Much of my life is very ordinary, or at least ordinary to me. I work five days a week, grocery shop, have friends over for dinner, go to church events, work on homework (or procrastinate on homework - I have a book report staring me in the face), wash dishes, clean the house, mend my clothes. For fun, I go to the thrift store, play games with friends, build things out of old pallets, or read (or spend too much time on Facebook, or Pinterest, looking for one more project to add to the list...). There is little resemblance to the exciting missionary stories my parents read to us as children - and, may I add, my life is far, far easier than those pioneers. This is not a plea for more excitement. I'd rather not be eaten by lions or whatnot.
Yet, despite the ordinary-ness of life, it is beautiful and hard and full of many emotions at the same time - and God is working. Many things happen that I can't share here - lots of times they involve my relationships with others, and are private. (Even as I was writing this, a situation came up that caused me some emotional distress...life just doesn't let up.) Still, I hope I can share some of what I've been learning over the last year.
You may be wondering about the title. A friend and I have a running joke/observation that emotions pair well with tacos. We've eaten quite a few tacos in the last months. I don't believe in drowning your sorrows, for the most part...but I do believe tacos are one very delicious evidence of God's goodness...
Anyone who knows me very well at all can tell you I'm a pretty emotional person. I'm not like my mother, who cries over sad cartoons and when she's happy and so on and so forth. I'm not much of a crier at all, actually - these days, unless someone dies or there is some life-shattering event (like when I thought my visa was denied), it's pretty rare for me to shed any tears, even though sometimes it would be a relief to do so! No, my unpleasant emotions usually take other forms - nausea, exhaustion, nausea, anxiety, nausea...ok, can you tell that nausea is a predominant one? I never knew physical symptoms could be so closely linked to emotions, but apparently it's a thing.
Emotions, in and of themselves, are not necessarily sinful. We all can agree that happiness, peace, etc., are generally good, but let's look at what the Bible says about various emotions that we would consider less than pleasant.
"Be angry and do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26).
There is "a time to weep" (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
"Jesus wept" (John 11:35).
He "offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears" (Hebrews 5:7).
In the Garden of Gethsemane, He sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
"Abhor what is evil" (Romans 12:9).
Paul had "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" (Romans 9:2)
He and his coworkers were burdened beyond their strength and "despaired of life itself" (2 Corinthians 1:8).
He "yearned" for the church at Philippi (Philippians 1:8).
We are to "be wretched and mourn and weep" over our sin (James 4:9).
Jesus was angry and grieved over people's hardness of heart (Mark 3:5).
David's heart was in anguish within him and he wanted to fly away like a bird (Psalm 55).
He becomes weary of crying out (Ps. 69).
Psalm 43 calls out for God to "vindicate" the author.
Psalm 10 asks why God seems to be distant.
As you can see, emotions are a normal part of being human. Unpleasant emotions are a normal part of being human in a fallen world. Romans 8:18-23 talks about how all of creation is groaning because of Adam's fall into sin.
Within this framework, however, there are several different factors to consider.
One, why am I experiencing these emotions? I may experience grief for various reasons, none of which have their primary cause in me. Recently, my grandma passed away. Someone sins against me and hurts me. A friend is diagnosed with cancer. Another friend loses a child. None of these are grounded in my own personal sin, and most of them are not specifically tied to anyone's sin in particular, although sin does usually cause emotions of some sort.
However, things are not always this clear-cut, and I am not always experiencing emotions solely for reasons outside myself.
All that nausea I mentioned above? Often, it comes as a result of refusing to deal with sin issues - and if you think it's not the case that physical symptoms CAN be related to personal sin, check out Psalm 32 or Psalm 38, just to begin. (Please, I want to be clear that physical issues are NOT PROOF that someone has a sin issue - the entire book of Job is a case study that shows otherwise.)
Paul, in Ephesians, talks about experiencing anger (and not sinning), but James says our quarrels and fights are due to (sinful) desires inside our hearts (James 4:1) - so if I am angry and quarreling with someone, I can rest assured that that is not what is commonly referred to as "righteous anger."
Even happiness could have a sinful cause, if I am happy because of someone else's failure or pain - like when Proverbs tells me "do not rejoice when your enemy falls" (24:17).
So firstly, I need to examine what is causing my emotions. Do I have a sinful desire that is not being fulfilled?
Did I make an initially non-sinful desire into an idol - would I sin to get it (or sin to keep from getting it) rather than trust God's sovereignty? For example, have I allowed my desire for a quiet, restful evening at home to cause me to respond in irritation to anyone who comes down to my house to ask me for something? Have I allowed my God-given desire for a friend's spiritual growth to cause me to react in panic or anger when they fail, rather than love and grace (even in the midst of consequences)?
Am I experiencing emotions as a result of sin that I'm refusing to confess and repent of? Because believe you me, if you are a Christian, you will experience a truckload of emotions over that, and none of them will be pleasant. (If you are in sin and you are happy, I would be very concerned.) When we were little and my mom would discipline us, she would tell us that the Holy Spirit's conviction hurt worse. I didn't believe her at the time. Ahem...she was very right.
Secondly, what do I do with those emotions, once they are here and I'm experiencing them? We are emotional beings - God Himself has emotions - but as fallen humans, the way we respond to them is often wrong. Emotions have a place. When they leave that place, that's when things become dangerous. My emotions' favorite place to be is in the driver's seat, flooring the gas pedal, hands in the air - who needs to steer, anyway?! As you can imagine, this generally results in a lot of collateral damage. My emotions do not need a driver's license. They don't even really need to sit in the passenger seat, as they like to try to reach over and grab the wheel, and they usually make such convincing arguments I'm inclined to let them. No, they belong in the back seat, the stereotypical "backseat driver" whose advice is sometimes relevant but not always heeded. Occasionally, when they get feisty, I'd like to shove them in the trunk! (Just kidding...as we learned in class, stoicism is not a sign of godliness!)
It is true that the Bible normalizes a wide range of emotions, but it doesn't just leave it at that. Never once in the Bible does it say "Just follow your heart!" or "well, you can't help the way you feel, so you don't have to obey God's commands" or "if it feels good, it must be right" or "if it feels bad or weird or strange, it must be wrong" or even "your feelings are an accurate indicator of what is true." But the Bible DOES say a lot of other things about our emotions.
One, emotions are not an excuse to sin.
"Be angry and do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26).
"Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Anger is not an excuse to treat someone unkindly, to allow bitterness to grow, or to refuse forgiveness when they ask (Luke 17:3).
"A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back" (Proverbs 29:11).
Just because I am full of tumultuous emotions does not mean I need to allow my words to flow freely. I do not need to gossip or slander someone else. I do not need to vent my anger on the object of my frustration just to "get it off my chest." My tongue is a spark that can set off a raging inferno (James 3). It can break someone's spirit (Proverbs 15:4) and pierce like a sword (12:18).
"Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).
Our desires (which are inseparably linked with our emotions) often lead us to want to do sinful things. The next verses in Galatians 5 go on to describe some of these desires - immorality, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, etc. Perhaps I really, really, FEEL like being jealous of someone, or snapping at them in anger, or [fill in the blank]. That does not make it right or okay to follow the direction of those feelings, or even to entertain them in my head.
Two, emotions may be an indicator that I need to think differently.
"Think differently, you say? How can I help the way I think? The thoughts are just there! I can't help thinking them any more than I can help feeling all these emotions!" The old story where you tell someone "don't think about elephants" DOES come to mind! Do we have any hope for controlling the thoughts that run through our brains? Do we have a one-way ticket on the crazy train, no stops? I know I often sure feel like *I* do! There were several points in my life where I struggled so deeply with anxiety that I felt like someone had hijacked my brain and was MAKING it think in a completely irrational, terrifying way.
It only makes sense that sinful human beings in a sinful world would probably have something wrong with their thought processes. (Thanks to my class assignments on Jay Adams' book for that seemingly obvious but often neglected observation...) Our thinking is deeply flawed. We do not naturally believe the truth about God and what He says in His Word. We are very tempted to "lean on [our] own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5) rather than trust what God says and obey Him. Even when physical illness and chemical imbalances are what start out thoughts down the wrong road, we still often sin in our responses to those problems. If you need medical help, please do get medical help, but don't neglect the spiritual side of things. (I'm not qualified to write a paper on all the ramifications of mental illness and medication - I have a friend who is doing that, and I'm looking forward to reading it - but I know this much is true.) The question is, are we stuck?
This is where so much of what I learned in class this term, and so much of what I have been learning from friends over the last year or two, comes in. (Okay, it came in a lot earlier than this, but this is a pretty important main point.)
Wrong actions and wrong feelings come from wrong thinking. Wrong thinking comes from wrong theology.
If you're anything like me five-and-a-half years ago when I came here, your eyes are probably glazing over at the mention of theology. I came here to hold orphan babies for a few months. I still like doing that, but the thought of how God turned that person into someone who loved Him even more than that, still makes me smirk a little. I'm naturally a very stubborn person (my parents called me a Philadelphia lawyer) and have a pretty one-track mind when it comes to getting and doing what I want...and God usually changes my mind and has me doing the things I said I'd never do - like living here long-term, or studying counseling. I'm starting to think that if I say I'll never do something, that will be the thing I end up doing! (Hmm...surely there is some way to use this to my advantage!)
At any rate, I remember coming here and being a tad bit put off by how theological the church was. I didn't agree with some of the Reformed theology that they so openly and repetitively espoused. Someone had put a poster with the attributes of God on the wall in our intern bedroom - I distinctly remember thinking something along the lines of "why would I want to learn that? That's boring." Not to mention I didn't particularly want to chill in my room thinking about God's wrath and justice. (There were plenty of other attributes on there, but I'm pretty sure those were the ones that caught my eye first.) I thought my friends who read tons of Christian books and got together and prayed in their spare time (not at church!) were a little weird. (I'm looking at you, Abi V...) Now I've probably got a number of you thinking that I never should have come on the mission field in the first place...and I do spend quite a bit of time myself wondering why 1Hope ever decided to include me...but God, in His grace and for some inexplicable reason, decided the best place to give me my training was on the field. And in doing so, He made me learn to love to learn more about Him.
Theology is not some dry, boring textbook study. Theology is how you think of, view, and understand God. It influences our thoughts and attitudes, shapes our behavior, and determines our actions. If you'll really think about this, you'll realize that this means everyone is a theologian, whether they believe what is true about God or not. We all have some idea of what God is like, and that always impacts our actions. Perhaps we think He is far away and uninvolved, so we do whatever we want. Perhaps we think His grace can be earned, so we do all kinds of good works to try to obtain it.
We don't want to be bad theologians. God is worth our time and attention and careful study (and our nausea, I may add) and He completely deserves that we should work to have a right understanding of Him, at least as far as our finite minds can grasp. Not to mention, we will be much more content and fulfilled when we are not believing lies! Thankfully, we are not left on our own in this regard! He is happy to help us! But growth in our understanding of God takes a lot of hard work.
So, how do I start thinking differently?
There are a lot of truths about God that I need to know, believe, and understand to help me start thinking in the right way.
I need to understand WHO God is and WHAT He is like. God has many attributes, so I'll just touch on a few.
"Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable." (Psalm 45:3)
"[God is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything." (Acts 17:25)
He is infinite - He has no limits. He is self-sufficient - He needs nothing from me or from anyone or anything else. He is all-powerful - nothing is too hard for him. I have many limits. I can't see the future. I can't always tell the wisest course of action. I get tired and have to sleep. I get hungry and have to eat. He is full of immeasurable strength. I am weak and finite and can't do anything without help. I can be frustrated by this, or I can depend fully on my infinite Father. I can rejoice that He, the all-powerful one, is working everything for my good (Romans 8:28).
"For I the LORD do not change." (Malachi 3:6)
God never changes. He is perfectly faithful. What He says he will do - His Word is true, no matter how many centuries or millennia have elapsed since the time He has given it to us. On the other hand, I change all the time. This may be negative in some senses - for example, I don't keep all my promises, I develop new sinful habits, etc - but it is also encouraging, because, since only God is immutable (unchangeable), I know He can work in me to help me change and grow (Phil. 1:6). If I am frustrated with someone else who seemingly will "never change", I can remember that they are not God - they are changeable, by God's grace.
"Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 23:23-24)
"His understanding is unsearchable." (Isaiah 40:28)
He is omnipresent (everywhere present) and omniscient (all-knowing). I can only be in one place at one time, and I certainly can't and never will be able to know very much at all, compared to what God knows. His wisdom and knowledge are unsearchable, and neither I nor anyone else could ever presume to tell Him what the wisest course of action might be (Romans 11:33-34). This is helpful to remember when I look at a situation and think "But why isn't God doing [x]??!! This just doesn't make sense! Why is my friend suffering? Why is sin going unpunished? Why...why...why?" I don't think it's necessarily wrong to ask why, but I do think it needs to be asked humbly and with the realization that God is wiser than I could ever dream of being.
(Ok, this reminds me of one of my current favorite songs, and I just have to include it...)
These are just a few aspects of God's character. There are many more - God is holy, loving, just, good, merciful, truthful, patient...and the list goes on. When I am tempted to be anxious, or angry, or discouraged, a good place to start taming my thoughts is to remember what is true about God. It's not enough to repeat "God is love, God is love" over and over in my head, though. I need to think about how certain truths specifically apply to my situation.
Since God is just (Romans 12:19), I don't need to become all worked up about a wrong done to me. I don't need to worry about making them pay - either overtly or more subtly, by holding a grudge or gossiping about them. If the offender is a believer, God already poured out His wrath on Christ at the cross. If they are not, I tremble at the judgment that awaits them! Nothing I could mete out could compare to that.
Since God has been infinitely patient with me (Romans 2:4), I can be patient with others, even when they hurt me over and over and over. I can love them and even pray for them - "Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28).
Since God is all-powerful and all-wise, I know that He will do what is right and best in the situation, even if it seems confusing to me. I may grieve over a lost child, a sick friend, or someone's hard heart, but I know that even though I don't understand why things are happening, I can trust my strong, loving, GOOD God.
Don't get me wrong, sometimes these things feel like they are the exact opposite of the truth! When I'm overwhelmed by emotion, emotion is the thing that sticks out the most clearly. If I haven't committed ahead of time to think about the truth, it is very hard to stop the thought-train. It's important to learn truth when you aren't emotional, so that you have an arsenal of weapons to fight the lies.
In addition to thinking the truth about God, it's important to realize the lies you are believing and counteract them with specific truth. I'm actually doing this right now, as a homework assignment regarding a certain situation. It looks something like this (more specific, but for the sake of my blog, I've generalized it somewhat).
What I'm thinking: "This is too hard. I can't keep loving and trying to do what's right (and failing and trying to deal with that) week after week, month after month, year after year. This will never end. I want to give up. I want life to be comfortable and easy."
Truth: This hurts, but it hurts like exercise hurts. It's actually building spiritual muscle - that's what James 1:2-3 tells me. (Oh, how many times did my dad tell us, "Count it all joy!") Also, Romans 5:3-5 tells me that
which brings character
which brings hope
which does not disappoint!
However, these things are only true if I respond in the right way. If I grumble, complain, and fight against God's plan for growing character, I will not develop maturity (or at the very least, will take far longer than necessary!) One way to respond in the right way is to rejoice - to COUNT - to reckon - it all joy. This hit me kind of hard when I thought about it. One question that kept running through my head was "how long will it be before I have joy again?" But I don't need to wait one minute for that joy. I have something to rejoice in now - God is working in me. (I actually went on to make a whole list of reasons for joy, and ended up with two pages.) Peter actually says (in 1 Peter 1:6) that we GREATLY rejoice! What? That's crazy talk, isn't it? How can I GREATLY rejoice when my emotions want to immobilize me with fear, anger, nausea, etc? Well, it's not crazy, but I can only GREATLY rejoice when I count what is unseen as more true and real than what I can see (2 Corinthians 4:18). I can only refer to this situation as a "momentary, light affliction" (v. 17) if I think this way!
Ok, let's look at another one.
What I'm thinking: I shouldn't need help. Or, I should only need God's help. Or, at the very least, I should need LESS help. I am an inconvenience and exhausting to people who love me. I depend too much on people. I should be more mature by now.
Truth: Sometimes lies do have a grain of truth to them, which is why it's important to look critically at them.
Sometimes, I do depend on people in sinful ways. I may go to them to "vent" (by "vent" I mean freely express my emotions with no consideration of or concern for whether or not I'm reactingsinfully or not - aka gossiping, ranting angrily, choosing to believe lies, etc - as opposed to honestly laying out what I'm struggling with and asking for help).
I may go to them expecting them to make me feel better - which can be dangerous, because often what is the most helpful actually feels the worst. What is generally most needed - facing up to my own sin in the situation and dealing with that - can be humbling, embarrassing, and painful. I will probably feel better in the end, but I can't go to them expecting them to MAKE me feel differently.
However, it is not wrong that I am needy. I first and foremost need God - and I shouldn't expect others to do what only He can do - but, we ARE needy, and what's more, we are needy by design. Adam depended on God for everything, and what's more, it wasn't good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18)! It is also not good for me, as a Christian, to be alone. I'm part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). It wouldn't be good for a nose or an ear to wander off alone! The various parts of the body are completely dependent on each other to function.
We are told to exhort (encourage) one another EVERY DAY (Hebrews 3:13). We are told to stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). We grow by speaking truth in love to each other (Ephesians 4:15-16).
It is true that I'm an inconvenience. Loving someone is not convenient. Dealing with someone's sin is a far cry from convenience. But the truth is that we are all a whole lot more than an inconvenience. Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). I think it may often be pride that says "I don't want to bother people. I want to be perfect and easy to love. I want to be good enough to be worth their time." But I'm not good enough and I'm definitely not independent. I'm a sinner, I can be irritating, I talk (and text) too much and at inopportune times, I'm stubborn, and I fall into the same sin more than once! However, the same God who is helping me to be patient with others and to find joy even when things are hard, is helping them as well.
I, like most people, have way more than one or two lies that I believe when I am struggling, and it takes work to address each and every lie, but for the sake of brevity - brevity, who am I kidding, this thing is already probably too long for a lot of you to read in one sitting - but for the sake of relative brevity, I'll just give you these two examples.
I didn't just pull this out of thin air. These are principles that are taught in Philippians 4 where Paul tells his readers to "be anxious for nothing." He doesn't just leave us with that instruction - he tells us how. We need to pray - with thanksgiving! - and bring our requests and our struggles to God (v. 6). He will give us peace, but not apart from us following the instructions in verse 8 - to think about what is true, right, lovely, etc. As we PRACTICE doing this, God will give us His peace (v. 9).
Reorganizing my thoughts like this is hard work. Taking every thought CAPTIVE (2 Corinthians 10:5) implies a battle. It's something akin to herding cats - they don't want to go where you want them to, they tend to fight back, and just when you think you have them all cornered, some of them escape again. The good news is, thoughts are slightly more trainable than recalcitrant felines. I am nowhere near where I should be with regards to disciplining my thoughts, but I'm also nowhere near where I used to be, by God's grace.
I've learned how to pull the emergency brake on the "crazy train" of my emotions, even if I do still get on board.
I sometimes still become stuck in my thought-prison, but now I know I have the key to open the door. I DO NOT have to stay there. I am not trapped, no matter how I may feel.
I can't do this alone - I always need God's help and I often need the help of others. But this is a good thing - when I see how weak I am, I see how strong He is, and I can glorify Him (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So, we have HOPE! Even when life is hard, when day-to-day irritations wear us down, when others sin against us and hurt us, when we sin against others, when we fail repeatedly, when we aren't strong enough, when we are emotional, when tragedy strikes, when the worst happens...we still have hope, and not a wishy-washy, flimsy, "I hope so" kind of hope, but the sure and certain kind of hope that is an anchor for the soul (Hebrews 6:19), the kind of hope that does not disappoint or put us to shame (Romans 5:5). And because of that hope, we can rejoice...we can even "greatly rejoice"!
God is good, and does good. (Psalm 119:68)
God is working everything for our good as believers, to make us more like Christ. (Romans 8:28).
God caused us to be born again, is storing up an imperishable inheritance in heaven for us, and will protect us and hold us fast until we receive it. (1 Peter 1:3-5).
So rejoice, friends. Even when life is hard. We serve a good God!
This has been quite a long blog post, but I'm glad I was able to write it. I certainly don't "have it all down", even if I am able to articulate the truth. I'm fairly aware of how much I fail at this stuff on a day to day basis! But, like I said, I serve a good God, and I'm so grateful for that. And, even the act of writing it helped me with taking my own thoughts captive. I hope it helps someone else as well!