This morning, Winston Smith of CCEF faculty opened the #CCEF16 conference on this topic. A few days ago I wrote about the toxicity of ruminating on negative thoughts and feelings. We often struggle even more when we berate ourselves for our reactions to life.
Winston began by asking the audience how they feel about their painful feelings. He noted that how we feel about our emotional experiences shape how we experience emotions. He finds feeling bad about feeling bad is especially problematic for Christians as they often feel that their negative things should not amount to much in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. If my anxiety only means that I don’t believe and trust God then I can only suffer more. It becomes an “inescapable feedback loop.”
If the Gospel itself only becomes a cause for greater shame and guilt, then something is off, says Smith. Instead, Smith says, “our negative emotions are designed to deepen our relationship with Christ and with each other.”
Winston took the time to look at Jesus’ emotional expression at Lazarus death (and soon to be resurrection). Jesus loses it. He is in anguish. This emotional distress reveals his divinity not merely his humanity. Notice that the good purpose of Lazarus’ death it doesn’t removed Jesus’ anguish. “What would biblical counselors say to Jesus as he wept? ‘I know Jesus that you are feeling bad but this is going to be for the good.’ Jesus is not having a moment of doubt…no, he is coming face to face with the brokenness of this world and all that it will cost him…and he is emotional and he weeps.”
Therefore, being image bearers of God require us that we experience and name negative emotions, especially in light of our experience of injustice and brokenness. And the more in tune we are with the glory and love of God we ought to feel intensification of negative feelings in response to things that are not right. We could even say that we have a calling to have negative emotions.
Jesus chose to enter into Mary and Martha’s pain. That is what love does. He concluded by telling a story about a man with a child with a serious medical problem. The man was somewhat sheepish that he felt anger, fear and helpless when the daughter was having a crisis. Winston asked, “what are you going to do for my friend? Are you going to try to fix it? No, We shouldn’t try to fix his feelings.” Let’s move beyond the “repent and repress” response to our negative emotions.
This is the opening plenary and there will be more to come. One of the areas I hope they cover is the skill of validating and sitting with the negative emotions of others. This is hard to do but an essential skill, first in order to comfort and be present with others in their pain. Second, as we learn to sit with the pain of others, we can also help teach others to be okay with their emotional experiences. The more we accept, the more we can then choose how we want to respond.