I’m going to be up front with you in this third blog entry. Maintaining a daily commitment to savoring God’s word will not be easy. No matter what I or any preacher might say, the barriers that stymie deepening devotion don’t just vanish no matter how “spiritual” you become. Regardless of how inspiring Sunday’s gathering was, we all know we will hit a wall. Sunday services rarely lead to a week’s worth of smooth sailing. The emotional surge will dissipate. Temptation still jolts us. Joy-stealing circumstances will still blindside us. And if we are fortunate to escape these factors, the daily grind of the week is bound to deaden our emotions.
If there is one battle that we will face for the rest of our lives, it will be the battle with our emotions.1 They are as unpredictable as the weather. We never know when they will give us a season of respite or punish us with their fury. Our emotions are fragile and volatile. An insensitive comment from a friend, an unfair criticism from a colleague, or an overcast day makes us want to call in sick and lie down under a blanket on the closet floor. And sometimes there is no apparent rationale driving how we feel. No specific circumstance has left us feeling wounded or dead on the inside. We just feel…off. Empty. Soul-sick. (I think the scientific term for this is “the blahs.”)
Now here’s what is interesting. Our disciplines seem to track along the same course as our emotions (note the diagram below). For instance, when I am feeling down, I have a tendency to eat poorly. I run to comfort foods like cookies, pop-tarts — anything sweet better beware. And I don’t exercise. Also, I tend to consume more entertainment and read far less. My spiritual disciplines even deteriorate. Prayer becomes an endangered species. As a matter of fact, almost all communion with God goes into hibernation. All I know is that I struggle motivating myself beyond all-consuming feelings of grossness that tend to come and go.
Some of us have more sophisticated emotional struggles for which I strongly encourage you to discuss with trusted friends, a small group leader, or perhaps a pastor. Sometimes just talking about it brings significant relief. (Just keep in mind that for this to help, you have to keep talking about it. One conversation won’t do it.) More professional help might even be appropriate. But, still, whether we are facing diagnosed clinical issues or simply the blues that accompany January’s grey skies, we all face this battle: to be controlled by our emotions or learn to overcome them.
Okay, before moving forward, I need to throw out a disclaimer. I’m not a shrink. My knowledge in this area is limited to what I’ve read, some personal experience helping people over a couple of decades of ministry, and, primarily, contending with this very problem almost daily in my own life. So allow me to submit a few recommendations on how to push through negative emotions that have helped me:2
- Positive emotions are not required to make healthy decisions. This was big for me to realize that I didn’t have to wait until my mood changed in order to read the Bible or eat grilled fish instead of fried chicken. The simple realization that I didn’t have to buckle under the weight of my emotions was liberating.
- My emotions are just that: emotions. It’s not like Stone Cold Steve Austin is suffocating me with an unbreakable bear hug. My emotions are in my head. That’s not to say they aren’t real. They are. But they are not a straightjacket. They only feel like one. I can make good choices despite them.
- When you have the blahs, say it out loud. There are times that negative emotions stop me in my tracks. I catch myself staring off into space waiting to suddenly feel better like I’m waiting for an ice cream headache to go away. Rather, what I’ve learned to do is to say out loud, “Okay, Bennett. You’ve hit an emotional wall. Pull yourself together.” Saying this causes me to snap out of it; to realize that my emotions don’t have to control me.
- Overcoming negative emotions is totally counter-intuitive. Negative emotions lie. They tell me to disengage. They tell me to coast; to phone it in. They tell me to no longer exert or work hard. They tell me to give up. And when I do, it feels sort of good. Sort of. But I know that this is a lie. Giving in will not make me feel better. And doing so makes me my emotions’ slave. Rather, what will go a long way in bringing relief is activity. Not just busyness, but healthy activity. Everything in me is screaming to avoid the gym or to eat those cinnamon rolls on the counter. But once I start sweating as I run on that wretched tread mill, the negative energy disperses. And when it doesn’t at times, I almost always get a fresh dose of perspective, which gives me a renewed sense of hope.
- Talk about your emotions. A lot. If you’re married, you have a built in accountability partner (though I prefer the term, “ally”). If you’re not married, find someone and talk often, as I mentioned earlier. Talking out your feelings is HUGE. Once you start doing this, you will thank me. It is so therapeutic.
- Change your environment. Open your blinds and let in the sunshine. Turn off the TV and turn on music that soothes your soul. (I prefer light classical music.) Take a shower. Clean up your house. (Notice how your house tends to get really messy when your emotions are negative?)
- Talk to God. Out loud. Go on a walk and pour out your heart to God. (This is called prayer.) I know, I know, the passers by will think you’re out of your mind. So what. Talk to God anyway. Tell him how you feel. Ask for his strength. And think. Most people think that prayer ends when we stop talking and begin to ponder. I disagree. Some of the most profound realizations I’ve had from the Holy Spirit take place in my inner dialogue as I quietly walk the trail around the retention pond near my house. The point is to get your heart out in front of you so you can examine it under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
The ultimate goal is consistency. Remember, this blog series is about digging for truth and inspiration in God’s word. But what I’ve discussed works for just about anything, from establishing consistent spiritual rhythms to remaining committed to working out. Regardless of how we feel, we want consistency. (Note the diagram above.) Consistency is the name of the game. And consistency only happens when we commit to face our negative emotions and make good choices in spite of them.
One of my favorite scriptures is Romans 8:9-11 in which the Apostle Paul reminds believers, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Paul acknowledges that we, as believers, struggle with the compulsive tendencies of our flesh (negative emotions), which are the result of our bodies being dead due to sin. Yet, those who are followers of Jesus can rest assured that despite our weakness, the Holy Spirit, who is the very essence of life and righteousness, resides within us! Emotions will rise and fall. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you no longer have to rise and fall with them.
1 I almost said, “the battle against our emotions” here, but I’m coming to realize that God uses my emotions in many ways to cause me to cling to and depend on him. I’m learning to no longer view my emotions as the enemy, despite the way they make me feel.
2 The goal is not to make negative emotions go away. I’m not sure how realistic that is. Rather, I submit that the goal should be to no longer allow them to hijack our choices.