Negative Emotions (Part 2)
This is part 2 of a 2 part series: Part 1
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves, and this is “Where Life and Scripture Meet,” a podcast from CCEF. This particular podcast is actually part two in a two-part series on emotions. And just to make things even a little more complicated, we’ve had a little mini-series of a podcast called “Saints, Sufferers, & Sinners” from Mike Emlet in the interim, so if you want to hear the first part of this, which I would highly recommend, it would be worth scrolling back and finding that first episode and listening before you get into this one. It’ll become obvious in a moment why I would highly encourage you to go back and hear that. But you know what? Some people can just walk into the middle of a movie and be like, “I don’t really know what happened in the first 45 minutes, but I can enjoy the last hour or so.” If that’s you and you just want to jump along for the ride and pick up where we are, that’s totally fine and you’re welcome to join us.
So this is part two, as I said, of a series on emotions and it’s actually the second time taping this podcast, this episode, and it’s going to be very different than the first time for a very simple reason. After we finished taping the first episode, we listened to it and we said, “This doesn’t work. We are getting rid of this. We’re completely throwing it out and we’re going to do something entirely different.” And well, that’s the sort of thing that happens if you care at all about the quality of your work in producing any kind of content from time to time.
In this case, I actually wanted to slow down and spend some time reflecting with you on why the one that we recorded didn’t work. It wasn’t bad. There was nothing untrue. It was actually helpful stuff that I was really excited about, but it had to go. And I wanted to spend some time thinking about that because it really was striking to me to hear something and say, you know what, it’s important that we don’t put this out. And I want to think with you about why that was. I found it fascinating to reflect on.
So here’s what happened. In our first episode in this series, Negative Emotions, part one, I spent a lot of time making a biblical case that sometimes it’s actually good to feel bad. That negative emotions are not faithless, or un-Christian emotions. That we, like Jesus, like the Apostle Paul, like many different Psalms, can have a right and appropriate place to feel negative, unpleasant emotions: anger, shame, guilt, fear, discouragement, and so on.
And in that episode, I laid out that if you love the Lord, you will feel some deeply distressing emotions on a regular basis, in a fallen and broken world. That’s not a sign that you have stopped trusting the Lord. Now, the reason I talked about emotions in the first place is that I’ve been fascinated with a biblical view of emotions for years. It’s an interest that actually culminated in co-writing a book called Untangling Emotions. So what I tried to do with the second episode was to turn a chapter that never made it into the book into a podcast episode. I thought, hey, what a cool idea. Let’s put this chapter into a podcast episode and I can give the basic idea and just let it get out that way, at least for a little bit.
Well, the brief idea of the chapter that we didn’t write went something like this: “Hey, with emotions, it matters where you put your focus. It matters what you choose to pay attention to. There’s a lot about emotions that you can’t control—and in fact, shouldn’t control. Emotions flow out of what you love. So basically your feelings are only supposed to change when what you deeply love changes.” I was trying to say, there is this thing we can do, and it’s important in so many situations, which is to choose where to put our focus. And I rattled off a bunch of reasons that I thought it was a good idea, and I thought it was biblical, and helpful. And I stand by all those things. For example, I have a personal tendency to struggle with self-pity, and self-pity tends to snowball on me when I let it. So last weekend, I got a wave of it at one point because I hadn’t slept that well. And I felt pretty overwhelmed by showing up at work on Monday and all the things I had to do. And I found my thinking on Sunday afternoon was kind of focusing on how I wished I didn’t have so much hanging over me and how I would really rather win the lottery, and go live by the beach, and watch the ocean, and eat tortilla chips with Tostitos queso dip for lunch every day. And needless to say, not a super helpful train of thought. And thankfully the Spirit broke into my spiral and spurred me toward paying attention to the reality that Jesus would be with me on Monday. That all I had to do on Monday were the things that I could do on Monday, that he would be there with me to comfort me when Monday was hard.
So all good stuff, all good stuff. But here’s the thing. Even having spent an entire podcast talking about negative emotions and how they can be valuable, the second part felt like it totally undercut the first part. It felt like the first episode made the case that negative emotions had a valid place in the Christian life. But then the second episode came along and said that, “Well, the heart of how you deal with that is basically just pay attention to something else.” As we listened to it, we all said, “This is not the most important, or even the primary way that Scripture responds to our hard, painful, negative feelings. And we need to make it clear what actually is the primary godly, biblical response to our negative emotions.” We can’t talk about the chapter you didn’t write, until you talk about the rest of the book you did write. You have to land and major on what Scripture majors on, in dealing with the things that don’t feel good in our lives.”
And the reason I’ve bothered to spend all this time framing this for you through the lens of, “Hey, we did this first episode and it didn’t work.” It’s just because I want to underline the temptation we face—especially a temptation for those of us who really want to be faithful to a Lord who we believe is sovereign and in control of all things. There’s just such a strong temptation to try to squash and minimize and push away the things that are hard and things that don’t feel good, the places where we look at the way, what the Lord has ordained is unfolding around us, and we say, “Well, if I were really faithful, if I really believed, I wouldn’t feel so bad about all of this.” And don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of ways in which God’s sovereignty is absolutely the central comfort that we have in the face of things that don’t feel good. But I think we also have to acknowledge, there is a temptation, there’s a strong temptation to edit out or to run away from the things that don’t feel good.
So let me do this. Having said all of that, let me just spend the rest of our time making one simple point, which is this. The Bible does offer one central way of dealing with our negative, unpleasant, uncomfortable, painful emotions. And whatever else we do with them and however many thousand things the Scriptures call us to and guide us in and whatever the intricacies of the path and the twists and the turns we will have with our negative emotions, that we’ll be wisely handling them in a biblical way, there is a clear center and that’s what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the center. Okay. That was a lot of windup. You ready? The center is simple. You already know it. Here is what you do with all negative emotions. You pray them. Let me say that again. Here is what you do with all of your negative emotions. You pray them.
Now notice, I don’t say you pray about them, or you pray for help getting rid of them, or you ask the Lord to change them. You might do any and all of those things in the wake of praying them, but you take your emotions, fundamentally, biblically, you take your deeply distressing emotions and you pray them. You pray them, themselves. You run to the Lord with what is on your heart and you lay it at His feet. You place it in His hands. You drop it in His lap. That is the core of what the Scriptures call us to do with our negative emotions.
Think about Psalm 62:8, if you want to a verse that puts it in a nice, simple, concise way. It goes like this, “Trust in Him at all times, O people.” And then it comes back in the second half of the verse as the psalms often do to flesh that out, “Pour out your heart before Him, God is a refuge for us.” I’m going to read that again. “Trust in Him at all times, O people. Pour out your heart before Him.” Why? God is a refuge. God is a refuge for us. That’s it right there: to trust the Lord, in any situation, at all times. Not just pour out your heart when you’re feeling happy, not just pour out your heart when you’re in a right contented place and all is peaceful with the world and you had your quiet time that morning, and you just got back from church—like pour out your heart to Him at all times is an application of “Trust Him at all times.” Bring Him everything. That is what He wants. Part of faith, a very core massively central part of faith for every single human being on this planet, what we were made to do, is to bring the Lord the things on our hearts, to pour out our hearts at all times. To bring Him what we have, because He is a refuge. And we are taking Him seriously as a refuge. We are trusting that He is a refuge. We are putting our faith, we’re putting our money where our mouth is. When we say He is a refuge, the way we live that out, one of the most profound, maybe the most profound way we live that out, is to pour out our heart, especially in our negative emotions.
Now we expect when we come to our negative emotions to find good and bad, right? We live in a fallen world. We are those who have been redeemed if we believe in Jesus and have repented of our sins and are following him and saying, “Lord, help me, help my unbelief, guide me in the way of life, lead me in the path of righteousness.” So if we are saying to him, “Lord, you are mine. You are my shepherd and I am yours. I am your child. I am your sheep.” Then we would expect to find the Holy Spirit, doing good things in us and actually causing us to love more deeply and therefore have some of these negative emotions that I talked about in the first episode. And we would expect to find sinful taint in that. We would expect to find places where our anxiety has moved from a right and faithful, loving concern for people that we rightly love into a faithless spiral away and a trust in ourselves, rather than a trust in the Lord. Or our anger has become selfish and proud rather than concern rightly with justice and with the priorities of the kingdom being enacted around us and so on and so forth, right? So we’re going to find good and bad. And there’s a way in which we expect when we pray our negative emotions, we’re not saying, “Oh, everything I feel is therefore fine or good or right or righteous or godly.” We don’t anticipate that we will be bringing perfection to the Lord in doing that. We simply say, “We can trust Him with our negative emotions. We can trust Him with our unpleasant, uncomfortable emotions. We can trust Him with the parts of that, that are right and good and godly. And we can trust Him with the parts of that, that are sinful, selfish, foolish, broken, and fallen.” And we don’t have to discern which is which, before we run to Him. We want to be people who run to Him when we feel strong feelings, and with Him, process and sort through, and often with His people and their wisdom and the Spirit active in their lives, process and sort through, “Well, what is going on inside of me? What is the good here? What is the bad here? How can I walk forward in light of what I’m feeling?”
One just sort of brief aside on this point, one of the most important spiritual disciplines that I have learned in the past decade, I would say, has coming to the realization that I need to go for a walk when I’m feeling strong, negative emotions, because that gives me some dedicated space to pray those emotions. And if I get out on a walk, I’m really likely to have the right kind of conversation with the Lord, and if I don’t, I’m less likely to have the right kind of praying my emotions experience. So all that to say, there may be wise, practical things like that, that you can do, wise context to set up for yourself. And that’s a good thing, but the answer is not, “Oh, I needed to go for a walk.” The answer is, “I needed to pray my frustration. I needed to pray my anxiety.” And a walk can be a really helpful way to do that. And it gets me breathing right. And all that stuff too.
Let me just put a slightly more specific, kind of a flesh on this in just a couple of ways before we conclude. When I say pray our negative emotions, I’m thinking things like this. Pray your fears. 1 Peter, 5:7: “Cast all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.” If He cares for you, cares about you and takes care of you, you can trust Him with the things that are fragile in your life, that are on your heart, that feel threatened, that might not happen, that are important, right? You can run to Him and trust Him with your fears. You worry about your kid and will they come to faith? Will their faith remain? Are they going to end up with the right person or in the right career? Are they going to handle this conflict well? Are they going to descend into problematic patterns, getting deeper from things I’ve already seen and so on and so forth, right? There’s the thousand things that we fret and worry over. Do people really like me? Am I going to be alone for a long time? Am I going to fail in this project I’ve taken on? The thousand things we fear and worry about. Where’s the money going to come from? Where am I going to live? What will I do? That is stuff we can put in His hands. We don’t just pray, “Oh Lord, help me get a good job. Help me work things out with my friend. Help my kid do well in school.” We say, “Lord, I am afraid. Lord, I’m scared. Lord, I worry that my impact on this situation is going to be a negative one and that I’m going to be put to shame in a public way. Lord, I worry that I’m not going to be able to make it.” And there is certainly a value in asking for help as well. Please hear me, when you’re speaking your fears to the Lord, it is the most natural thing in the world to move into saying, “And please help me. Please give me strength. Please sustain. Please provide.” But I want to be clear, what I’m saying is, “Lord, I am afraid,” is pouring out your heart. And that is where you want to start. You don’t rush to asking for help. You start by simply saying, “Lord, I am afraid.” By saying that, you are already placing those things in His hands. You are casting those anxieties to Him simply by naming them, simply by taking seriously that He cares enough to listen, that He is the one who ultimately can do something about those.
I’ll move more quickly through three more, but I just want to make the point over and over again. This is what Scripture points us to. Think about your sorrows. You pray your sorrows and we have so many examples of that. In lament, there are Psalms, there’s the book of Lamentations, there’s stretches of Job and various pieces of the Prophets. We see it in various Old Testament characters, New Testament characters. You see this lament, this “Woe that this should be the case.” Psalm 42, right? “Tears are my food and my drink.” That’s a simple statement of, “This is where I am.” And that is where we start, with our sorrows, with our griefs, with our loss, as we take it and we say to the Lord, “Lord, I have lost something. There was a good thing you gave, and it has departed from me.”
Pray your doubts. I mean, what a privilege that is, right? “My God, my God. Why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from the words of my groaning?” That’s where Psalm 22 starts. The words Jesus himself quotes from the cross—that feeling, that sense of, “Okay Lord, You feel so distant. You said You would be close. Why are You so far away? I can’t feel, I can’t hear. I can’t see. Where are you?” Again, it’s fine to ask for help. It’s fine to ask Him to come close. It’s fine to ask Him to sustain you when He feels far, but we start simply by praying our negative emotion, by praying our doubt, by praying the feeling of: “This feels like you’re not here, like you’re not true, like you’re not real, like you’re not close”— whatever the case may be.
And in fact, we’re even to pray the emotion of temptation, the, “I want something I shouldn’t want. There is something yanking at my heart and I feel my heart responding. I feel myself being drawn toward that which I should not want. Oh Lord, I am tempted. Lord, I want what I shouldn’t want. I, right now, don’t want things that are for life and godliness, I want things that will destroy me. Oh Lord, I need to tell You this.” And again, by all means, please let that lead to asking for help. But we start by simply putting this on the table, as the psalmist in Psalm 73 does. He begins with this affirmation of the Lord’s goodness and then says, “But I had almost slipped.” And then he spends 10 verses just laying out, “This is what was going on in my heart. This was the tug. This is what it felt like.” He spends a long time simply detailing: “This is the pull, the temptation, that the feel, of the draw away from the things that, by the end of the Psalm, I’m able to remember are good and right.” It is important to pray, even that feeling of, “I don’t want You, Lord.” Even that feeling of, “I want something else.” This is faith, is to bring Him the feelings that are tugging us away, that are tugging us in uncomfortable directions.
All right, let me recap by simply saying this. There are a thousand important and good things to do with uncomfortable, negative, unpleasant emotions, but the central one is we must pray them. That is the single most practical and central thing that you can do when you feel a strong, troubling emotion. And ultimately, that shouldn’t be any surprise because that’s what we do with our positive emotions too, isn’t it? That’s exactly what we were designed to do. We were designed for our joy and excitement and ecstasy and contentment and peace to lead to worship and thanks and praise. When we name to the Lord the things we are joyful over, we are doing the exact same thing. Every emotion was meant to lead us to the living God. So where can you and where can I take Him emotions today? What will you speak to him? Where will you pour out your heart to the Lord, who cares, who hears and says, “I will be your refuge. Come bring me what’s on your heart.”