I was talking to God this morning on the subject of joy. God has been doing some major renovations in me, and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude because the results have been more freedom, more health, and more joy than I’ve experienced in a long time. I’m learning (for the 77th time) that the more we comprehend our true identity as children of God, the more freedom and joy we experience in our everyday lives. Sounds pretty elementary, right? There are just so many aspects of this that take me a loooooooong time to learn. Because I’m dense, obviously.
For example, if I’m living to please everyone (which is how I’ve lived for a good portion of my life), instead of following Jesus and resting in my identity as God’s child, then I don’t have the freedom to feel anything. I mustn’t allow myself to have feelings, because this might mean that I exist, and my existence will surely be a burden to someone. So I have to become smaller and smaller and make my existence as unnoticeable as possible.
I think, like most people, I’ve had good intentions with my neuroses. I want to be guided by love, not fear or anger or frustration, but I took an unhealthy step (or seven) beyond that. I made feelings themselves the enemy, and believed that feeling the feelings was wrong. I decided I wasn’t allowed to feel anger. But Jesus never actually taught that. He said, “Be angry and do not sin.” And here’s what I’m learning from that:
My feelings are not wrong. In the wise words of my mom-in-law, “Feelings are just feelings.” I’ve tried my whole life (with little interruptions of health thanks to some amazing mentors) to avoid my own feelings altogether. I’ve considered them to be everything from weakness to outright sin, but in any case, I’ve decided they’re not acceptable. So I’ve stuffed them. I hate feeling things. Oh, I feel plenty for other people. In fact, I feel other people’s feelings all the time, so much so that I can’t watch certain movies because I’m too empathetic with the non-existent characters. But my own feelings? Um, no. They are not allowed, thank you very much. It’s this repugnance for my own feelings that God is so graciously debunking for me. They’re only feelings, love. Don’t sweat it.
If I stuff my feelings and avoid them, they will come out sooner or later, and they’ll cause issues both in the meantime while they’re simmering under the surface, and when they explode later on. If I don’t allow myself to feel the pain that life causes sometimes, I won’t be able to experience joy. Living joyfully does NOT mean that I don't feel pain, or sorrow, or sometimes even anger. It just means that none of those things define me, and they never take away my hope. But if I choose to skip over all those things, joy will elude me as well. This is one of those great paradoxes of life: no pain, no gain. @@Grieve well, lean into the pain and allow yourself to acknowledge it, and joy will come.@@ Sometimes it comes even in the midst of it, because light is most noticeable in a dark room.
Though feelings themselves are not wrong, not all feelings are created equally. Sometimes I feel really irritated that I get interrupted 70 million times a day (because I’m a mom of small children). That’s a natural feeling, and it doesn’t take much processing to figure out where it comes from—I think it indicates a condition known as humanity. The feeling itself isn’t wrong, but letting that feeling control how I act is a bad idea.
But then sometimes I feel really sad and angry when I hear of a kid in Audrey’s class being ridiculed because they’re different. Those feelings aren’t wrong either, and in fact I need to pay attention to them. I need to let them guide my parenting, and the way I lovingly train her to look out for others, to stand up for the weak, and choose kindness toward everyone: the bully and the bullied.
Jesus, oddly enough, experienced feelings. In fact, he listened to his feelings and was affected by feelings. Sometimes, he even let his feelings guide his actions. Imagine that!
When his good friend Lazarus died of a serious illness, John records Jesus’ deep emotion three different times. (*If you’d like to read the whole story you can find it in John 11:1-44.) The first is in John 11:33…”When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” The words in greek here describe a deep, gut-level emotion that was a mix of grief, anger, and turmoil. Unfortunately, our English translations don’t really do justice to what’s trying to be communicated. All Lazarus’ loved ones were weeping, loudly expressing the pain his death had caused them. Jesus allows their grief to affect him, and chooses to enter their grief and share their pain. He suffers with them.
Are there times God is inviting me to step into someone else’s pain, but I choose to avoid it?
The second mention of Jesus’ feelings is summed up in two tiny words, the shortest recorded verse in our entire Bible: “Jesus wept.” Though he knew Lazarus would be resurrected, he paused to weep. That’s very interesting to me. In fact, it strikes me as odd. I tend to think geez, Jesus. How inefficient. What a waste of time, really. Until I take a closer look, and ask the question, “was he trying to show us something?” Is it possible that he was grieving the existence of death itself? Death was never God’s intent for humanity, and the permanent separation, the suffering it caused, was an arrow through his heart.
Are there times in my life God is inviting me to feel part of what he feels for his broken world, but I try to skip over it for the sake of efficiency?
The third time Jesus’ feelings are mentioned is in verse 38: “Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance.” Did you catch that? Jesus was angry. John doesn’t tell us exactly why, but I have to wonder if it's not an anger against death itself. The suffering of his children, the helpless state of human beings and the separation that their brokenness causes is not only heartbreaking to him, it’s infuriating. Like a mother grizzly will viciously attack any threat to her cubs, God is fiercely protective of his children. Death had come for those Jesus loved, and so now he was going after death. Look at the following verse: “‘Roll the stone aside,’ Jesus told them.” Jesus anger moved him to action. It didn't lead him to complaint, but to partner with God on his mission of redemption and resurrection.
Are there times God is allowing me to feel anger over things that are not right in the world so that I will be moved to action, but instead I just complain or become bitter?
Feelings are not wrong. They’re indicators, like a “check engine” light on a car. And if we listen and prayerfully allow them to move us, we may be surprised at what we see God do. We may just find ourselves partnering with him in his mission in the world.