7:30 a.m. Driving Nick to tutoring across country roads this October morning gave me a front row, prime time seat to a spectacular show of autumn color in Wisconsin. No place I’d rather be. The golden tasseled corn fields were blanketed in patchy mists of fog being burned off by the bright orange egg yolk of a sun rising over Lake Michigan. I absorbed the view and allowed the beauty to absorb me—every part of me. And I thanked God for painting His landscapes with brushstrokes of saffron, crimson, maroon, orange, green, and plum. Sublime. Then I thought . . .
What if I were color-blind? What if God had created this world only in black and white? What if there were only cornfields and no trees? Sun and no fog? Night and no morning? I am so grateful God loves variety!
Look around! Giraffes, squirrels, ant eaters, lions, worms, horses, butterflies, kangaroos, whales, dolphins, eagles, wrens. . . . .
Look some more! Asian, African, European, Latin American, North American, Australian. . . .
Don’t stop! Geraniums, petunias, roses, delphinium, coneflower, daisies, hydrangeas, lilies. . . .
Keep going! Pines, oaks, birches, maples, aspens. . . .
Not done yet! Joy, grief, anger, fear. . . .
Variety is fabulous until we get to the realm of emotions. Emotions are so—MESSY! Emotions are so—SCARY! Like a dangerous metropolitan, inner-city neighborhood with which we have no experience, some avoid emotional turf as if their lives depended on it.
In trying to communicate about a conflict with a member of my extended family recently, I asked why he avoided talking with me. He said, very matter-of-factly, “You’re so – emotional.”
I responded with a laugh, “What? Are you afraid I’m going to bite your head off or something?”
He laughed too, I think nervously.
Glad, mad, sad, or scared. Glad is good. All agree. But some people can’t handle what they term the “negative” emotions of grief, anger, and fear. Thankfully, God can. And it seems He likes to work with emotional people, imperfect vessels that we are. Here are a few folks I like.
John the Baptist spoke the truth with wild abandon and even used some pretty harsh name-calling, ticking off higher-ups such that he got his head served on a banquet plate at the request of a dancer. Impulsive Peter loved Jesus with such zeal that he gave him an ear—literally—and Jesus had to reattach the poor appendage. David danced before the Lord with such joy that he looked like an absolute fool to a certain female. And boy did he hear about it from her! Jonah was so fed up with the wickedness of a certain city that he actually chastised God for His mercy. For heaven’s sake! Like, who did Jonah think he was?! REALLY! He was just some big fish regurgitation with stinky emotions that God had to set straight about His worldwide mission. But God used him to save thousands. And let’s not forget Moses who slammed down some pretty important stone documents! Now THAT must have been a scary—and messy—emotional display!
Some people today are no more able to deal with strong emotion than those of Biblical times. Many people prefer to take the easy path by refusing to deal properly with anger, sadness, and fear in themselves and in others. But easy isn’t necessarily economical. Eventually, there’s a payback for such choices and the price tag is often high. We end up feeling far from God and others. We even feel disconnected from ourselves somehow. Of course we would. How can one amputate a part of their heart and not notice they are less than whole? Clear cut forests and whole ecosystems are affected. Clear cut emotions and all relationships are affected.
But how we hate dealing with feelings that make us uncomfortable! And to what lengths we will go to get rid ourselves of the perceived cause of any discomfort! We turn to any number of distractions, vices—anything to help us not feel what we don’t like to feel. Making matters worse, people who cannot deal with their own emotional landscape will certainly not deal with emotional hills and valleys in others. What do those who are afraid of their own emotions do with those who are expressive—who make people feel uncomfortable?
Sometimes they avoid. Sometimes they vilify. Sometimes they pathologize. One time—they crucified. Why?
Any organism exposed to foreign elements fights to rid itself of the unfamiliar because foreign objects are perceived as a threat to the organism’s well-being. When individuals or relational systems are exposed to the dissimilar, people and their systems feel threatened. They are tempted to work towards assimilating the different by requiring change into a form that is recognizable and acceptable to the greater system—not embracing and accepting the differences. Differences are viewed as a threat to the status quo, not as an opportunity for growth and health.
True, some emotional expression is scary—and should be. Emotions are meant to be God-reined and directed. When not, there are problems. But emotions aren’t the problem. It’s the way we deal with them that gets us into trouble. Emotions must be dealt with properly to optimize growth for self and others.
God teaches us throughout Scripture about emotions management. In the following passage, He highlights the tongue as a double-edged sword and urges us to have our hearts healed of any emotion that would lead to damaging behaviors.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every from of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God. Ephesians 4:29-5:1
Upon first reading this passage, we may be tempted to think that God is addressing only blatant, externally applied emotions. But what about the unseen and unexpressed?
Which is worse? Open anger or hidden anger? Malice spoken or malice thought? Heartless actions or love withheld? We know the answer. Neither. Open or hidden—the heart is the same. The heart is the issue. Someone who expresses emotions inappropriately and someone who harbors emotions turned toxic are in equal need of repair. Each heart has sick parts.
We might be able to hide our true feelings from others and even from ourselves, but we are never able to hide them from God. He comes looking for us just like He did with the first humans who tried to hide. Adam and Eve were frightened of God’s anger so they avoided Him. Though it might strike us as absurd that this couple actually thought they could elude God, that’s what we all do when we don’t want to deal with His feelings—or ours—or others. When will we learn that God wants to draw us near and make things right, even when we’ve screwed up? And He wants to hear our feelings too. It’s not just humans who are emotional. God created us in His image. And God is highly emotional!
Hiding from emotions makes them dangerous. Hiding emotions does not make us more spiritual. What is hidden becomes unrecognizable. What is not recognized is not claimed. What is not claimed is projected onto others—acted out on others. Then the circle of sin continues and, like a corkscrew turning, twists itself deeper and tighter into relationships, crumbling the cork and contaminating the entire contents of the vessel.
So, how are we to deal with emotions, especially the ones we define as “negative” like anger and hurt—the feelings most feared? According to God’s word—honestly and directly, and, when they involve someone else, privately.
Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Ephesians 4:25
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. Matthew 18:15
Scripture does not say that anger is a sin. If we are hurt by someone’s sin, it’s normal to feel angry and sad. However, how we deal with our anger and hurt can be sinful. Saying we’re not angry or hurt when we are is a falsehood. For the one who senses the anger denied it’s like trying to touch a drop of spilled mercury—every time you get close to putting a finger on it, it moves away. Any possibility for close connection moves away with it. God’s method of conflict resolution is straightforward. Speak truthfully. Deal with anger promptly. Communicate privately and respectfully, leaving others out of it. Pray for those who will not reconcile and choose to be your enemies.
By denying or avoiding anger and hurt, we make matters worse by giving the devil a foothold in our souls and in our relationships. Nothing good comes from denial and avoidance. Resolution and reconciliation are God’s goals for us—never retaliation by aggression, by gossip, or by slipping into indifference and allowing love to grow cold.
And when the one who has sinned against us will not listen? Then what? David gives us a fine example of pouring out our angry, hurting hearts to God and asking God to have His way. I think David’s willingness to be gut-wrenchingly honest with God about his feelings is the main reason David is referred to as “a man after God’s own heart.”
In Psalm 109, David does not deny, excuse, or minimize the harm done to him by the sin of others. But he does not take the law into his own hands or involve others who are not involved. He presents his emotional appeal to the one and only Supreme Court Judge of the universe, seeking justice, protection, comfort, and healing. When our attempts to reconcile with others are not possible because of their refusal to deal with emotions, we must continue to seek God and His ways, trusting His character:
But you, O Sovereign LORD, deal well with me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me. For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. Psalm 109:21-22
“Deliver me,” pleads David.
God always delivers.