speaking the truth to your emotions

When given the choice between beach or mountains, I’ve always been a mountains girl­—especially this time of year, when I begin to reflect on my summers spent in Juneau, Alaska with Cru on summer mission projects. The distinct smell of the air, the soft mossy ground beneath my hiking boots, the quiet coolness of the summit, the ways the world begins to make sense to me in the context of the trail and the journey.

However, this morning, I’ve been thinking about the beach. Maybe it’s because friends have been talking about their upcoming trips, or maybe because I just finished the couple of junior high Bible classes I teach and I am eager to simply sit and rest, but the taste of salt and the rocking of the waves have been sounding so appealing lately.

As school ends and my ministry with Cru shifts in light of a summer role, I am (per usual) reflective on the past semester and how the Lord has been at work in my life, and I actually think the beach is a good picture of the ups and downs I’ve experienced the past several months.

Sometimes, we feel like we have a handle on our lives. We are in a good rhythm and are ready to tackle the day-to-day in front of us. We enjoy a season of rest and routine in a really sweet way, like the gentle lapping of the waves against your ankles, burying toes in the sand.

Sooner or later, though life comes at us, the wind and the rain stirring the seas. Huge waves break over our heads, lungs gasping for air and mind searching for which way is up. When things rage out of control, or when a fog sets in concerning decisions and next steps, I personally struggle to figure out exactly how I am feeling about a situation–and whether or not these feelings are the truth.

People typically have one of two responses when it comes to their feelings. Some are ruled by them, admitted feelers who navigate life through their emotional responses. Others are reasoners who seek to overcome their emotions with logic and fact. As an adult, I have recognized myself as falling closer to the reasoning end of the spectrum.

I cried a lot as a child, wrestling with friends hurting my feelings or discouragement in not accomplishing all I wanted (such as making a 91 instead of a 100 on test or losing a basketball game), so I grew up being taught to slow my emotional responses and think rationally about things. While I couldn’t necessarily control emotional responses, I could identify truth in the middle of those emotional responses, and that should keep me from irrational feelings.

However, this took a turn of over-correction, and I began to view my emotions themselves as bad. If they weren’t supposed to control me, if truth was my guide, then my emotions should line up with truth. If I was afraid, I just needed to tell myself to not be afraid, and it should click with my emotional responses so that I wasn’t afraid anymore. Or if I truly believed that God was sovereign, I would not be so devastated in my disappointments.

Yet I found that, as much Scripture as I quoted, or as many times I repeated truth about how I should feel, I never could get rid of what I thought were false feelings. I couldn’t stop feeling sad, even though I was fully trusting in the Lord and in his good plan for my life.

Over the past couple of years, I have begun to understand that there is value in both my emotions and in the truth, and writers wrestling in the Psalms have helped me see how to balance the two.

David never denies that he is upset. He recognizes his despair, then he reminds himself of where his salvation lies.

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” –Psalm 42:5-6a

“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me… But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” –Psalm 55:4-5, 16-17

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” –Psalm 56:3-4

Don’t deny that your feelings exist—don’t try to wish them away or think that they should be different than they actually are.

The fact that we experience fear or discouragement or sadness does not necessarily mean that we aren’t trusting God, and I think this was my perspective for a long time. God created everything about us, including our emotions, and throughout Scripture we see people who communicate everything from fear (like David) to confused anger (Job) to grief (Hannah) to doubt (Peter and Thomas). The Lord never chides them for these emotions, but rather, what they do with them. Thomas allowed his doubt to keep him from celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Job’s confusion and anger caused him to justify himself and question God’s care in his life. However, Hannah’s grief brought her to her knees, begging the Lord to hear her request for a child.

So how do we handle our emotions, especially in the difficult seasons of life when we can easily feel overwhelmed?

Instead of allowing my emotions to define my circumstances, I have tried to set a pattern of identifying my emotions and looking to them for information. If I am all of a sudden on the verge of tears, I know I need to stop and reflect on what’s going on in my heart. If I am frustrated at Eric but don’t know why, I need to look at not just what he has done but my own expectations and how I was looking to him to meet my needs.

Then, after recognizing those emotions, I am beginning to speak truth to them in the same way David did, reminding myself that I can rest in the Lord, clinging to Him in the midst of the storm.

“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” –Psalm 55:22

As I give validity to my emotions, I am encouraged by how they actually draw me closer to the Lord. I can experience his comfort if I recognize my need to be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:4). I see his ability to calm the storm when I identify that there is a storm that needs to be calmed (Mark 4). I allow him to be the one who meets my needs and desires when I invite him in to my discontentment (Psalm 145:16).

Bethany (Dillon) Barnard recently came out with a new album, and in the song “Awake My Soul and Sing” she declares, “My feelings aren’t the truth / and when it comes in view / worship will arise.” Ultimately, as we speak truth to our emotions, I think our ability to respond with worship during troubled times brings God more glory than if we were simply praising him because all was well.

Through the waves, whether gentle or fierce, may you experience God’s loving hand in your life. He is steady and constant despite the way life ebbs and flows around us.

P.S. For further personal study, read Psalm 77 and explore Asaph’s emotions as well as the ways he reminds himself of God’s character in the middle of his distress.

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