how two people can experience great losses and respond so differently to grief. Naomi, as a lifelong Jew, seemed to believe if people are good, they are blessed and protected from hard things. She feels deserted by God when she loses her husband and both of her sons. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, new to the faith didn't have those misconceptions and she leaned into God and leaned into love and had compassion for Naomi and walked her home, embracing Naomi's God with all that she was. She then walked in faith into a loving relationship with a man whose own mother had been a foreigner, placing her into the direct, lineage of Christ. Later on we see Mary and Martha tale their grief over losing Lazarus directly to Jesus and he didn't reject them. They poured their hearts out to them and He wept with them.
We can look through Scriptures and see that Deuteronomy describes God as a jealous God, We also see that Jesus experienced frustration and/or irritation as the Sons of Thunder vied for the right to sit at His hand the ire He experienced motivated Him to confront them. When Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you, had know on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes!" And as Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane to pray he said to His disciples, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death!"
So, maybe instead of judging others or ourselves for the emotions we experience we should be curious about them. What has triggered the emotions we feel? Is the emotion rational or irrational? Is it magnified by hyper-focus or minimized by denial? What does the emotion tell us about our hearts, attitudes, and beliefs and do any of these need correction? Am I looking at the triggering events or people through Scriptural lenses? Am I letting my emotions drive me to my knees and the heart of my God or am I listening to the Enemy and running away? Is there something in another's story that will help me understand, validate, and empathize with their experience and how can I participate in walking them back into the Savior's arms?
Some of the deepest intimacy I've experienced with God occurred when I was radically honest with God about the emotions I was experiencing. When I was honest about the raging anger inside over the abuse I had experienced, He took me to the pain running under the anger and showed me His love was big enough to heal it. When I feared the potential loss of my two and a half pound granddaughter and cried out daily on her behalf, He was the source of peace that saw me through the emotional roller coaster ride that comes with loving a premie and her parents and feeling powerless to help. When I got honest with God about the fears I experienced when our sons went to war, I woke up daily wanting to talk to Him about them. living in the awe of the fact that prayers on this side of the world were being answered on the other side. By letting go of the tendency to harshly judge emotions and the people who have them we could form deeper heart connections that satisfy our souls and strengthen our faith.