I have often heard it said in Christian circles that emotions can’t be trusted. I don’t like things that can’t be trusted. Imagine a fuel gauge in your car that is giving accurate feedback 50% of the time, but you have no idea when it’s right and when it’s wrong. Basically, it becomes 100% useless.
For most of us, our emotions don’t always line up with our core values and beliefs. We sincerely desire to experience and display emotions that are consistent with the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22), but frequently we find ourselves inwardly (and outwardly) experiencing and displaying the opposite (Romans 7:15).
What the heck?
As a result, many of us have concluded and have even been taught that we should work hard to suppress negative emotions. And if we are going to have any emotions at all, we need to work on conjuring up the positive ones. I don’t know about you, but that’s never really worked for me or those closest to me.
If you study emotions in the Bible, it is apparent that God has emotions and that the key characters in his story experienced them too: sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes not. So, if God made them, they must be good for something, even though they seem to behave like wild horses at times.
How useful would it be if God gave us a gentile pin prick every time we began to take action or think in a direction that was based on a lie that we unknowingly adopted as truth? How about a whisper of encouragement in our ear when we are taking action or thinking in a direction that aligns with his truth? I believe God uses emotions to give us helpful cues. If we pay attention, these cues are incredibly useful. They are still very complex and challenging to manage, but these “wild horses” can be bridled and ridden. They can take us to an often mysterious destination: a place where we see what we actually believe at an instinctual level. We can then focus on challenging our false beliefs and affirming the beliefs that are true.
Example: My three-year-old son begins to defy me. After several attempts to reason and negotiate, my emotions begin to “rise” (read: unhealthy anger). My attempts to gain compliance and control only seem to drive my son further into rebellion. I know that I should not be disciplining in my anger and that yelling, threatening, and even physically restraining my son are not recommended strategies listed in any respectable parenting book; however, I am compelled by my deep emotion of anger. In retrospect, I discovered that the intense emotion was not the problem, but an indicator of a false belief. I believed that my dignity depended on my three-year-old’s respect and compliance. That’s a ridiculous belief, but keeping my dignity is not. Time to reject the lie that ties my dignity to a three-year-old’s behavior.
I would propose emotions are not something to be ignored or shut off. They have important purposes, including uncovering what we actually believe about ourselves and God. The process of bridling and riding these “wild horses” to their destination (our hidden beliefs) takes some humility and introspection with the Lord, but it’s a ride well worth taking. Remember, our negative emotions are not the problem; it’s our instinctual beliefs that drive them. It’s been said that emotions do not validate truth, BUT they do validate what we believe the truth to be.
I wanted to share a excerpt from Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Tullian Tchividjian (Grandson of Billy Graham). It is a fantastic interview with several insightful and thought provoking discussions. I have only listed the first question and response, which is chalk full of valuable thoughts to ponder. I would suggest reading it through the lens of examining your own stance on grace vs. obedience, rather than exclusively focusing on the church’s stance, especially since you and I are critical parts of the church. I hope and pray that this compels you to run more aggressively into the arms of our loving father.
JM: One criticism that has been leveled against the church is that we’ve been more concerned with behavior modification than with grace. Am I correct in saying that you believe this is a valid criticism?
Tullian Tchividjian: There’s no question that for far too long the church has been primarily concerned with external change. Preachers are afraid of grace because they think it undercuts obedience and encourages apathy. If Jesus paid it all and it is finished, if the judgment against us has been fully and finally taken care of, aren’t we opening the door to lawlessness? This is what Judaizers were afraid of: they didn’t like Gospel of free grace because they thought people would get out of control. If God is not mad at me and if he will never love me more than he does right now, then why can’t I party my way through life? The underlying fear is that unconditional grace leads to licentiousness.
While attacks on morality will always come from outside the church, attacks on grace will always come from inside the church because somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that this whole thing is about behavioral modification and personal moral improvement. We’ve concluded that grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing. As a result we get a steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons; we get a “to do list” version of Christianity that causes us to believe the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian. So we end up hearing more about “Christian living” than the Christ.
We think this will be what gets people to clean up their act, to fix themselves, to volunteer in the nursery, to obey, to read their Bibles, to change the world–but it actually has the opposite effect. A steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons doesn’t cause people to do more or try harder…it makes them give up. Legalism produces lawlessness 10 times out of 10.
The fact is, that the solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God. Only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The route by which the New Testament exhorts sacrificial love and obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home. Charles Spurgeon nailed it when he said, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I beat my breast to think I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.”
Enjoy the entire interview HERE.
In an effort to acknowledge the tragedy of 9.11, I would like to talk about mourning. The Beatitudes give us the phrase, “blessed are those who mourn”. This doesn’t really jive with the American way and the selfish desires of my heart, but I’m sure it’s true. In my understanding, the idea of mourning is centered on an acknowledgement of something that is good that is missing. This acknowledgement can often be painful to the person who is admitting there is now a void of someone or something in their lives. Unfortunately, in an effort to minimize personal pain, I might ignore or diminish this acknowledgment. This can have significant long-term, unintended side effects. In short, by not acknowledging the good things that are now gone, we can unknowingly close off those areas of our heart and prevent them from ever being healed. You see, we cannot selectively shut out pain. The door we are shutting is the same door that healing and love need to enter our hearts. So, if you are like me, you may have closed many doors in an effort to avoid pain, but you also stunted your ability to love and be loved. Part of the GOOD NEWS is that God can help you re-open those doors, mourn, and heal.
I pray for the families and friends of those who died on 9/11, that they would be able to re-open doors that may have been shut and experience God’s healing touch.
In Part 1 of this post, I considered the difference between two kinds of “belief”:
- Intellectual Ascent
- Operational Belief
The examples of:
- a dad who knows how he should love and disciple his children (intellectual ascent) vs. how he actually behaves when they frustrate and disrespect him (operational belief)
- a mom who knows God is always loving and present with her (intellectual ascent) vs. her feelings of loneliness and abandonment when her spouse and friends are emotionally unavailable to her (operational belief)
The hard part: our instinctual responses of self-protection served us well at some point in life, but now they keep us from the relational connection and healing with God and others that we truly long for.
What to do?
As you might imagine, these operational / instinctual beliefs die hard. Here are three steps that may help close the gap between our intellectual beliefs and operational beliefs; steps we are all invited to take with a loving God who isn’t afraid of what we’ll find:
- Recognize our own “gaps” and inconsistencies—we must be aware when we are operating in an incongruent way with our intellectually-stated beliefs. This can be extremely difficult since these instincts have often developed over decades and feel like they provide a sense of emotional stability and security.
- Understand the false belief that is driving the behavior—after you’ve noticed a possible inconsistency between your intellectual beliefs and your operational beliefs (behavior), it’s critical to ask some questions: “Why am I doing this? What am I believing that is driving me to behave this way?” Since we already know the “right” answer, it can be humbling and difficult to go for the honest answers here, but honesty and humility are mandatory—and freeing—in this process.
- Replace the false belief with the solid truth—find and meditate on the scriptures that speak into the truth gap in your heart. Pray through them, asking God to change your instincts. Share with a trusted friend or two how you want God to change your operational beliefs.
In order to fully close this gap between intellectual belief and operational belief, it will take time; ultimately it will take our entire lifetime. However, God uses this process of refinement to draw us closer to himself. We can experience real progress and growth in closing this gap, but don’t expect to have all gaps 100% closed this side of heaven.
Fortunately, God isn’t usually asking us to get into a wheelbarrow on a high wire, but he is asking us to examine our operational beliefs that don’t line up with the truth of his word (our intellectual beliefs). I pray we will embrace the process of sorting out our beliefs with our good, welcoming God and draw closer to him along the way.
In my experience it seems there are two kinds of “belief”:
- Intellectual Ascent
- Operational Belief
If I witnessed a stunt man comfortably pushing a wheelbarrow across a high wire with more than 200 pounds of sand in it, I could easily believe that he could do it with a normal-sized person in the wheelbarrow. This doesn’t mean that I’m ready and willing to jump in and give it a go.
In my life I also find similar gaps in what I believe intellectually vs. how I actually respond under the daily stresses and pain of life. You see, in order to make sense of life and protect myself from pain at a very early age, I arranged a self-protective survival system. Mostly, this system works at a subconscious level. It’s instinctual. I think just about everyone does this to some degree.
The irony is that the same instincts that serve to protect us from evil or harsh circumstances can also prevent us from relational connection and healing with God and others. Allow me to provide a couple examples:
- A good father intellectually knows he needs to exhibit patience and unconditional love while training and discipling his kids. However, when the kids repeatedly show disrespect, self-centeredness, and anger toward the father, he resorts to raising his voice, shaming the kids for their actions, and using a general tone of anger towards them. How can this be?
- A good mother intellectually knows she is never alone and God is always watching out for her. However, when she experiences loneliness due to an emotionally unavailable spouse and a schedule that doesn’t permit meaningful connection with other adults, a deep despair sets in; an operational belief that she is truly alone and must be emotionally tough and shoulder the load by herself. How can this be?
In each case, the operational beliefs do not line up with the stated (intellectual / scriptural) beliefs. It can be difficult to even recognize these inconsistencies because they happen at an instinctual level. Often they have been with us for decades and seem normal and necessary for our everyday coping and survival. But they are not. These inconsistencies threaten our ability to connect with God and others.
As you might imagine, our unhealthy operational / instinctual beliefs die hard. What can be done? Check out Part 2 of this post to find some steps to consider taking with a God who can’t wait to lovingly help you “close the gap”.
I am deeply loved and delighted in by God.
He cares for me like no one else does. I am constantly on his mind. He is always excited to show me a new plan, idea, or insight that will blow me away. He wants to bring me good pleasures. He desires for me to realize my potential and purpose and, most importantly, he desires to have an intimate connection with me. His plans for me are more than I could ever imagine on my own. He does not grow tired when my faith wanes, when I seek life in the tombs of this world. He is undeterred in his pursuit of me. He is fueled by a force far more powerful than I will ever fully understand. He is driven by love. His love is pure. It is unconditional. It is the perfect blend of truth and grace. He gives it out in quantities and frequencies that are incomprehensible to humans.
What would happen if I actually believed these truths down to my toes? How would my life change? What if I were compelled by and obsessing over this love constantly? I dare say that I would be so loving and unselfish that I would almost be unrecognizable to those who know me. I would be infecting everyone in my sphere of influence with a life altering substance called love. I would be addicted to giving from a pure heart. I would be addicted to God himself, not wanting to live a single moment outside of consciously recognizing him for all that he is.
The older I grow, the more attractive this sounds. I have to admit, though, I’m still a bit gun shy about it. It sounds so extreme, but the truth is that life any other way is extremely dark by comparison. So, I continue to step out of the dark places and into the life that he has offered me. Slowly, but surely, I experience his loving embrace and a few more ounces of his character, which is rooted and grounded in love, and it gives me courage to continue down the path. The journey isn’t an easy one, but I know where it ends and I know there is significance in each step along the way.
Photo Credit: Tynan.com