Those Pesky Emotions
Trying to answer questions about emotions and “emotional healing” always reminds me of one of my all-time favorite carnival/arcade games, “Whack-a-Mole.”
In Whack-a-Mole, the player stands with a large foam “whacker” in hand, and faces a flat surface with a series of holes in it. Players earn points when they “whack” a mole on the head every time he pops up randomly from one of the holes. Once whacked, the mole disappears back into his hole – and another one pops out somewhere else. Good whackers discover that the faster they dispatch a mole, the faster and more frequently multiple moles appear simultaneously. Before long, the moles are moving too quickly for the player to respond to them all.
Discussions about emotions and emotional healing generate questions in the same way! Here are only a few of the kinds of questions that quickly arise:
And lists like this tend to multiply exponentially for 2 very profound reasons. First, the subjects of emotions and emotional healing generate controversy in the church. Second, we all experience sometimes confusing emotions to one degree or another as part of our human experience.
My purpose in discussing issues related to emotions and emotional healing is not to try to answer every question that has – or will arise – around these issues. I want to describe a fresh, clear definition for healing that includes each of the following elements listed below. Healing should:
Emotions are important
First, we are created in the image and likeness of a kind, good, loving and intelligent God who has emotions. As the Son of Man, Jesus experienced an intense assortment of emotions ranging from serious anger (Mark 3:5), to sorrowful grief (John 11:35). In the person of Jesus, we see a living picture of God’s own character and nature. Jesus told His apprentices, the disciples, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” (Col. 1:15). Jesus also spoke what he heard His Father saying (John 12:49), and told His disciples, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner,” (John 5:19).
This is profound! What was happening when Jesus was enraged at the stubbornness of hard-hearted leaders or cleansed the temple with a whip? What about the time he wept over Jerusalem or grieved at the grave of a dear friend? His emotions and actions were simply reflections of what He saw His Father doing. In the person of Jesus, we see the rich emotional life of God demonstrated for us! This alone makes emotions a very important part of our lives and design.
Second, emotions are some of the most personal things about us, and to a large degree, tend to motivate our behavior. Ignoring or dismissing the importance of how God, others or we feel is a grave mistake. This kind of behavior explicitly communicates, “God, others or self, I don’t really care what you feel or are experiencing emotionally right now.” As a result, we also implicitly, convey the message that we don’t value God or others – or our relationships with them – too highly either. Sadly, the tendency to ignore/dismiss the importance our own emotions tends to indicate that we don’t value ourselves as highly as God does. These messages of rejection bless no one, perpetuate relational breakdowns and prevent us from learning to regulate emotions in the way that Jesus did.
An example will help make this point more clearly. Suppose a child falls, skins her knee, bleeds a bit and starts to cry. What kind of parent would ignore their daughter’s obvious distress and continue to check email on their smartphone? What message would that communicate to a child in pain? Suppose the parent stopped looking at their phone long enough to say, “Stop crying and let me get back to this important task.” What kind of message would this communicate about God? What would the child learn from this experience?
Clearly, this kind of behavior is not OK and the messages learned create serious emotional and relational distortions in the life of the child. We could run scenarios involving the death of loved ones, overt racial intolerance, beatings and all manner of abuse, and the messages would be the same. Ironically, we communicate the same kinds of rejection messages when we dismiss/ignore positive emotions.
Dropping a Bombshell
Having described the importance of emotions, let me now make a statement that may surprise many in the “emotional healing” community. I want to make this point now, and promise to develop much more fully in my next several blogs.
While emotions are important, they are not the most important things about us and are not the primary issue that must be addressed in the context of “inner healing.” From a Biblical and Neurological perspective, the real problem with negative (and sometimes intense positive emotions) is that they damage, distort and disrupt our relational connections with God, with others and with ourselves.
In my opinion, the term “emotional healing” sows confusion. I would very much like to banish the term from the healing language used in church. Not only is this un-Biblical, it runs contrary to good neuroscience.
By definition, the name “emotional healing” suggests that emotions should be the real focus of healing ministry, and leads us off track in the inevitable and unending quest to “fix” our emotions so that we feel better. This term elevates emotions to a place they are not intended to be, and unintentionally makes emotions and “feeling better” an idol. I would like to smash that idol right now!
Biblically, the restoration of relationships and the ministry of reconciliation are quite clear. We are created to learn to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We called to grow together into the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ,” (Eph. 4:13). The calls to love and relationships are Biblically non-negotiable.
Developments in neuroscience increasingly reveal that the brain really only learns to manage, regulate and express emotions in the context of relationships when those relationships are joyful. To my brain, joy does not mean that I’m happy. Joy is the fruit of an interaction with someone who is glad to be with me. Neuroscience defines joy as coming from others, and emphasizes the role that others have in helping us learn emotional regulation. As a Christian, I believe that interactions with God, who is always glad to be with His children, are also an excellent source of life-transforming joy.
This is why reconciliation and restoration of relationships to God’s intended design are the solid foundation upon which healing ministry should rest.
As we’ve pointed out, emotions are important. God feels deeply, is willing to share our distress and asks us to help bear one another’s burdens. We never want to minimize the importance of anyone’s emotions. But, we also do not want to elevate emotions in life – whether positive, negative or horribly traumatic – to a place not found in scripture.
In my next blogs, we will take a look at what I believe is a proper focus for “inner healing” that is both Biblical, relational and true to the brain’s design. I will also begin to lay out exactly what I believe about emotions from both scripture and neuroscience as we move towards a fresh, clear definition for healing.