Let it all hang out
Waking up as my alarm goes off. Hitting the snooze button, my mind drifting lazily around the idea of handling our emotions as Christians. An extension of my interrupted dream. (I know I’m weird, even in my dreaming.) A thought: Express the truth of what you feel, but face the truth of what is real.
Our God is a God of truth (John 14:6). His desire is for us to become more like Him in this life, until we’re transformed into His likeness in the next (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 3:2). That means being truthful in all we do, including honestly admitting and expressing our emotions. But it doesn’t stop there. We also need to face the truth, the reality, of how our emotional venting impacts others.
Our American culture stresses the first half. Express the truth of what you feel. Let it all hang out. If I feel it, then I have a right, even a need, to reveal it. Don’t worry about how it might affect others.
My dad bought into this proclamation of modern psychology. It would be disastrous to suppress any emotions. It would lead to ulcers, heart attacks, assaults on your mental health. So Dad blew up if he felt like blowing up. He criticized, he ridiculed, he scorned. It made him feel better, at least temporarily, so it must be the right thing to do. Express the truth of what you feel. Where’s the harm in that? (To give him full credit, he also freely demonstrated his tender heart toward our family and toward people everywhere who were hurting.)
The harm is in the pain it causes others. Dad never faced the truth of what is real—the extreme selfishness of this approach. It cares only for the one doing the expressing. It denies the needs of those who are being wounded. It doesn’t lead to greater maturity for the one spouting off or to greater peace and deeper relationships with the world around him. Should we be surprised that, decades after this philosophy became the accepted approach to life in America, our country is being torn apart by division and violence?
Keep it all inside
Evangelically-correct Christians go to the opposite extreme. They recognize the reality: my anger, envy, or criticism hurts those around me. By contrast, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the transformation that God works inside us as we grow in Him. These are the characteristics that heal the hurts of the world, that lead to a lasting peace and healthy relationships with others.
However, these believers tend to deny the first half of how to handle emotions. There can be no expressing the truth of what you feel. If it doesn’t conform to the fruit of the Spirit, the only way it should come out in our relationships should be in admitting that such feelings are wrong. Anger must be suppressed or confessed as sin, never honestly revealed to others. But lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.
Speak the truth in love
My little rhyming thought is another way of phrasing the biblical idea of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Speak the truth—express the truth of what you feel. But do it in love—face the truth of what is real. Find the balance. My basic nature leads me to err on both sides. I don’t want to reveal my deepest thoughts and feelings unless I know someone very, very well. I could be rejected or misunderstood. Safer to keep it inside.
And it’s a challenge to speak the truth about any emotional subject with loving words. If I’m angry, if someone has hurt me, I don’t want to have to stop and think about how to show that in a way that takes their needs into account. This two-sided process is an area where I could see God growing me even as a baby Christian, but it doesn’t come naturally.
When I was in college and the suicidal depression hit, my emotions went to every extreme in the book. Anger, suspicion, jealousy, self-pity. How could I possibly express the truth of what I was feeling without wounding and alienating everyone around me? And without making a total fool of myself by overreacting to everything? My initial response was to keep it all inside as my evangelically-correct training kicked in. It nearly destroyed me.
One of my big breakthroughs came when I openly communicated my feelings not to others, but to God. I learned to take it all to Him, pouring out my heart (Psalm 62:8), often through journaling. I could express the truth of how I felt, which was necessary and healthy, while facing the truth of what was real, of the ways I would hurt others if I just blew up every time I felt like I needed to. I also grew in my walk with God because, like the authors of the psalms of lament, facing God with my deepest feelings led to a greater understanding of who He really is.
When medication relieved the depression, I began to take what I’d learned from expressing myself to God and apply it to the greater challenge of expressing myself to others. I found that I could be more honest with them in ways that didn’t trample on their souls. It still isn’t the most automatic thing for me to do. I’d like to be so mature in my faith that this whole process would unfold without any conscious thought on my part. I’d experience the fruit of the Spirit every waking moment. I’d communicate every emotion in loving and considerate words.
Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. I’ve come a long way, but I’m still growing. And I thank God that He used a painful and difficult period in my life to teach me better ways to speak the truth in love.