Christians have a hard time admitting ‘bad’ feelings.
Mention ‘anger’, ‘sadness’, ‘fear’, ‘worry’ or ‘envy’ and eyes start to glaze over with a readiness to deny all. Fearful of sin, many have believed that it is better to deny these feelings any place in our lives. So instead of acknowledging them, confessing them or allowing them to lead us to improved self-awareness, we have been trained to ‘stuff them’: keep them well below the surface of our lives and definitely hidden from public view.
This week I attended a day conference on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality lead by Pete Scazzero whose books I have previously recommended on this blog : ‘Look below the surface’ November 20th 2011
He had a room full of about 400 church leaders. He led us in a little exercise in emotional self-examination. He asked us four simple questions and gave us two minutes of silence to jot down answers to each question. Here are the questions:
What are you angry about?
What are you sad about?
What are you worrying about?
What are you glad about?
At the end of the exercise, he didn’t ask us to share our private revelations but he did ask us to say how we felt about the exercise.
A woman tentatively raised her hand to reply, I couldn’t believe my ears at what she said, my jaw just about hit the floor.
‘It felt a little bit naughty’
What???? You’re kidding me? Do you seriously mean that Christians are supposed to maintain a jolly game of ‘let’s pretend’ in front of an all-knowing God? If we can’t be real with God, then who can we be real with?
But she wasn’t alone. At least 10 other people articulated similar feelings of discomfort as well as awareness that this exercise was a new idea to them.
‘I was afraid that once I lifted the lid on these feelings, I might unleash something I couldn’t control’
‘It felt like I was complaining’
‘It felt like a relief’
What is the matter with these people? Don’t they know that well over half the Psalms are full people venting anger, despair, confusion and pain? There is a whole book called ‘Lamentations’ for goodness sake. And what about Jesus – he was so angry about the temple traders, he went in and threw all their tables over. He was so sad when his friend Lazarus died; he stood outside his tomb and wept. He was so worried the night before the cross, he prayed ‘Father if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me’
I’m not aware that Jesus ‘stuffed’ his emotions down below the surface.
(On re-reading this post I’m aware that I sound angry at my fellow Christians and I apologise for that. I’m not angry AT them, but I am angry FOR them. Of course it took courage and honesty from them to express how the exercise made them feel and I respect that. I guess I’m just angry at the evidence that they and many others are still believing a lie which is that ‘God doesn’t like our negative feelings’)
Elsewhere I have written and reflected on my own childhood experience and the limited range of emotions I was permitted to express as a child growing up in a ‘godly Christian home’: ‘too sad’ and you were not ‘trusting God’ (and definitely not ‘counting your blessings’). ‘Too happy’ and you were veering towards ‘counting chickens before they hatched’. (Neither of these ‘counting’ instructions are actually in the Bible but the implication of the second one was that if you were too joyful something might go wrong and then you’d be sorry so best not to be ‘too happy’). Keeping in emotional neutral was almost akin to keeping your head down, stray too far in either direction and God might wake up and notice you, he might either zap you for having ‘no faith’ or slap you down for having ‘too good a time’!
When I reached my thirties I became aware that this dynamic had existed in my past and I committed myself to embracing the further ends of the emotional spectrum. I learnt that actually you don’t really ‘taste’ joy properly until you have allowed yourself to ‘sit in the ashes’ and feel desperately undone. I may be naïve (obviously I was) but I kind of thought I had learnt something that was already obvious to other people. Judging from the reactions I heard at Tuesdays’ conference, clearly not so.
Christians it seems are the world’s best ‘stuffers’. We behave like it’s a religious duty to maintain an off-putting cheeriness, a refusal to admit that actually for most people (yes, even for us) life is a mixture of good and bad and probably more bad than good.
So to answer my original question: Yes, a bad feeling CAN lead to good action. Today is Action Sunday for Poverty and Homelessness. Here is a prayer from their website that expresses eloquently how listening to our negative feelings need not be a negative thing. Look out for the strongly negative feeling in the first line of each stanza and look where it can take you.
A Franciscan Blessing
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,
So that we may live deep in the heart of God
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that we may work for justice, freedom and peace
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,
So that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
Hit the nail on the head again, Sheila.
I’ve been there, done that & got the (emotional) scars to prove it. I have to say I think evangelicals – as a group – are rather worse at authentic emotion (either their own or other people’s) than most as far as the church is concerned. And, since I’m going in for sweeping generalisations, the past 7 years of helping resource & support rural clergy (of all denominations) has pointed to a serious dichotomy between male & female. ALL suffer pressure, breakdowns, emotions etc. – but in MY experience, female clergy are far better at handling this: recognising things earlier, admitting & articulating situations earlier & more completely, seeking assistance & support from others more eneregetically. But the biggest problem all face is a two-fold issue of expectations (that you partly highlight): (a) their expectations of themselves vis-a-vis emotional honesty & integrit, and – more significantly – (b) the real or perceived expectations of their congregations.
Thanks for articulating this so clearly. It needs repeating frequently, publicly & and to the right audience.
Thank you for introducing this topic to us Sheila. I started reading the book after your last article and I’m finding it hugely insightful and really helpful. Thank you for yet again boldly speaking about the things that others try to avoid. Caroline.x.
I wonder whether it is an AngloSaxon (male?) issue more than being a Christian issue but I do agree that to be truely human, i.e. in God’s image, we have to experience and encompass all these emotions. Anger has been a particular problem for me and other members of my family but the answer is not to ignore it but to understand why you are angry so that you can reject the bad reasons and use the good reasons to spur you to action.
It is true we all have expectations of ourselves and are subject to the expectations of others. To be fully alive and embrace our humanness and be in touch with our emotions and feelings allows us to be whole human beings which is what God created us to be. I have experienced that in acknowledging our brokenness enables us to learn the Truth of our identity in Christ. Our feelings are not always a true reflection of what is happening or what has happened in our lives and I am eternally grateful that I can go straight to the Truth of my identity as a child of God and to know who I am in Him and who He is in me.