This morning I am on my way to represent my school at CCEF’s annual conference. This year the topic is “Emotions: Engaging the Expressions of our Heart.” I’ll try to post some reflections of what I hear throughout the conference.
Truth be told, emotions have gotten little consideration in the biblical/Christian counseling world. When I was a Westminster student back in the late 80s/early 90s David Powlison wrote an essay called “Crucial Issues in Biblical Counseling.” I recall one of those crucial issues to be that of developing a more robust theology of emotions. Nearly 30 years later, we still need that work to be done in evangelical circles. I’m hoping to hear some of that this week.
We evangelicals have prized thinking over feeling, as if one is less biased or less “fallen” than the other. This is not new. Early Christians worked to clarify the personhood of Jesus and shut down false views. The protestant reformation was intended to correct errors in thinking and belief that had infiltrated the Church. Thus, belief and repetition of those beliefs have been prized over listening to emotions. Right thinking is even prized, sadly, over right behavior.
One of the negative results of this problem for Christian counselors is the temptation to invalidate the feelings and experience of clients. Most counselors assume their helpful, gently corrective responses will bring a level of comfort and reduction in emotional pain. Far too frequently, the client is left feeling more alone and upset–even when they know the counselor as spoken truth. Why? Consider this made up exchange and see how you would feel if you were the client.
Client: [who feels that many overlook her competencies] I can’t believe my sister did that to me. Why would she be so hurtful and cut me out of my mother’s birthday celebration planning? I feel so rejected.
Counselor: You know, some people are like that. Really, you shouldn’t be bothered by her. Hasn’t she done this before to others? Be thankful that you didn’t have to do all that planning.
Does thinking or emotions have to trump the other? We are designed to think and feel, to experience our world through emotions and thoughts; each informing the other.
Here’s how we would know we are making headway:
- We stop trying to talk people out of their feelings. We start listening to what our feelings can tell us about ourselves and our world
- We worry less that emotional experiences are biased. We know they are but still recognize them as real experiences of the world.
- We look more for corrective emotional experiences than assuming that thinking always changes feeling.
- We know that God cares about our painful feelings and so we bring them to God, knowing that He too has felt sadness, jealousy, anger, and angst. He has compassion on us and offers us opportunities to see him in the midst of the struggle.
Sure, our feelings are not always (ever?) accurate. They need correction. They need perspective that God, Scripture, and wise friends can give. But rather than starting out with pointing out emotional or logic errors in our counselees, how about we get down in the mud and share in the experience as we walk together.