Emotions Are Not The Enemy, Part 1

tar sands
Alberta, Canada – before and after a tar sands project

“My feelings, they don’t matter.” “Worship anyway.” “Feelings lie.” If those are various answers, the question might be something like “How are Christians encouraging one another when one is going through a hard time?” or “Name some song lyrics from contemporary worship songs.” Emotions in the church are increasingly scary, powerful and not to be trusted and most expressions of such are met with “encouragements” to recite “the truth” “despite” emotions, which apparently can’t ever contain truth, until you’re able to “calm down” about something legitimately upsetting. Or, best-case scenario, people will offer to pray for you, which has felt more and more like distancing, passing the buck to someone else (just like directing someone to their counselor). Whatever the case, demonizing feelings is considered legitimate, even Christ-like; we are, as a result, unable to care for each other effectively when complicated emotions come up that cannot (and should not) be ignored.

For example, this article could read like a description of how abusive relationships function…except that this article is actually advocating it. I’m not sure if the reducing of feelings is a pendulum-swing reaction to the (false) choice between intellect and faith (as in, faith = a feeling) that has dominated much of the evangelical church since at least the Spokes Trial in the 1920s. Instead of “spirit good, body bad,” we’ve got “brain good, thoughts/feelings – if you can even separate them – bad.” It’s basically just dualism with a new face: instead of physical vs. material, it’s now “reality” vs. emotions. We teach our kids that feelings are bad and make you weak, unstable, even “irrational;” I even thought when I was a kid that I’d know when I was an official adult when all my feelings were gone and that all that would be left would be pure, gold reason.

Talking about feelings as opposed to rationality is so common in this culture, it sounds ignorant to call it out for the false choice it is. Sometimes – a lot of the time – feelings are very accurate to what’s going on. There is a tremendous amount of things to be upset and terrified about in the world; depression may be an adaptive response and anxiety is a completely logical feeling in the face of the planetary destruction, political corruption and economic instability that so characterizes the modern age. I’ve had now two men my parents’ age apologize for the horrors my generation is going to have to somehow live through (and then, of course, tacking on a joke about how glad they are that they won’t have to be here for the shitshow). It seems to me to be deeply irrational to encourage people to simply “calm down” without also encouraging people to take action against these crises. Sensitivity is seen as a liability; it’s medicated or ridiculed and those of us who were fearfully and wonderfully made as highly sensitive have little to no support for navigating this life with a swollen soul.

Instead, we still teach kids that sticks and stones will break their bones but words shouldn’t even hurt them; that, if someone is getting picked on, they shouldn’t react and if they do, their reaction is what gets the negative attention as opposed to the hurtful behavior of others. Simply having emotions – to say nothing of expressing them – is considered “girly,” as in, weak, as in, “don’t be such a girl.” All of this is worse in the church. We joke about how the shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept” without unpacking at all what that might mean even as we continue to portray Jesus as this (white, blond-haired, blue-eyed) stoic man whose only emotion was righteous anger (which we augment, multiply and overuse to justify our own often-times-non-righteous anger).

So it’s no wonder we aren’t very good at walking with people through long-term struggles, like chronic illness, depression, divorce, death/loss of a loved one, etc. We get impatient when people can’t “snap out of it” or “move on” from life’s hard hits, sending a similar message as “you’re not being healed because you must not have enough faith:” “you’re still struggling because you’re believing your feelings.” I’ve never heard a sermon even quote from the book of Lamentations; when I’ve heard Songs of Songs used, it’s deeply intellectualized and sterilized and Jesus’ sorrow-unto-death in the Garden of Gethsemane and even as He’s dying on the cross (“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) are always quickly touched on, like mere stepping stones across a stream, to the glory of the resurrection. None of the Technicolor threads of deep human emotion strung throughout Scripture are, to mix metaphors here, mined for all they’re worth.

But the thing to do with a book like Lamentations is not to skip over it. It, along with the deep wells of emotion that are many of the psalms, were not canonized as examples of antique poetry or interesting cultural expressions for historical study. Saint Paul was a bleeding heart for God and for people to know the One That God Sent. Scripture is full of God welcoming, yes, desiring the full range of human emotion. Emotions do not always tell us the truth about a current situation, but ignoring them is incredibly damaging to physical and mental health; there is always a reason for a feeling. When you teach people that their feelings don’t matter, you disable them from caring for others in the exact way Jesus calls us to do so – to be with them. If you ignore – in other words, abandon or avoid – your feelings, you are not going to be able to offer anything like compassion (meaning to suffer with) or empathy (which is way more than just “me too”) or even better, responsiveness to those the church is specifically called to not only care for, but go after and find. Instead, we leave the least, the last and the lost to be cared for be “experts,” as if emotion itself is a disease. We leave each other isolated even as we leave ourselves and our souls behind in the name of stone-cold rationality that has done little for us beyond a strip-mined planet to mirror our barren spirits.

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