I’ve been fairly upfront about my struggle with depression and anxiety in my mid-twenties. You may remember from some of the content I’ve put out on The Pearl Project site that I went through a period where I was completely overrun by my emotions that all stemmed from a sense of rejection at a core level. Outside of the spiritual ramifications, suicide made a whole lot of sense to me back then. I can totally see how and why people come to the end of what they can or wish to handle. It’s an understatement to say that I empathize with anyone in that position nowadays.
What was my deal though? Of course I had/have all sorts of issues just like you, but lots of people have had it far worse than me, right? What was driving the undercurrent of the emotions that would actually take me to the point of believing that my life had no worth and that no one would even miss me if I were gone? What convinced me in the deepest part of my mind that I had nothing to offer to anyone or to the world?
“True freedom comes when we no longer need to be somebody special in other people’s eyes because we already know we are lovable and good enough.”
At this point now in my Spiritual Journey I’ve been able to sift through all of those emotions and their derivatives with a bit more perspective than I’ve had in the past. I’ve allowed my spirit to be teachable and humble enough to subject my inner life to deep introspection and correction with the purpose of discovering more about myself, and in doing so, more about God as well. That is really difficult by the way because it requires total submission to the process. In doing so however I’ve learned more about how I relate to myself, to God, and to others — the good and the ugly versions of that.
At some point I came to recognize that without the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit working in and through my whole person my best efforts are merely that. For a long time I think I took for granted the scripture that says that, “He will give us a new heart and a new mind,’’ assuming that by way of incorporation as a child of God, that magically my mind would be transformed to be a less dysfunctional version of myself. Little did I know that unless I made/make a conscious choice every single day to lay even the most insignificant of details of my personhood before the throne of Christ, my life would remain unchanged in quite obvious ways.
This whole thing has been learning to invite Jesus into deeper intimacy, asking him to be the King of my mind, my body, my resources, my talents, and ultimately the King of my emotions. This is the final element of three that I attribute to the overhaul of my spiritual life that produced a real, measurable effect on my life.
How can we connect this ancient text with our experience in 2018?
I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know when I say that there is something going on underneath the surface for most of us. There is a root system that is made up of all sorts of variables that is pushing so hard upon us that depending on the variable, the moment or the stress, there can be an incredible falling apart. As humans, this is what our emotions can do to us.
For many of us our emotions are dependent on what other people think of us. For others of us, our emotions rise and fall based on our performance, or the perception of performance. This sounds crazy to write out but there are countless studies out now that reveal that some people’s emotional states will rise and fall with the number of likes that they receive on social media.
Today in our culture we have witnessed an unprecedented revealing of scandals. These scandals highlighted are often times powerful people in politics, in entertainment, in ministry, and in business who are able to put forth a very successful exterior but who are suffering internally. They have facades that given enough time, cannot hide deeper layers of dysfunction and unhealth that always end up surfacing. These mainstream scandals are really just a mirror of what all of us deal with on some level.
Behind the facades there is a world of emotions and feelings that we all have. What I’m getting at is that it does not matter what your socio-economic status is, what your career is, how educated you are, how hot your wife or husband is, how religious you are, or how wonderful your family of origin is, you have things going on underneath the surface that have a direct bearing on the state of your emotional and spiritual life.
Okay so if Jesus calls us to follow him with everything then that means that we bring our physical, our social, and our emotional aspects of our lives and lay them under the overarching concept of following Jesus.
The day-to-day spectrum of emotions are usually private feelings but we don’t often think about how they interact with following Jesus. This is where some of our cultural scripts clash with a Biblical understanding of what our emotions are for. What do I mean by scripts?
The West has two stories around emotions:
- Stoic response to emotions:
In this story humans are not to be overrun by emotions. We need to be in control and keep emotions well at bay. Emotions are thought to be simply driven by the ‘reason’ part of them. This works for some but then there is this stuffing of key emotional necessities for humans to feel that end up coming out in unhealthy ways. Queue statistics and depression rates from WWI & WWII, especially in men.
- Romantic Story: This clashes with the stoic story to where we are driven by our emotions. This is the rise of therapy, self-help, social media for venting, looking to emotions as a super positive thing. It’s a move from stoic to emotional where what you feel runs the show.
We’ve made some progress but then also we’ve regressed in a lot of ways. What we see now in 2018 is that we’ve continued to move from an unhealthy overly stoic stance on emotions where there was no talking about emotions to now a highly emotional landscape where young people are totally overrun by their emotions and where we protect people from any bad experiences. The problem is that both extremes have massive limitations.
On the surface we’re able to get away with creating and maintaining a facade to some degree. There’s the ‘what you see is what you get,’ and people can certainly catch the vibe that you’re giving off through the words you say, the deeds you do, the clothes you wear, etc. All of that says something about yourself but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath all of that however it’s a very different landscape driving us as human beings. Sometimes the iceberg crumbles and we find ourselves sabotaged by undisciplined emotions. I find this area of study fascinating.
The temptation there however is to assign our emotions to a category that is untrustworthy and not good. The overly stoic script taught several generations that emotions are bad, useless, and avoidable at best. But I think that Jesus has much more for us than such a low view of a necessary and certainly beautiful aspect of our likeness of God. Jesus was an incredibly emotional person, and so are we. So how do we find the balance between stoic and romantic in our apprenticeship to Jesus?
Did God not create us in His image and did Jesus not feel emotions deeply? Yes, he did. In fact I would argue that his feeling of love for us is what kept him nailed to the cross when he could have ended it all. So in the name of healthy spirituality, we begin to ALLOW our emotions to be a part of the whole of you and call them “good.” If you come from a more stoic family of origin, this should be wonderful news for you. I know that for me as a woman, I cannot tell you how many times in my life my emotions have been discarded and deemed untrustworthy simply for being emotions versus logic. I think we err when we do not allow our healthy emotions to have their proper seat in the Kingdom order.
What do we know about emotions?
– Moments of pain
– A clear moment in past that shaped your emotional landscape
– Something you struggle with continually
– Families generative of emotional landscape
– Order of birth
– Lost a parent/sibling/divorce
– Mental health experiences
– Children of Migrants/Immigrants
– A Northern European heritage integrate with emotions in a largely different manner than other cultural predispositions.
The point is that there are a variety of scripts for how you respond to your emotions. The catalyzing effect on our humanity is that even if you’re successful, those memories and experiences and contexts still shape you now. Things which then shape how we feel and shape the deeper layers of us then give birth to scripts which are often false narratives about who we are and about our worth and value, particularly if they are not brought under the Lordship of Christ. That is my story to a T.
Examples of Scripts:
This is performance based. This is me in my early twenties. Nodding, but underneath is a script that says that I’m going to mess things up, say something stupid and make a fool of myself, that I’m not smart enough, etc.
To be perfectly clear, none of those are from God, but how easily we succumb to them and adopt them into our identities and live through those scripts. Those scripts are not a large enough box to contain our true self and they also reduce our humanity to a very limited version of what God intended for His “Good” creation.
What’s the formula, then?
There are several options I suppose but in general here in the late modern West we medicate. The 21st century is a cornucopia to make you addicted. It’s anything from materialism to alcohol and drugs (prescription and otherwise), sex, helping (yes, that’s a thing), working too much, screens, status, etc. These experiential and formative things can give you identities that are not of God.
These scripts then float into our relationships that don’t reflect God’s order for healthy distance from each other. This is where people blur relationships, looking to other people for what only God can give us. This looks like having no boundaries. It’s where those dividing lines between us an others become blurred and co-dependent, fearful that people will leave us even though we live in a culture that is commitment-phobic. We demand to feel secure but do not want it demanded of us emotionally which all stems from fear and self-protection at its root. That is the crux emotional unhealth.
Some of us have a lack of boundaries as a result of that unhealth. We’ve got to GET stuff from people, or SAY things to impress people, or we maintain codependent relationships that render us powerless and needy. Because of the Online script where we share EVERYTHING, we have a total lack of boundaries even with complete strangers. That becomes dysfunctional because the emotional temperature of someone can effect everyone else even if it is set by unhealthy emotional realities. For example, when someone is upset online and shares their experience, it’s the “I’ve got to be upset too,” etc.
“At times our false self has become such a part of who we are that we don’t even realize it. The consequences—for self-protection, possessiveness, manipulation, self-destructive tendencies, self-promotion, self-indulgence, and a need to distinguish ourselves from others —are harder to hide.” Peter Scazzero
My personal experience has been that there is clear intertwining between the wiring in the brain that is directly influenced by our emotions that then translates to an effect in our overall behavior, of course. Yes, we all need to manage our own mental health. You can do all the right stuff such as a balanced life, cut out alcohol and don’t overeat, take care of your body, self-actualize and meditate, etc. But for me there was also a profound change when I began to give all of the emotions that went along with those things to Jesus.
This is NOT pushing away the medical advise. This is doing healthy habits PLUS adding the column in there of giving my emotions to Jesus which was profoundly transformative.That has everything to do with a quality inner life where there is margin for time in the Word, in prayer, and in silence and solitude.
The way these Emotions work (generalization but true) is that there are two extremes.
- Those who Retreat:
No one knows that you suffer. You may be the life of the party, but then you suffer inwardly. You’re smiling but it’s cracked and no one knows. You stuff everything but it takes it’s toll.
- Those who are the Skunks: Everybody knows everything that you feel and do. You probably know where you fall on that spectrum.
So what does God want you to do with your emotions?
Let’s sketch out the landscape for some initial first steps for where God wants to take us while at the same time recognizing that there will continue to be blockage for many of us because of these emotional issues unless we go deep and dig them out of our root system.
Unforgiveness & Anger
You can cling to negative emotions like a security blanket. These emotions can actually feel comfortable, good and even safe when not properly identified for what they are. Nonetheless, Jesus’s voice is “Do you want to get healing?”
Where previously misery enabled you to stay at a distance from God and others and offered you an excuse, we see all of Scripture where he offers opportunity to get free of what ensnares us? “Do you want to get free?” In stepping forward, some of you might be waiting for God to do something miraculous all at once, but God is presently doing stuff inside of you that you can’t necessarily see with this under-layer that sabotages your freedom.
Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us that, “There is a time to weep, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”
That is beautiful because it accounts for the sacredness of all emotions on the spectrum. In lament and mourning we need to be okay with God sitting with us in that sorrow and allowing ourselves to feel deeply. LAMENTATIONS is an entire book of the Bible dedicated to that idea. And then, and thank God(!), there is also a time to laugh!
Mindfulness and coloring books are great and all if you live in privilege. But what if you live in a war-torn region or in abject poverty?
The end point is Jesus’s return. That is the point when every tear is wiped away. The Bible says that bad things are going to happen. Like, “bad” is actually normal while we live on this side of heaven. Our contemporary approach is to push away bad feelings instead of fully integrating the human person with the backdrop of Jesus’s return. The Scriptures say that life is emotions!
Plato’s account of Socrates’s death was, “Face death with zero emotion.”Contrast that with the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He was so overcome with prevail and emotion that the blood vessels in his forehead broke. He was THE balanced human emotional figure and his and our emotions are good. At moments we see him angry and frustrated, but his anger was always controlled. If Jesus is the picture of us as redeemed people, we will not be without emotions.
The peace of God doesn’t get rid of emotions but promises something that transforms the human. Jesus is enveloped by the peace of God — the kind of peace that is beyond human wisdom. You don’t get this peace of God by going and reading self help and doing more mindfulness. This is beyond. “This peace will guard your hearts and minds.” (Philippians 4:7)
So where this goes is not an eradication of emotions and it’s not a move from stoicism and romantics. It is our emotions being transformed by the peace of God.
Until that time, your emotions need guarding. Stuff is going to come against you. It is human to struggle until Jesus returns. But the peace of God is there. When we surrender our lives in prayer, thanksgiving, abiding and staying connected to God is what ultimately transforms us. By doing this we move towards healing, peace, and Kingdom life by submitting our emotions to Christ and His way.
Am I willing to put those feelings about that person on the altar?
“Jesus I want to give to you the pain of that experience which I’ve never given to you? That loneliness, that anxiety, and those trials, I hand them all to you.”
The difference is that this is not a social script that says you move from an emotionally unhealthy position to an emotionally balanced person. Instead you actually become the life of Christ in you, or rather your emotions in you are as Christ would have your emotions. This is transformation to Christ-likeness. In other words how Jesus would respond, you would respond. The living presence of the Holy Spirit is what makes that possible, in tremendous power.
Living your God-given life involves staying true to your truest self. It means that you learn to distinguish your true self from the demands and voices around you and that you learn to discern the unique vision, identity, calling, and mission that God has given to you.
If you think about it, based on Scripture, it seems as though almost everybody had expectations or a false self to impose on Jesus’s life. In living faithfully to his true self, he disappointed a whole bunch of people. He was not swayed however by their opinions of him. He was secure in his Father’s love, in himself, and was then able to withstand an enormous amount of pressure. He left his family of origin and their expectations of him and became an inner-directed, completely separate adult.
He disappointed his friends, the twelve disciples. They had projected onto Jesus the type of Messiah that they wanted him to be. Jesus listened without reacting. He communicated without antagonizing. And still he disappointed the crowds when he wouldn’t be and do what they were demanding of him.
Jesus was able to maintain a non-anxious presence even in the middle of stress. He was not selfless. He did not actually live as if only other people mattered. He knew his value and his worth. He had friends. He asked for help. And yet at the same time Jesus was not selfish. He did not live as if nobody else mattered. He gave his life out of love for others. From a place of deeply loving union with his Father, Jesus had a mature, healthy version of his true self.
Jesus did not heal everyone. He did not come and serve everyone’s request. He retreated to the wilderness and rested and then reengaged the culture he was called to. Boundaries are a large part of Jesus’s model and that implies emotional, social, and physical boundaries which enabled him to maintain a healthy self.
We have to go back in order to move forward
The seed of your future is in your past. The scripts, identities, experiences, stories, moments, feelings shape how you respond. You can’t change what you don’t know about within yourself. It’s just like how in pre-marriage counseling you go into it and into marriage like you’re going to set the world on fire! You feel your love for each other deeply. And then you get home from your honeymoon and you start acting just like your parents and react in conflict just like your parents. Why is that? It helps to understand, then, how your past shapes your future so that you can begin making changes that bring health and vitality to your relationships.
Those scripts kick in at some point. When you’ve got a kid and you’re not sleeping, and there’s no boundary and no margin. All of a sudden those deep emotional scripts kick in and you become someone that you do not want to be when pushed far enough.This image was taken just before the most epic emotional breakdown of my entire life in October of 2012. Jesus is THE only power strong enough to conquer what was happening inside of me this day.
Prayerfully consider this:
There is a flip side to all of that. The seed of your future is that God has called you! There is another story in your past where the fingerprints of God are all over your life. The bounce backwards is undoing unhealthy scripts IN ORDER to find God’s sovereign foundations on your life. “My life is NOT hopeless after all!” – Me.
The seed of your future is in your past, so give that to God and let Him do his best work in you.
Surrender the facade in order to nourish the character of Jesus in you.
Put down those facades that are not of God, even the ones that are pretty and pretty darn impressive. You don’t need a facade. Jesus died for you. He knows your imperfections. You are a broken person, an angry, jealous, cynical, person. But with Christ, you and I are made new!
What defined you and I in the past does not have to define our future. What matters is that our primary identity is Christlikeness.
If your facade was ‘the pretty one,’ you’re first step is that you’re just going to allow yourself to be accepted for who you are. He’s called you “holy and worthy,” so let everything else fall. Forget your false self and all the facades. Just focus on Jesus. The true YOU comes out in doing so — the YOU that is not encumbered by the scripts. In identity in Christ, the truest version of you begins to emerge and the healthy you begins to flourish.
Embrace the healing power of limits
- • Limits between you and the relationships that you look to in order to fill your emotional pain.
- • Limits in looking for love in the wrong places.
- • Limits in medicating your pain to cope with emotional pain.
Jesus goes to the quiet places. Why? He runs from the crowd. Why?
If you’re a leader, the crowd is seductive because the crowd tells you what you want to hear. Limits are something that helps you deal with emotional unhealth in every realm, leader or not.
Choosing to be disciplined in your emotions is choosing the opposite of the world. Meditate on the Word. Don’t fill your mind with what your feelings and emotions are saying, but instead fill it with what God is saying and He will direct your thoughts and your emotions towards the way of Jesus. You CAN put this down. The power of the Spirit in this is that He gives you the power to transform your thoughts into something that are affirmed by God as “good,” making them “obedient to Christ,” and that reveal a revolution of the self.
Psalm 1:3 is an image of the Spiritual life. This is #goals.
“That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither– whatever they do prospers.”
The ecosystem of the disciple of Jesus renders a deep stability. Emotional and Spiritual health are the byproduct of life in apprenticeship to the Master. That is the beginning of the journey.
My prayer for you and for me is that we are brave enough to go on this journey. Bring your past, bring your emotions and let God disciple all of you because He is the One, true loving being in the entire universe who can make you whole.