“Unless we overcome our fears and find a way to feel and express the emotions that live within us, we will never experience a relationship that truly satisfies. The emotions we keep protected behind numerous shields and defenses are the same emotions that can lead us to God.”
-Russ Ewell, When God Isn’t Attractive
Growing up playing soccer, my favorite position was always in defense. As someone who was generally quiet and reserved, I felt like I could let out my aggression on the field. I didn’t need to have fancy tricks or even be super assertive. I just needed to be able to push people out of the way, and I was good at it. In high school, I was playing a coed pick-up game with some friends and was supposed to guard a guy friend of mine. I can only imagine what he was thinking as my barely 5’4″ and basically half his size frame brazenly charged after him. Throwing my full body weight against him to get the ball away, I accidentally stomped on his bare foot in the process. He definitely steered clear of me for the rest of the game and for a while in person afterwards.
Sadly, this stubborn defensiveness shows itself in more places than just on the field. I often find myself pushing people away with the same emphatic determination as I did in soccer. This aggression usually comes out when dealing with my emotions. When someone tries to ask me what I’m feeling, I use every tactic in the book. I dodge, turn it back on them, make a joke instead. I use everything in my arsenal to turn the spotlight away from me so that I don’t have to deal with what I feel. I view my stifling of feelings as a sign of strength and any expression of emotion as weakness. Unfortunately, suppressed emotions are not dissolved emotions. Just because I don’t verbally express them does not mean they disappear into thin air. They go somewhere.
When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder, my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up.
The psalmist above describes the condition we enter when we refuse to be honest about what is going on inside. Like a shaken-up Coke bottle, our refusal to express what we truly feel leads us to having so much built up that we will eventually explode in one way or another. Whether it is an angry outburst at a family member, an insensitive snarky comment to a friend, or even becoming so isolated that we cut off all relationships, our true selves will eventually seep out. We become weak, so caught up in trying to keep it together that even the slightest emotional distress completely destroys us. Our refusal to acknowledge and address how we feel leads us to have fake strength, an easy-to-crack shell that desperately tries to protect who we really are.
Growing up in a home with various special needs and emotional challenges, I quickly gained the ability to look like I had it all together. When a sibling was having a meltdown, my parents could count on me to be the “good kid,” always behaving and helpful in any way I could. Any tears I cried were in the solace of my own room, and any emotions I felt were pushed deep into the recesses of my mind. Even though my parents made it clear that they did not expect me to be perfect, I had taken it upon myself to suppress any kind of sadness, anger, or loneliness, and pretend like everything was fine. This became a habit that was hard to break, and one that I often still fall into today.
Then I let it all out; I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.” Suddenly the pressure was gone—my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared. These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray; when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
The very flaws and weaknesses we work so hard to push away can actually be used to push us toward what will make us strong. The moment we take our emotions to God, not holding back anything we feel ashamed of or that could make us look bad, is the moment we tap into the power that makes us capable of handling anything. When we hand the reins over to God, we can face challenges without fear or hesitation, trusting that he is strong so we don’t have to be.
The Lord says, “I will teach you and guide you in the way you should live. I will watch over you and be your guide.”
Deciding to go to God with everything going on inside allows me to focus on what actually matters. Rather than putting all of my attention and energy into keeping it together for my family, letting it all out with God frees me up to actually love them. I have room in my heart to feel for them without being completely overwhelmed. By taking our emotions to God, we see where he is trying to guide us and who he is leading us to that needs our help. Even when we are a mess, we can strengthen others by letting God strengthen us.
How are you trying to keep it all together? What emotions are the most difficult to talk about? Who in your life needs you to rely on God so that you can help them?
To learn more about how to take your emotions to God, read the Chapter 4, “When Emotions Become God: Increasing Our Emotional Awareness” of Russ Ewell’s book, When God isn’t Attractive.