Emotions scare me. Perhaps one reason is that I grew up in a home riddled with bipolar disorder and unforgiveness and regret. There was always so much emotion and no safe way to process it. As a kid, I withdrew. I read books and escaped to places where complicated situations unraveled nicely by the end of the story. The tumultuous years of teenage-hood tested me, and I found I was less equipped to deal with the emotions within me than I had been equipped as a child to deal with the emotions around me. It’s harder to hide from yourself, so I learned to reason my way through things. If I found them unreasonable, I shut down the emotion.
There have been benefits to this. I was rarely carried away by emotions to do things I might regret. As a young person in college, this protected me from a lot of stupid decisions that I saw my peers making around me. There was one emotion that I could not control though. My life was permeated through and through with fear.
Fear that I would mess up. You see, the downfall to being in control is fearing your ability to lose control, to fail. This was who I was in college: young (I went at 16 years old), controlled, but afraid. And then Jesus happened.
The Power of the Gospel on My Emotions
While I controlled my emotions for the most part, they still whispered to me. They told me that happiness was around the corner. If I was independent, out of the crazy home, then I could finally stop being afraid. Away from home, though, I found I was more fearful. Everything depended on me doing things right. I was doing well in school, but I realized I didn’t even know who I was.
One night, a friend gave me a Christian book about a man’s experience with God. It was powerful, it was personal, and it was emotional. His story spoke to my deepest fear of being alone, of having to depend completely on myself and how dreadfully afraid of failing I was. That night, all by myself, I got on my knees and prayed that He would speak to me.
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My life was totally different the next day. I’d love to say the difference was God–I’m sure some of it was, but a large part was me still being in control. Instead of trying to please people though, I was on a mission to please God.
My Way Doesn’t Work
My old way of doing things didn’t work with a God who desires truth in the inward parts. This method of controlling my emotions didn’t leave room for God’s redeeming of my emotions. And now, over twenty years later, I’m still learning how to deal with them, but I now understand that controlling them isn’t always God’s way.
Most of us spend our lives in one of two extremes with emotions: we either give them full control, making all our decisions based on what we feel, or we shut them down and numb ourselves with entertainment or any other distraction.
God’s way is somewhere in the middle. In Proverbs 25:28, we are told that “a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” When we allow our emotions to rule, we make ourselves vulnerable to any emotion or idea to come inside. We have no filter.
Yet, this is not an invitation to stoicism. God is intensely emotional in the Bible. He speaks of being jealous, angry, sad, regretful, loving, rejoicing, compassionate, patient, and forgiving. We are even encouraged in Ephesians to be angry and not sin (Ephesians 4:26). The in-between is where we feel, but we allow Him to evaluate, cleanse, and redirect our emotions.
Powerful Truths in Inside Out
I’m reminded of the powerful Pixar movie Inside Out which came out in 2015. When the main character, a tween named Riley moves from her happy home in Minnesota to the new and scary environment of California, she encounters a revolution of emotions. Most of the movie focuses on the personified emotions inside Riley’s head–Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust.
When she moves, the normally happy Riley starts to struggle. Inside her head in the headquarters of her mind, we find out that Sadness has been touching things and turning happy memories into sad ones. This infuriates Joy who is doing her best to keep Riley happy, so she tries to keep Sadness away from the memories. On Riley’s first day of school, Sadness makes her cry in front of her class and creates a sad core memory. In a panic to remove this, Joy accidentally loses all the core memories, and Joy and Sadness are sucked out into the maze of long-term memory.
The movie then becomes the journey of Joy and Sadness trying to return to headquarters while Riley struggles in her real life trying to adjust to the changes she is experiencing.
The pivotal moment comes when Joy realizes that Sadness is necessary. When Joy observes Sadness comforting another character and allowing them to grieve, Joy then realizes that Riley needs to feel sad in order to get better. This inspires Joy to give Sadness all of the core memories. Riley is finally able to tell her parents how sad she is. Riley and her parents grieve together creating a new core memory that allows Riley to heal.
This is a powerful, yet needed, theme for a children’s movie. We need our emotions–even the sad ones. Trying not to feel the scary ones only creates difficulties in our lives, yet allowing them complete control can also create chaos.
Learning to Trust
In our real lives, when the waves of emotions come, we can choose to respond in a way that brings healing in our lives. Instead of hunkering down or surrendering to them, we must walk through them with the Lord. We must ask Him to examine our feelings, as we feel them. There will be times when He speaks truth to them and the storm is calmed. There will be other times when He appears asleep, and we must ride out the storm of our emotions. Ride out the storm trusting Him that He is near.
We cannot live our lives either at the mercy of emotions or trying desperately to control them. Instead, we must see them as tools with which God does His work in our lives. I do not trust them on their own, but only as I filter them through God’s truth and His love. I do not run from the ones that are uncomfortable because I trust my God to redeem even my pain. It’s ok in these moments to just not be ok. Because I trust Him, I won’t shut down. Because I know He is working in and through things, I won’t only embrace the joy, but I will embrace the sadness. I will let it do its healing work in me.
Although I am an adult, I realize how much my childhood response to emotions has shaped me. I am learning how to walk in my emotions with my Savior beside me. This allows me to feel but not allowing me to be consumed. You too must learn how to navigate this terrain. Be encouraged that He will never leave you nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5) and that He can be trusted as a guide.