At breakfast with a friend recently I asked her, “How’s your soul doing?” That led to conversation about some really hard things. All of us have “stuff” going on inside, and that can be messy to deal with. Emotional literacy doesn’t come easily.
Few of us engage in regular self-reflection. If you stop long enough to consider the state of your soul you may fear the bottomless pit will open and you’ll be swallowed alive, sucked into a vortex of emotions impossible to get out of. Thanks, but no thanks. You’d rather keep sewing fig leaves together and working harder to distract yourself with work, noise, and moments of superficial relief.
But sooner or later you discover you can’t outrun the state of your soul. More and more of your energy is diverted to trying to keep the lid on and it’s exhausting. You might be existing, but you’re not really living. You’re certainly not experiencing wholeness. The angst inside either eats you alive as a house being destroyed by termites or it eventually explodes in a more or less spectacular blaze of anything but glory.
Horace loved the stage. He’d joined a theater company as a teen and enjoyed some success. He learned to express many emotions through “becoming” someone else while acting, but it was still an act. Stripping away the performance and coming to understand his own heart was hard.
To Jamie feelings seemed like giants she had to try to hide, but regularly failed at doing so. If her feelings got too big and leaked out growing up she was told she was moody and irresponsible. Finding herself in a difficult marriage, she struggled to regulate her emotions enough to make wise decisions or care for her children.
So again, how’s your soul doing, really?
Unhealthy Ways to Deal with Feelings
Having to think about emotions might make you want to stop reading. Feelings are dangerous, right? The only thing you want to know about feelings is how you can develop more will-power to ignore them and do the “right” thing. Feelings have gotten you in trouble. A good follower of Jesus doesn’t follow their feelings, right? So don’t talk about them or even acknowledge them. Just try harder. Dismiss them. (How long can you keep this exhausting pace up?)
Or emotions might seem to be those ginormous but fuzzy things that rule your moments and your days even as they slip through your fingers like sand. They feel out of control and are often all you’re aware of. Anger, sadness, fear, lust, or bitterness keep swirling in your mind and you feel at their mercy. It’s as if “someone else,” your feelings, are at the controls of your life. But you rationalize, That’s just my personality. I’m an emotional person. Perhaps you’ve even prayed for God to take away your feelings. (Has He?)
I remember the time in doing my own internal work when I said to myself, Everyone in my family is so angry except me. I’m glad I’m not angry like that. How wrong I was. My view of God and of success meant I needed to cover up my anger as well as any other emotion and just keep doing. And it wasn’t working.
Better Ways to Deal with Feelings
In my own process I had to become familiar with the full range of my human emotions including anger. Doing so helped me right-size them and take them out of the driver’s seat. I could befriend my feelings and be curious about them, and still not follow them as a guide.
Just to remind you, Jesus here on earth was a fully human person. Those around Him had no trouble believing He was human, and part of that was because He naturally expressed all the normal human emotions; fatigue, hunger, pain, sadness, anger, distress, longing, etc. And yet He did not sin.
Among the things Jesus is to us is our Example, so we can look to how He handled emotions as a model for how we are to do the same. Jesus acknowledged and expressed His feelings, but He was never guided by them. He could be hungry and refuse Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread. He could feel righteous anger and use it in the service of His Father, not to secure His own “rights”. When under severe pressure He could express His distress and at the same time direct His soul to His Father and allow His will to be done.
Emotions color our world and give us priceless information about the state of our soul. You can learn to befriend your feelings while keeping them under the Lordship of Jesus. It’s part of becoming whole.
A Simple Key to Emotional Literacy
Some have described four basic emotional states: mad, sad, glad, and afraid. If you’re not used to being aware of or conversant about your emotions, start with a brief inventory of these four basic feelings.
Try this exercise. Ask yourself, right now; on a scale of 1 to 5, how mad/angry am I? About what? How sad am I? What am I afraid of? Is there anything I’m glad about? When you identify a certain emotion as most “real” for you right now, sit with it for a bit and notice where you feel it in your body. Consider taking an inventory of these emotions for five minutes each evening and even recording it in your journal.
And then use your brief emotional inventory as a starting place for your prayers. It may help to find a Psalm that expresses something you’re feeling, and use that as the opening of your conversation with God. Throughout the Bible God’s very best friends brought their messiest emotions to Him; that’s how you deal with feelings.
Here are a few more questions to help you consider the state of your soul.
- How were emotions dealt with in your family of origin? Are you aware of and able to recognize and talk about your emotions now?
- Do you know how you feel? Does anyone else know how you feel?
- What do you usually do when you sense a strong feeling? Ignore it? Follow it? Act on it? Take it out on someone else? How well do you regulate your emotions?
- How full or empty do you feel inside? How are you trying to fill up your empty places?
So, How’s Your Soul Doing?
Be honest in considering your response. And then let God know.
Your Turn: How have you dealt with your difficult emotions? Where are you right now in terms of mad/sad/glad/afraid? I’d love to hear from you; leave a comment below.
Want More? In this week’s podcast episode with Lisa Rowe we talk about the emotional aspects surrounding the end of a pregnancy and particularly support after abortion.
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