Emotions are vitally important to us as human beings. They are a God-given part of our personality, providing a richness, colour and depth to our life experience that can be a source of great pleasure. But of course, things can go wrong with our emotions. Negative emotions can be alarming at times and if we are dominated by them it can lead to a miserable existence. Emotional pain is very real and can be extremely severe. Sometimes, emotional pain is even more unbearable than physical pain because there is no evident cause for it. With physical pain you can pinpoint a problem and seek the appropriate treatment, as with a wound or a broken bone, but it is vastly more difficult to pinpoint the cause of emotional pain.
Most people, to a greater or lesser degree, suffer from fear or anxiety. They experience unexplained feelings of melancholy at times, uncontrolled feelings of anger, hurt, resentment, or, in extreme cases, hatred. Sometimes our emotions can be so turned in on ourselves that we are filled with feelings of dread, of self-loathing, guilt and condemnation. One of the greatest obstacles to overcoming negative emotions like these is the problem of denial. We commonly ignore negative emotions because society has told us we are not supposed to feel that way. This is a double-edged problem for Christians because the Church has been effective in teaching believers that we are supposed to feel happy, blessed and full of joy all of the time; it is how we are meant to feel, they say, because we are Christians! Therefore, if a believer is not feeling happy and blessed, they tend to hide their negative emotions. If there is something else going on inside of us we tend to deny it, push it down and say it doesn’t exist. We come to church on Sunday, we smile, we’re nice to people, we tell everybody we’re fine and we go home feeling as miserable as when we came. That’s not reality! We need to be honest, open with our feelings, and understand that at times, even as Christians, things can go wrong with our emotions.
Charismatic Christians are often castigated for being over-emotional, yet God has made us with a personality that comprises three major elements – the mind, the will and the emotions. We should live before God whole and complete in each of these dimensions, utilizing each aspect in our worship of Him. Our thoughts should be renewed; our emotions should be in line with and reflect the spiritual realm; our choices should be in line with God’s will.
The difficulty of identifying and expressing emotions
It is interesting to me that, even though we live in a feelingorientated world, many people still find it extremely difficult to identify and express their emotions. Sometimes we are not really aware of what we are feeling, or indeed the strength of the emotions that lie just under the surface of our personality. Often we have no clue as to why we are feeling what we are feeling or where these emotions originated from.
Have you ever been in a situation where you feel something strange and you don’t know why? Maybe you are feeling very angry or frustrated, or perhaps you’re feeling very low and you can’t put your finger on why? Often it is because we are simply “out of touch” with our emotions, but deeper than that, we have no idea what it is that actually trigge rs those emotions. Fundamentally, many of us don’t know how our emotions operate and so we have no means of controlling them.
Our education system, especially in the west, teaches us how to think, but it doesn’t teach us how to feel. Education is mainly concerned with pumping the intellect full of ideas, but it does not address our emotional development at all. I imagine there are few, if any, who can say that at school they were taught to feel. Rather we are taught to think, to focus on ideas and concepts, to evaluate and process information.We are not taught to appreciate what is going on inside ourselves.
Wrong teaching about emotions
Just because you are a Christian, it doesn’t mean to say that your emotions are perfectly in line with what God intended for you. Believers are just as prone as anyone to carry all kinds of emotional baggage around with them. But we must learn, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to be aware of those things and ask God to deal with them.
Many Christians have been wrongly taught that emotions are usually negative. We are told to follow facts, not feelings; to do what we should, not what we feel. Although this is true and right in one sense, we must not think that God wants to deny us our emotions. He does not want us to be emotionless, soulless creatures.
We must be careful too that we don’t either ignore or downplay our emotions.As we will discuss in more depth later, emotions are signals that tell us what is going on inside our hearts. If you can work out what you are feeling at any given moment, pretty soon you will have access to what’s going on inside your heart and you will be able to act accordingly.Your emotions point you in the right direction. Emotions are like the “low oil” light on your car dashboard – they tell you that something is happening in the engine – the heart. The little light is not the cause of the oil being low, but the oil being low is the cause of the light! Similarly, our emotions are only indicators of what is taking place in our heart.
Emotional health and relationships
There is a heavy price to pay for unexpressed feelings that will take a toll on our relationships.When we suppress our emotions we are denying what is going on inside of us. Inevitably that affects us and it affects the way we interact with the people around us. But when we share and express our emotions with others in a Godhonouring way, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with them, it helps us to better connect with people, to resolve conflict and build genuine relationships.
It’s not that relationships should be founded on emotions alone, but often the expression of our emotions will strike a chord in somebody else’s heart and that’s how relationships can build and develop. Emotional bonds between people are very important, so long as there are other factors in the relationship that bring stability. Feelings are important, but they must never dominate us. We must learn how to bring them under control.
Each of us needs to develop the skill of identifying and then owning our emotions. All of us will, from time to time, experience the effects of negative or destructive emotions. But if we realise – like the oil light on the dashboard – that these emotions are merely signals to tell us something is happening in our heart – if we could arrive at that level of self-understanding – then we would be able to deal with the issues beneath the surface of our lives.
Emotions point to needs
Emotions are signals that point to needs on the inside of us. This is a vital principle to grasp and a major key to mastering your emotions. Simply put, if your needs are being met then you tend to feel good. If your needs are not being met then you tend to feel bad. It really is that simple. The state of your emotions tells you whether your needs are fulfilled or unfulfilled. If your needs are being met you will feel happy, pleased, satisfied, peaceful, but if your needs are not being met then you might experience worry, anxiety, anger, sadness.
So far, so good, but there is another important principle to grasp at this point: your feelings are not always truthful! In other words, although you may be feeling a certain emotion – anger perhaps – and you have to take responsibility for how you are feeling – that doesn’t mean to say your emotion lines up with God’s truth! We may have no right to feel angry at all, but we are experiencing that emotion because someone has hurt our feelings. So here is another important key to mastering our emotions: as followers of Jesus we need to learn how to bring our emotions in line with God’s truth and God’s revelation.
All kinds of things are designed by Satan and society to make us feel good, but lead us away from God. If you feel a little low you can take a little drink, you’ll feel a little better. But you can have another and another little drink until you feel so bad that you’ve forgotten why you had a little drink in the first place! Many in society are promoting the smoking of marijuana so that we can all “chill out”. But marijuana is a mood-altering drug that, despite what people claim, can be highly dangerous. There is evidence to show that people who are predisposed to psychological problems will have such illnesses triggered by smoking marijuana. Yet, despite its dangers, society is shouting, “It doesn’t matter! It feels good! Come on, take a little bit!” If you are a Christian, you don’t need any mood-altering drug to make you feel good about yourself and enjoy life. You need to know how to be switched on to Jesus!
Something that feels good at the time isn’t necessarily good for us and won’t carry on producing feelings of wellbeing for very long. But as long we believe our needs are going to be met by a certain activity, no matter how short-lived the good feelings are, we will keep on doing it. If you believe that your needs are going to be met in a certain direction, you will be motivated to go in that direction, even if your needs are not fully met.
We are motivated to go in the direction where we believe our needs will be met. In other words, the direction that makes us feel good. Sometimes as Christians we have to admit that the feel good factor is a little elusive. I remember an evangelist who came to our church many years ago and was leading a young girl to Christ. At one point the girl informed him: “I want to keep sleeping with my boyfriend because it feels good. Your kind of Christianity that says you can’t do that kind of stuff, and that makes me feel bad!” I thought the evangelist would immediately get on his high horse and lay the law down to her, but instead he said, “You know, you’re right. Going God’s way feels miserable at times! But it’s still the right way to go.”