When I was a child, I remember feeling things very deeply, but not knowing how to express or manage those feelings. Experiencing emotion was like being knocked down by a tall wave. I was introspective, picked up on the subtleties of others’ emotions, and took everything personally. Even into college, one negative comment by someone could affect my entire day. I now have a greater understanding of my emotions, what it means to be highly sensitive, and how to handle things in a healthier way. However, for many years, having strong emotions felt like a curse. Feelings were uncomfortable, painful, and needed to be avoided at all costs.
There are many misunderstandings that I hear in my office about feelings. People who grow up in environments where anger or violence were present may grow up to see anger as a “bad” emotion. Some people see sadness as a weakness and remember being told to “toughen up” or “stop crying.” More often, the messages about feelings in childhood are much more subtle. Discussion of certain issues may be met with silence. Requests may be ignored and feelings invalidated. Parents may be allowed an abundance of emotion while children are punished for theirs.
Myself and other Christians have heard messages from the church about “overcoming” feelings with faith or speaking truth to “fight” feelings. We may be told that feelings can’t be trusted and will lead us astray. This lingo only confirms the sense that my feelings are to be avoided or lead me to believe that my feelings are shameful or bad.
Feelings in their purest form are amoral. They are neither right or wrong, good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. So, anytime we judge our feelings (I’m guilty), and say, “I shouldn’t feel that,” we miss the point that the feeling is already present. The challenge is what to do with it now that it’s here.
There’s a difference between feelings and actions.
I’m not saying that we should act on everything we feel. That would be a mess! However, we do need to learn to be a good manager of all that God has given us (time, health, money), feelings included. If I am unaware of my current financial state, how much I’m saving and spending, I’m going to have a hard time managing something I know nothing about. The same is true of feelings. If I deny, avoid, or stuff them, I’m no better manager of my feelings than a financial planner who never looks at a bank statement.
God has feelings.
Understanding that God has feelings is crucial in normalizing our human emotional experience. God made us in His own image (Gen 1:27) meaning that we have been created with the same feelings that God has (sadness, anger, happiness, love). God could have created us any way he chose to. He could have made us more uniform or robotic. God did not have to make us in His own image, and He did not have to give us feelings. Since nothing is arbitrary in God’s design, there must be a reason and a purpose God gave feelings, even the uncomfortable ones.
I believe one of the reasons people have been given feelings is to reflect God’s heart. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). When I love someone in the purest sense sacrificially and without strings attached, I am reflecting the heart of God. When I show grace and forgiveness towards others, I am a reflection of God who has shown grace and forgiveness towards me. If I am angry about oppression, exploitation, and greed, I am reflecting the heart of a God who is opposed to sin and injustice.
Feelings are also an invitation for greater connection and understanding to God and others. I’ve connected with others during happy times in life and connected during painful experiences. Vulnerability precedes intimacy. The people who are closest to me have heard my pain, and I have heard theirs. Even when someone is mad at me, there is an opportunity to resolve that conflict and become closer to the other person by the end of it. In my relationship with God, I consider all my feelings an invitation to process with God about whatever is on my heart, even if He is the one I’m mad at! The times I am closest to Him are the times I share my feelings, especially the deep and painful ones I don’t want to feel. To deny feelings or disconnect emotionally would hinder me from connecting with the God who gave me the emotions.
Rest assured, feelings are not the enemy.
They don’t need to be fought. They are a river that needs to be properly channeled, not damned. We can either allow God to use our difficult emotions as part of our sanctification process or we can deny/suppress our feelings and shut out the opportunity for God to use them for good in our lives.
Next time you experience a strong emotion, I challenge you to explore that with God. Bring it to Him in prayer. How might this emotion be used to connect you closer to God or others in your life? Could God be using this discomfort as part of a growth process in your life? How does God desire you respond to this emotion?
A prayer about feelings:
God, show us how to properly manage the feelings you have given us as a people created in your image and channel them to be used for your glory. Amen.