In THIS blog I wrote last week, I talked a bit about my introduction about 15 years ago to the idea of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. As I mentioned, one of the things that most intrigued me (still does to this day) was the list of “10 Symptoms of Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality.” When I read these symptoms the first time, I couldn’t help but notice that I most likely would have gotten a “Perfect Score…” meaning, I could see ALL 10 of the symptoms in some way/shape/form evident in my daily life.
- USING God to RUN FROM God.
- IGNORING anger, sadness, & fear.
- Dying to the WRONG things.
- DENYING the impact of the PAST on the PRESENT.
- Dividing life into SECULAR & SACRED compartments.
- Doing FOR God instead of being WITH God.
- SPIRITUALIZING away conflict.
- COVERING OVER brokenness, weakness, & failure.
- Living WITHOUT limits.
- JUDGING other people’s spiritual journey.
Today, I’m tackling #2, “Ignoring Anger, Sadness, & Fear.”
Many of the lessons we learn in church about God, about following Him, & about how we treat other people aren’t the ones we’re supposed to learn. They’re (usually) not overtly taught; they’re more “caught” through observation, interpersonal interactions, & sometimes even the pain that comes from being rejected, marginalized, ostracized, &/or avoided. Here’s what I mean:
Jesus tells us to love one another – in our words & in our actions.
Sometimes, as I experienced “love” from other Christians, I also experienced a (not-so) subtle judgment when I shared with another person about struggles I had with anger. With sadness. With fear. With a lot of things. Sometimes I’d get the “I’ll pray for you” which was usually code for, “I can’t believe you’re admitting that & it makes me uncomfortable to be around you now.”
Sometimes I received the MORE encouragement: Read the Bible MORE. Pray MORE. Worship MORE. (One buddy told me the best thing I could do was to get a punching bag so I could hit it.)
I also got “Bible-versed” (yes, that is a verb) quite a bit: “You’re feeling angry? Well Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry & don’t sin!” So don’t let it get out of control.”
“You’re feeling sad? Don’t you know that “Nehemiah 8;10 says, “the joy of the Lord is our strength? Be filled with joy brother.”
“You’re afraid? What do we have to be afraid of? The Bible is full of instructions telling us not to be afraid. Plus 1John 4:18 tells us that Jesus’ “perfect love casts out all fear!’ So don’t be afraid.”
Looking back, I had plenty of reasons I was feeling each of those emotions – & I didn’t know what to DO with them. Turns out, many/most of the people I talked to didn’t either.
And so I stuffed them into a little tiny space somewhere in my heart & decided that any time I even began to feel even the first hint of one of these terrible, negative, unchristian feelings, I’d stuff those. Deny what I was feeling. Keep going. And I never cried.l
Ask me how that worked out for me.
Poorly. It worked out poorly.
Simply stuffing, denying, &/or spiritualizing away those inconvenient feelings didn’t make them actually go away; they just went under the surface like a sewage spill, affecting & infecting every area of life, albeit without being acknowledged.
I was able to Keep It Together (KIT) pretty well around most people, but it was EXHAUSTING. I’d get home from work/from being around people & drop my guard pretty quickly. TheBean got most of the brunt of the overflow of junk… on a scale of 1 to Volcano, I was running at a constant 7-8, & it didn’t take much to push me over the edge into “eruption” mode.
One day, when I came home from work & I was approaching the front door, I heard one of my kids yell, “Dad’s home!” & then I heard the joyous sound of 3 sets of feet running. Running AWAY from the front door. To hide in their rooms. They were running FROM me. Scared of me & whatever the evening might hold. And it freaked me out.
Had a very pointed conversation with theBean – & when I asked her what was going on, she bravely & directly stated it like it was, without regard for any response or outburst I might have. “It’s you. You’re out of control. The littlest thing sets you off. You snap. We’re walking on eggshells when you’re around, & we’re scared.” My oldest son, ThePastyOne, who must have been about 9 at the time, agreed, & yelled from the relative safety of his room, “It’s true, dad!”
Therapy helped. I learned a lot about emotions & about my inability to identify let alone process the strong negative ones that I was having. When I talked to Chuck, I didn’t have to pretend that I had it all together. I didn’t have to deny there was a problem (it was obvious there was one. Can’t deny what is out in the open.) I could be vulnerable & speak from my heart… & as I did, it felt like the floodgates opened up. It felt a little out of control but it also felt wonderful to no longer have to attempt to Keep It Together (KIT). I could just FEEL, & I could just BE.
Through EHS, Chuck introduced me to the idea of “Praying the Psalms.” In a nutshell, praying the Psalms involves using Scripture, (the words penned & originally expressed by the Psalmist for worship & interacting with God,) & making them your own. I found that the Psalmist used words & expressed feelings that I was uncomfortable expressing. He told God how angry he was. How disappointed he was that God wasn’t responding to him & his situation. He shouted at God, asked God to break his enemies necks & bash their teeth in. I could picture David on a hill somewhere in Israel, screaming at the top of his lungs.
And the funny thing? God could handle David’s rawest emotions & strongest words. Didn’t phase Him one bit. So I tried it – & found that while I started with reading the Psalms out loud, I grew to praying my own prayers from the depths of my heart. I expressed ugly stuff, the kind of stuff I’d repressed, avoided, & dodged my whole Christian life. And God handled it. It was like every time I finished with my prayers, with expressing all the junk, I felt a nudge from God saying, “Ok. Are you done? You feel better? Now, ask Me what I have to say about that.”
And I did.
It wasn’t that long (6 months?) until theBean noticed something was up – “You’re not as angry as you were. You’re not agitated, you’re able to sit & just BE with me & the kids. What’s going on?”
I told her something along the lines of “I’ve been praying the Psalms. Actually, I’ve been yelling at God then listening to what He has to say in response.”
That was really the beginning of the healing that God wanted to do IN me – that I’d be able to feel, identify, & process my emotions, no matter how inconvenient. And it wasn’t unchristian to do so… it was actually INHUMAN not to.
I discovered all the places in the Bible where God shows emotion. That God is the One who actually gave all of us the emotions we have, & that they serve as indicators of something going on in/through/around our lives, something that needs to be paid attention to. In & of themselves, the emotions aren’t bad or wrong – I’ve found over time that they’re usually pointing at something that God wants to address, to challenge, to change, to bring growth.
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality has helped me to leave behind a life of denial, out of control emotions/behavior, & relationships that were on the rocks. And it’s been a great tool for me (& many others) to grow deep in God & with those around us.
I’ll be tackling #3 “Dying to the Wrong Things” next.
In the mean time:
- What has been helpful for you in feeling & processing your emotions in a healthy, life-giving manner?
- What are some of the obstacles that can get in the way of acknowledging the “negative” emotions of anger, sadness, & fear?