Raw Emotions

Emotions are a confusing issue in the evangelical world. It seems we jump to one of two extremes: either we rely heavily on our emotions, sacrificing truth; or we relegate them to the flesh in suppressed denial. Neither extreme is healthy and I wonder if perhaps both lead to the same emotion–bitterness. Tuesday we discussed the problems with allowing wounds to fester. Our wounds fester when we rehash them again and again, working the perceived injustice in our mind until it consumes our every thought. But I believe suppressed denial follows a similar path, the traveler’s journey is just a bit quieter. For a time, anyway, until those swallowed-down, pent-up emotions grow to the point of explosion. Then, watch out! There she blows–only it normally isn’t the inciting incident that leads to explosion. It’s a pen that ran out of ink, a driver going too slow on the freeway, or an unsuspecting spouse who happens to glance right when they should have glanced left.

Because of this, many opt for a get-it-off-your-chest, tell-all approach. When we lived in California, I participated in a Mom’s Club. This was the approach they opted for, and every meeting ended the same–in increased anger and bitterness as each of us fueled one another’s furry. Normally one mom would start us off, launching into the latest injustice performed by her spouse. Before long, everyone joined in the vent-fest, matching one another story-for-story. Only problem, by the time we were done, everyone felt worse, not better. No resolutions had been reached and the venting that was supposed to “get things off our chest” only added kindling to the smoldering fire.

One of my favorite verses is Ephesians 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

According to this verse, there’s no room for venting…to one another. But we can and should vent to God.

This is the behavior I see demonstrated by David again and again. When you read through 1 Samuel, you’ll notice he didn’t spend his time bashing Saul. He could have, and likely would have found a sympathetic audience. Instead, David spoke well of Saul! Now that’s a tough one to swallow. If it had been me, sadly, I would have thrown a few pity parties, inviting everyone to come! But David didn’t do that. Instead, he turned to the only One who could truly help–God. Then, he held absolutely nothing back. He poured his heart out to God with raw, unhindered, unmasked honesty, openly acknowledging the depths of his pain, asking God to help him, hold him, carry him and strengthen him.

I believe a false notion has crept into Christianity. We believe faith is the absence of fear and praise is the absence of pain.

According to John C. Hutchison, author of Thinking Right When Things Go Wrong, rejoicing in sufferings isn’t celebrating the trial or pain, but instead, celebrating the God who carries you through it: “The biblical teaching of joy or rejoicing has more to do with a confidence in one’s convictions than it does with emotion…When we rejoice in suffering, it is an expression of faith, a conviction that God is in control and that He is doing something constructive and good through this experience. Our en-joy-ment as Christians is in the belief that God is at work in our midst.” (pg 60)

Throughout the psalms, this is what David did. He didn’t celebrate the pain or injustice. His praise centered on who God was, what He’d done in the past, and what David believed He would do in the future. There appears to be an oft repeated pattern to David’s prayers.

1. He openly and honestly vented to God:

Psalm 142:1-4 (NIV)

I cry aloud to the LORD;
I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy.
2 I pour out before him my complaint;
before him I tell my trouble.

3 When my spirit grows faint within me,
it is you who watch over my way.
In the path where I walk
people have hidden a snare for me.
4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand;
no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge;
no one cares for my life.

Psalm 102:3-11

For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
4 My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
5 In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.
6 I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.
8 All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
9 For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
10 because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

Psalm 109:1-5

My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
2 for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
3 With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
4 In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
5 They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.

Notice, these are not words of celebration. They are words of deep anguish and depression.

2. Next, David changes his focus, off the problem and placed it on God. This is when his pain turns to praise, not for the situation, but instead, for God’s steadfast, all-powerful, loving character:

Psalm 142:5

I cry to you, LORD;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”

God is His refuge.

Psalm 102: 12-17

12 But you, LORD, sit enthroned forever;
your renown endures through all generations.
13 You will arise and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to show favor to her;
the appointed time has come.
14 For her stones are dear to your servants;
her very dust moves them to pity.
15 The nations will fear the name of the LORD,
all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.
16 For the LORD will rebuild Zion
and appear in his glory.
17 He will respond to the prayer of the destitute;
he will not despise their plea.

God is powerful, glorious and sovereign and listens to the prayers of His children.

3. Then he asks God for help. The psalms provide numerous examples of this, but in order to spare you another 1,000 or so words, I’ll let you look them up yourself. Read through the psalms and notice if you don’t see a similar pattern. God recorded David’s prayers for a reason. I believe they serve as models to us.

To recap, when David experienced deep emotional pain he:

1. Refused to vent to others

2. He shared his feelings openly and honestly with God

3. He focused on God’s character (who God is)

4. He asked God for help

I believe these steps allowed him to deal effectively with his emotions, enabling him to heal completely. I believe the same is possible for us, although I don’t think forgiveness is  always, nor a one-time event. I often use the term, “fighting to forgiveness” to describe this continual process. Come back Tuesday to learn the meaning of this phrase, why forgiveness often resembles a determined fight, and how we can stay in the ring until the victory bell chimes.

What Do My Emotions Have to Do With It?

I pause with my hands on the steering wheel to suck in a few breaths of air, then scan the church parking lot. Daphni’s red Toyota sits a few stalls away, glimmering in the early evening sun. A wave of bitterness washes over me as our previous conversation comes to mind. I shake it off.

Forgive and forget. Love, joy, peace, patience.

And if not love, a steady dose of tolerance–or duck tape.

Yeah, I know. Not loving, but Lord, help me out here. You remember what she said. You’ve seen how many times she’s slammed on me, with that painted smile of hers and those narrowed eyes–as if she’s Your gift to the entire congregation.

A familiar passage fills my find, adding a twinge of guilt to my already heightened senses.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:43-46 NIV)

I sigh, jump out and lock my van. Footsteps shuffle behind me. I turn and smile as Yana approaches with her three children.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” She smoothes a stray lock of hair in place.

“Absolutely lovely.” I lift my voice to hide the bitterness fermenting within and cast a glance to the metal door leading to the fellowship hall. Forgive and forget. Gentleness, patience…love. Good thing love is an action, not an emotion.

But then there is David from the Old Testament.

*      *      *

Relax, that story was fictional. I’m not secretly seething every time I go to church, but I have struggled with bitterness and unforgiveness on occasion. And in those moments when my blood boils and negative thoughts fill my head, I console myself with the oft quote phrase, “Love is an action, not an emotion.” But then I read 2 Samuel 1.

For years, David served Saul faithfully, but Saul mistreated him again and again. Saul promised David his daughter’s hand in marriage if he killed the Philistine warrior, Goliath, but come time, he gave her to someone else. Even so, David remained faithful, playing music for Saul when agitation set in. Over time, Saul’s anger and jealousy grew, until he began to hunt his trusted servant. David fled, hiding in caves, among the Philistines, and where ever he could to flee Saul’s wrath. Again and again, he had the opportunity to slay Saul, but again and again he refused, vowing to never harm the Lord’s anointed.

Rationally, we can accept this. David doesn’t murder Saul because he’s trusted God to exact revenge. It’s easy to lay down your sword if you think someone else will pick it up. But then we get to 2 Samuel 1 and read about the moment David learns of Saul’s death.

Put yourself in David’s position. You’ve lived on the run for so long, you can’t remember what peace feels like. You’ve been slandered, cheated and mistreated, and now, after countless nights of anguished prayers, your enemy is dead. How would you feel? What would you do? Would you rejoice or mourn?

David mourned. Granted, much of his mourning was for the loss of Jonathan, his dearest friend, who was also killed. But he mourned for Saul as well. In fact, he didn’t just mourn. He composed a song. (You can read it here.)

In the NLT, he calls Saul Israel’s pride and joy. Does that sound like an embittered man?

As I read 2 Samuel 1 this morning, having followed the story from 1 Samuel 16, when David was anointed, to 1 Samuel 17 when David slew Goliath, to 1 Samuel 19 when Saul tried to kill him, and on and on, I was a bit taken aback to see David display such genuine love for his enemy. One question burned: How did he do it? How did he overcome the bitterness I know had to spark at least on one occasion.  What enabled him to forgive so deeply, so completely, that his bitterness turned to love?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could travel back in time and ask him ourselves? Unfortunately, we can’t. But we can compare and contrast his attitude and responses from other biblical characters, including Saul, who took the opposite approach, and allowed bitterness to consume them. But I’m not going to be able to do that in one post. (Otherwise I’d break the cardinal rule of blogging–never go over 1,000 words.  lol) Over the next week or so, we’ll talk about the effects of bitterness, and steps we can take to move past it.

Emotions are a funny thing. Often it seems they have a mind of their own, and we poor, emotionally-driven humans are helplessly carried along in their unpredictable current. But I don’t think that’s the case, at least, not entirely. Our emotions are largely triggered by our thought processes, and vice versa. As we align our thoughts with the truth of God’s word, and turn to Him in prayer, He begins to align our emotions to match. It’s not a get-happy-quick deal. Quite the contrary. It takes diligence and determination, but I believe bitterness free living is possible.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on this, and make sure to come back next post to discuss the destructiveness of bitterness. When we’re fueled by anger, we feel like we have the upper hand, but in truth, we are enslaved.

But Christ wants so much more for us. He died to set us free!