A few years ago I stood with my arms crossed, my feet squarely planted at the bottom of our stairs. My young daughter stood a few steps up, face red, fists clenched. We were going head to head about something. I don’t remember what. My chest tight and my cheeks hot, I’m sure I had offered the words that I usually offered in moments like this: “It’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to hurt people while you’re mad.” She was yelling, spewing her anger all over the place. We exchanged a few more words, and then my daughter slumped onto a step, hung her head, and began to cry, her anger melting to sadness. As she began to talk about her tears, I felt the muscles in my body relax and I sat down next to her to listen.
I recognized the shift in myself while it was happening, and a lightbulb went off: I’m comfortable with sadness, but not so much with anger.
Don’t get me wrong: I get all kinds of angry (my kids will testify to this). But I had subconsciously relegated anger into the “not okay” category of emotions. I would have told you otherwise, but after that moment on the stairs, I realized that my tendency is to try to shut anger down, make it end as quickly as possible.
I’m learning that part of living as the whole person God created me to be, means I need to be honest about my feelings—all of them.
What We Learn About Emotions At Home
I sat at a table with 8 or 9 others in a make-shift classroom, discussing emotions and spirituality. Almost everyone around the table shared that in their families growing up there were unspoken rules about emotions: which ones were okay, which ones were not, how /how long or loudly you could express your feelings, who was permitted to cry and who wasn’t.
Boys don’t cry. Good, nice people don’t get angry. Emotions—happy or otherwise—need to be expressed quietly so that no attention is drawn to us. Crying will make us look weak and silly. Gushing with joy will show we care too much. The rules go on and on, and you can likely name some that you grew up with, if you stop and think for a while.
We internalize these rules, assigning judgment to emotions and to ourselves when we have them.
What We Learn About Emotions At Church
But it’s not only our families that form our understanding of emotions; our faith communities can have just as profound an impact. Whether your church is highly expressive, rigidly deadpan, or somewhere in between, chances are there are expectations around emotions. And the message we tend to hear in those expectations is that what we are feeling is direct evidence of our faith or lack thereof.
In high school a youth leader asked me how my Easter was. I explained that I had felt kind of sad and told her why. She responded with, “Well, was Jesus there? That’s all that matters.” The rule I learned: if Jesus is there, we can’t feel sad.
I can’t tell you the number of stories I’ve heard from people who have squelched their own grief because they believed God wanted them to only be joyful. One young woman told me that she had believed her mother’s death was God’s will, so she never gave herself permission to grieve. And how many women have I met who experience fear, but hesitate to talk about it because they think it shows a lack of faith.
Or what about when we realize that the anger we carry is anger toward God? Is it okay to tell God how angry we are?
Here’s what I think: we struggle as the church when it comes to healthy expressions of emotions in general, but we fail royally when it comes to pain, anger, and grief. We just don’t seem to know what to do with those hard emotions. We over-spiritualize, we ignore, we shame, we move on, we gloss-over. But rarely do we just let ourselves and each other feel what we’re feeling, inviting God into the dark spaces of our pain. Rarely do we, as faith communities, sit together, alongside each other, in the ashes of grief. Instead, we become Job’s friends, convinced that we know the source of the pain and the solution.
As the Church, we have to do better.
If the book of Psalms tells us anything, it’s that the whole range of human emotions—anger, sadness, joy, fear—can be expressed to God. The Psalms can be our prayerbook, our words when we have none. They can help us unlearn the unhealthy rules about emotions we’ve internalized all these years.
Could it be that our emotions are one of the ways that God speaks to us?
Could it be that our sadness over a chemical attack in Syria or hearing that our child has been bullied or having to say goodbye to someone we love reveals something about who we are and how broken our world is?
Could it be that our anger reveals what matters most to us?
Could it be that our joy is a taste of the goodness of God?
Could it be that we need to pay attention to our tears because they are our unspoken prayers?
Could it be that all of our emotions are ways of allowing us to draw more deeply into God?
When we try to live as if our emotions don’t matter, or we dismiss them because we have judged them to be negative, we miss out on living as the whole people God wants us to be.
Our feelings don’t change who God is or what God has done to make us whole. But part of being whole means giving our emotions room to breathe, to let them be part of who we are.
So. Go ahead. Tell God how you feel.