Sunday, June 07, 2009

Emotional Disciplines

This was my second post at Strangely Dim, back in September 2003. Thought I'd give it more air.

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“The heart is devious above all else; . . . who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 records the word of the Lord, no less, about the hazards of human emotions. Woody Allen offers us the flip side of God’s lament: “The heart wants what it wants.” You can imagine why God would be upset about the untamed human heart, which has led to, among other things, Allen’s betrayal of his wife in favor of her daughter, and a chosen people’s betrayal of their God for gods of wood and stone.

The heart—the seat of emotional life—certainly seems uncontrollable. When I’m angry to the point of rage, appealing to reason just irritates me. When I’m depressed, I withdraw from attempts to bring me out of my depression. Whether I’m happy, sad or mad, I’m generally not interested in feeling any different. The heart wants what it wants.

Our emotions affect others more than our intellect, our physique or our spirituality. People can tell with one look what emotions I’m processing from moment to moment, and my feelings have immediate impact on them. Happy people steer clear of sullen people, and misery loves only miserable company. We make judgments about people based on their emotions, sometimes temporary (“I wonder why she’s so upset”) but sometimes permanent (“She’s so crabby”).

Unchecked emotions can rule over us, no question. And yet, emotions are part of the human package—we are never emotionless, and suppressing emotions can lead ultimately to bad health and broken relationships. We have mental, physical and spiritual disciplines, but what we’re missing, and what we really need, are emotional disciplines.

Often we can’t recognize what we’re feeling. The first emotional discipline is thus to engage our feelings—to learn what prompts them and sustains them: “Search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4 NIV).

But emotions are politically potent, affecting not only how we perceive reality but how we engage it. To discipline our emotions we must strike a balance between emotional honesty and emotional tyranny. Psalm 4:4 speaks to this balance as well: “In your anger do not sin.”

Some situations call for anger (or a host of other emotions), but no situation calls for sin. When I’m so happy I avoid unhappy people, I allow my emotions to reign in the place of God, who may be asking me to minister to their suffering. Or when you give full vent to your anger without thought of the consequences, you betray your calling to live at peace with everyone “as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).

Indulgence is not the only unhealthy engagement of emotions, of course. There’s a reason emotions are political: to stifle emotions in the interest of a superficial peace is to avoid a confrontation God may want you to make. Once we recognize what has triggered our emotions, we must consider their purpose and respond adequately. God created us to exist in community with him and each other, and emotions are a tool for building that community.

Once we get in the habit of disciplining our emotions, we will be better prepared to engage the world around us in the manner God has prescribed for us. And instead of betraying God in our deceitful hearts, we can respond to the calling of every Christian heart: to want what God wants.

1 comment:

Michelle Van Loon said...

I had a lovely "Ah ha!" moment as I read this post - I never thought through the political and community-shaping impact of emotions. Confrontation (terrifying for many of us) may be God's calling in order to move beyond superficiality and into deeper community. Muzzling renegade anger in order to process it before God may serve the same purpose.

Disciplining those emotions is a core way of dying to ourselves, isn't it?