I was born in Minnesota to parents of mostly Swedish and English heritage. As if the genetic stock weren’t good enough reason to master the arts of passive-aggression and suppression , the tundra-like plains of the prairies in winter are no place for feelings. Generations of hearty Minnesotans survived frigid, stark conditions probably specifically because they were not overly sensitive. Those Swedish farmers just buried their feelings right along with the potatoes. Now that I’m an adult and I’m finally privy to the honest version of some family history, I can see that plenty of those things didn’t actually stay buried with the potatoes forever.
I used to think that people who always maintained their emotions, neatly kept within a certain acceptable range, were stronger than me and that those who never seemed to have any negative emotions, like anger or fear or disappointment, were probably better Christians than me altogether. I fought very hard for a long time to try to have the “right” feelings and to not feel things so deeply. I still struggle with a lot of shame not being able to be one of those Christian women with a sweet and gentle smile perpetually on her face. I heard a lot growing up in the church about how we shouldn’t give too much clout to our feelings, because they weren’t “truth.” (Yep, I’m coming back to that one later.)
So when I started seeing anger seeping out over the last few years since I’ve become a parent, I thought something was wrong with me. I had never really thought of myself as an angry person and, in fact, had a hard time admitting when I was mad at someone. Being angry seemed like one of those not “right” emotions. Sure, I could get angry at injustices like genocide and oppression, but only because that seemed like righteous indignation more than anger. I didn’t think I had a right to get angry about things that happened to me because they didn’t measure up to that level of injustice. Things that happened to me weren’t important enough to afford me the right to that emotion.
I’m starting to finally unravel the mystery of why becoming a parent unearthed those feelings of anger that had been buried in me. But now I have to figure out what to do with them. I still live in a culture where emotions are clearly not things that you take out in polite company.
But is that truly the most “Christian” or even sane way to live?
Something in me really changed the day that I remembered that David, primary author of the Psalms, was described in Acts as “A man after God’s own heart.” I mean have you read the Psalms? They are most definitely saturated with emotions. Fear, despair, awe, love, betrayal, confusion, abandonment, devotion, thankfulness, insecurity, bliss, anxiety, they’re all there. Expressions of these unmistakably strong and often enough “negative” feelings are included in the very word of God!
In writing the Psalms, David honestly and even graphically pours out his emotions to God. There is a pattern often repeated in the Psalms in which he first expresses his anguish, fear, despair or doubt, second recalls God’s character and then thirdly, as a response to his meditations on the goodness and faithfulness of God towards him, offers praise and thanksgiving. I’ve come to use this as a pattern upon which to build my own conversations with God or about God, especially when blogging.
This last week or two I’d been struggling with some things and so I was digging around in the Psalms again for encouragement. I opened up to Psalm 38 and read through and then, finding it didn’t exactly end on an uplifting note per the pattern I’d expected, started into Psalm 39 as well, hoping it would somehow get better.
I said, “I will guard my ways
That I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle
While the wicked are in my presence.”
2 I was mute and silent,
I refrained even from good,
And my sorrow grew worse.
3 My heart was hot within me,
While I was musing the fire burned;
Then I spoke with my tongue
In the opening verses, it appears that David is going through something very intense with emotions to match. He seems to have been so disturbed that he was bridling his tongue, even choosing not to let any good words come out, for fear of saying something not-so-great in the presence of non-believers, perhaps for fear of leading them to believe He didn’t really have enough faith in God. But as he suppressed his emotions, he found that his sorrow only got worse and that he felt as though he was burning up inside. I noticed a cross reference in my bible to Jeremiah 20:9 in which something similar seems to plague Jeremiah: But if I say, “I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name,” Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it.
Holding things in didn’t seem to be doing anything good for either of these guys. They seem to be challenging the old idiom “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So I began to think about how I might have been getting overly concerned again, particularly in blogging, with wrapping everything up in a nice and pretty package. Maybe it was alright to not always end on an “up” note.
Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean that my only and immediate reaction to what life throws at me has to be happiness or peaceful acceptance. In fact, it isn’t a surprise to God when we feel troubled by what is happening in life. He says, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” He then goes on to say “But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). Sometimes I think we skip too quickly to the “but” in that statement of truth.
I don’t know if it is a Minnesota thing or what, but I have some people very close to me who have a difficult time talking about what they are feeling because they think of it as complaining. In fact, I love one person who feels so strongly about this that she won’t even tell her own doctor about some significant and real ailments she’s facing for fear that it would be complaining.
As a mother who hears her fair share of complaints daily, I can certainly see the downside of complaining. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the difference between complaining and expressing emotion. My latest working definition is this: Complaining is about persisting to express our displeasure about a situation to someone who doesn’t want to hear about them or to a person who cannot or will not do anything to help.
When we’re reading the Bible, we’re seeing stories unfold with characters who aren’t always at a place where they can wrap everything up in a nice bow of perfect understanding and faith. In the context of the verse I quoted from John 16 verse above there are just going to be plenty of times in which we are still in the “many trials and sorrows” part of the story. Maybe we’re moving towards it, but we simply haven’t yet gotten to the “But take heart!” part.
This verse in John 16 appears at the very end of a whole chapter in John in which Jesus is describing and acknowledging the reality of weeping, lamenting, anguish, pain and grieving that we will experience in this world. And as you read the chapter, He doesn’t tell us to just stuff all of our emotions in. He is encouraging us that when those painful emotions inevitably come upon us, we should go to our Father and ask Him for what we need to make our joy complete. It’s not about donning our special, Christian happy face or just suddenly conjuring up some faith from out of thin air. We are instructed in Lamentations, in fact to “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!”
And we hear this going on over and over again throughout His perfect story. We hear Jesus cry out to His Father, agonizing about why He has forsaken Him, because sometimes apparently silently and stoically bearing our emotions just doesn’t cut it!
Rachel bitterly weeping at losing her children because maybe sometimes a pretty cry is actually just not appropriate.
David dancing and leaping for joy, recklessly even, because maybe there are times when it might actually be wrong to hold it all in.
I am not advocating here for letting our emotions rule us and having the final say in all that is reality to us. And certainly there are plenty of admonitions in the Bible not to let our tongue or our emotions lead us to sin. But to have emotions is not to sin. And what I am suggesting is that to hide them might not be truth.
This brings me to that big issue that I hope the church is moving past: This idea that feelings are not truth or that having negative emotions is evidence of lack of faith. When Jesus wept at his friend’s death, got angry at greedy profiteers, or agonized over God forsaking Him, was he acting out of unbelief? Was anything about what he was doing NOT truth?
So, taking our example from Jesus, what exactly should we do with this sometimes painful reality of emotions with which we live? Recognize them. Feel them. Certainly don’t get stuck in them, but don’t ignore them either. Deal with them, bringing them always to the One person for whom our emotions are never “too much” and who, in fact, time and time again entreats us to come to Him with our burdens, worries and cares. And maybe bring them to one or two other humans as well.
And when it comes to blogging I’m starting to think, perhaps always ending on an “up” note isn’t just a sort of a dishonest and inauthentic way of representing myself and my relationship with God. Maybe smoothing things over too much actually isn’t expressing enough faith in God. Because faith isn’t about always being happy. It’s about representing a life in which, even when things are inevitably difficult, I’m waiting on, hoping for and expecting an answer from a God who I trust is capable of handling it all– even my emotions.