The journey of genuine transformation to emotionally healthy spirituality begins with a commitment to allow yourself to feel. It is an essential part of our humanity and unique personhood as men and women made in God’s image.
Scripture reveals God as an emotional being who feels — a Person. Having been created in his image, we too have the gift of experiencing emotions. Consider the following:
- “God saw that it was good… very good” (Genesis 1:25, Genesis 1:31). In other words, God delighted, relished, beamed with delight over us.
- “The Lord regretted that He had made human beings on the earth, and His heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:6).
- “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5).
- “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14).
- “The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until He fully accomplishes the purposes of His heart” (Jeremiah 30:24).
- “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3).
- “How can I hand you over, Israel?.. My heart is changed within Me; all My compassion is aroused” (Hosea 11:8).
- “He began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then He said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’” (Matthew 26:37–38).
- “He looked around them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand’” (Mark 3:5).
- “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit…” (Luke 10:21). (Emphasis added throughout)
Take a few minutes and reflect on the implications of your God-given feelings. You are made in His image.
God thinks. You think.
God wills. You will.
God feels. You feel.
You are a human being made in God’s likeness. Part of that likeness is to feel.
At the very least, the call of discipleship includes experiencing our feelings, reflecting on our feelings, and then thoughtfully responding to our feelings under the lordship of Jesus.
You Feel — Even If You Are Unaware of It
The problem, however, is that we can’t reflect and respond thoughtfully to our feelings if we don’t know what they are. So much of our true selves is buried alive — sadness, rage, anger, tenderness, joy, happiness, fear, depression. Yet God designed our bodies to respond physiologically to those in the world around us.
God speaks to us through a knot in the stomach, muscle tension, trembling and shaking, the release of adrenaline into our bloodstream, headaches, and a suddenly elevated heart rate. God may be screaming at us through our physical body while we look for (and prefer) a more “spiritual” signal.
The reality is that often our bodies know our feelings before our minds.
When I speak about the need to pay attention to our emotions, I often hear comments such as these:
- I am not very good at feelings. I really don’t have time for this. Anyway, my family was more about doing.
- I don’t know what I’m feeling. It’s all a big blur.
- At times when I am about to interact with authority figures or somebody I don’t know, I get physical sensations but I don’t know why it is happening.
- Sometimes I am flooded by emotions that disorganize and confuse me.
- Sometimes after a difficult meeting with someone (e.g., conflict) I get depressed. I don’t know why.
- Sometimes, during even a TV commercial, tears come to my eyes.
- When I am feeling bad, I can’t tell if I am scared or angry.
- I carry an overwhelming feeling of being shameful, guilty, and/or defective.
- My family taught that nice girls don’t get angry and big boys don’t cry.
The problem for many of us comes when we have a “difficult” feeling such as anger or sadness. Unconsciously, we have a “rule” against those feelings. We feel defective because we ought not to be feeling the “wrong” things. We then lie to ourselves, sometimes convincing ourselves that we aren’t feeling anything because we don’t think we should be feeling it. We shut down our humanity.
So it was with me. I never really explored what I was feeling. I was not prepared to be honest about my emotions with God or myself. As a result I often said one thing with my words, but my tone of voice, facial expressions, and body posture said another. The problem is that when we neglect our most intense emotions, we are false to ourselves and close off an open door through which to know God.
I remember the awkwardness when I began to be honest about my feelings. Initially I wondered if I was betraying God or leaving Christianity. I feared that if I opened Pandora’s box, I would get lost in a black hole of unresolved emotions. I was breaking an unspoken commandment of my family and my church tradition. To my surprise, God was able to handle my wild emotions as they erupted after thirty-six years of stuffing them. I came alive like never before. And I rediscovered His love and grace — much like David, Job, and Jeremiah. I also began the journey to know myself that I might know God.
Discovering God’s Will and Your Emotions
It wasn’t until later that I began to learn of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and his classic work on the importance of maintaining a balance between our reason (intellect) and feelings (heart). His development of a set of guidelines that respected the important place of emotions in discerning God’s will has served believers for 450 years. He rightly emphasized the foundation of a complete commitment to do God’s will, follow Scripture, and seek wise counsel. Yet, in addition, he provided excellent guidelines for sorting out how God speaks to us through the raw material of our emotions. The issue is not, by any means, to blindly follow our feelings, but to acknowledge them as a part of the way God communicates to us.
Ignatius explored the difference between consolations (those interior movements and feelings that bring life, joy, peace, and the fruit of the Spirit) and desolations (that which brings us “death,” inner turmoil, disquiet, and “spiritual turbulence”).1 With this awareness of what we are feeling, Ignatius echoed the apostle John, who said “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Sometimes they are our fleshly desires or the enemy. Other times God is prodding us to a better choice. God intends that we mature in learning to recognize how He speaks and guides us through our feelings.
One of our greatest obstacles in knowing God is our own lack of self-knowledge. So we end up wearing a mask — before God, ourselves, and other people. And we can’t become self-aware if we cut off our humanity out of fear of our feelings. This fear leads to unwillingness to know ourselves as we truly are and stunts our growth in Christ.
In The Cry of the Soul, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman summarize why awareness of our feelings is so important:
Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality. Listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God… Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice… However, we often turn a deaf ear — through emotional denial, distortion, or disengagement. We strain out anything disturbing in order to gain tenuous control of our inner world. We are frightened and ashamed of what leaks into our consciousness. In neglecting our intense emotions, we are false to ourselves and lose a wonderful opportunity to know God. We forget that change comes through brutal honesty and vulnerability before God.2
Allow yourself to experience the full weight of your feelings. Allow them without censoring them. Then you can reflect and thoughtfully decide what to do with them. Trust God to come to you through them. This is the first step in the hard work of discipleship.
Once those “buried alive” emotions rose from the dead, I knew I could never go back to a spirituality that did not embrace emotional health. And when I finally allowed myself to begin asking, “How do I feel about the church, my life, different relationships around me?” before God and others, it released an outpouring that not only set me free but everyone around me.
- For a great introduction to Ignatius’s teachings on discernment and our emotions, see Thomas H. Green, Weeds Among the Wheat: Discernment: Where Prayer and Action Meet (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1984). See also the sermon series “Discovering the Will of God” available at emotionallyhealthychurch.com.
- Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III, The Cry of the Soul (Dallas: Word, 1994), 24–25.
Excerpted with permission from Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero, copyright Peter Scazzero.
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Are you an emotion stuffer? Are you aware of your feelings? OK with feeling? Embarassed or ashamed about your feelings? What might happen if you were brutally honest with God? Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily