Anxiety is on our radar a lot these days. It is a very real and rising reality of our time. But for the Christian, just as with the emotions of fear and anger, the eyes of disdain can easily look down upon anxiety. We aren’t supposed to experience this stuff. It means something is wrong with us.
About five years ago, I began learning about emotions through Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and then Chip Dodd’s The Voice of the Heart. What these two books offered were very different insights from what I had learned as a young Christian. Perhaps you were like me. I had been taught emotions were deceitful and untrustworthy, that they were even “soulish” rather than “spirit.”
The clear message was: Don’t trust emotions!
Which easily moved to another message: Emotions are bad!
I now believe those past messages were deeply unhelpful. It has been freeing to understand more and more about emotions. Peter Scazzero offers very important insights about emotions:
“When we deny our pain, losses, and feelings year after year, we become less and less human. We transform slowly into empty sheets with smiley faces painted on them . . . But when I began to allow myself to feel a wider range of emotions, including sadness, depression, fear, and anger, a revolution in my spirituality was unleashed. I soon realized that a failure to appreciate the biblical place of feelings within our larger Christian lives has done extensive damage, keeping free people in Christ in slavery” (p70).
He then goes on to add: “You are made in his image. God thinks. You think. God wills. You will. God feels. You feel. You are a human being made in God’s likeness. Part of that likeness is to feel” (p71).
I am convinced we need to stop telling Christians that their feelings and emotions are bad. I think it has caused and is causing deep harm to humans made in the image of God, a God who, as Scazzero reminds us, feels.
Now, let me be clear and say that I am not advocating we put all our eggs in the basket of our emotions. Of course not. Just as we wouldn’t want to advocate leaning solely into any of the other experiential factors of life: rational thinking, physical sensations, the interpretation of human communication, etc.
However, emotions are a part of life. If one feels sad, then they actually feel sad. Sadness is the correct response to loss. So, if someone loses a family member, we wouldn’t turn to them (I hope not!) and offer, “Don’t trust your sadness!” That would be absurd. If someone has been betrayed by their spouse, we would never look at the that person and declare, “You shouldn’t feel hurt and angry.” God forbid it!
We are people who experience the gamut of our emotions: loneliness, sadness, fear, shame, surprise, disgust, anger, and a host of other things. We actually emit emotion all the time. These are real responses to real life. Of course, they may be responses that come forth without having full information into a said situation. One might be angry at a friend for lying—or at least for what was perceived as lying. Yet, once the two friends are able to talk, there is a realization that there was no attempt to lie and deceive.
So, yes, perception can play a part in navigating our feelings. But the feeling itself isn’t bad. A child may fall down and think they have a boo boo, and thus begin to cry. Upon looking at their knees, they see no scrapes or blood, and proceed to calm down and not cry. It happens. But the child still fell down and expected scraped knees. This is why the goal is learning not to push our feelings down, but to navigate them in healthy and holistic ways. That is why Chip Dodd offers in his book that feelings are “tools that we need to learn how to use well so that we do not behave impulsively and act out without the ability to take responsibility” (XIII).
We need to start with the truth that feelings are not bad. Rather, feelings are a good part of humans created in the image of a feeling God.
But what about the big one of today: anxiety? We might allow for sadness or guilt. But anxiety just seems, well, not right.
I personally think we have to be careful of a pendulum that swings swiftly between good and bad, right and wrong. Listen, I do hold to these categorical identifiers. There is good and bad, right and wrong. But life is a tad messier (or a lot messier) than our pre-programmed responses of slapping labels on something as good or bad, right or wrong. Life tells us there is some gray—and to not rush to judgment.
As one who thinks through things theologically, I try to consider much of life through the lens of the Bible. Most Christians do this. Of course, Scripture doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it always gives us good stuff to chew on.
When it comes to emotion, I love the Psalms. They open the door to see the beautiful, and sometimes not-so-beautiful, voicing of emotion. Their expression gives space for our own. Knowing this, let’s take a quick peak at Psalm 6, a psalm of lament:
Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long? (vs1-3)
Pretty strong language here. You should read the whole psalm (it’s a short 10 verses) to feel even more of the agony and anguish. The bolded words above speak to terror in David. Terror is a fear word, and I would offer anxiety is related to fear. It’s kind of a step up from fear.
David had become overwhelmed with anxiety due to his enemies. He makes that very clear in his prayer. Yes, he also notes that God has heard him and accepts his prayer. Those words should instruct us as well. But he still, without a doubt, communicates that he is scared and riddled with anxiety.
David experienced anxiety. But what about Jesus?
“No, no! Jesus didn’t experience anxiety!,” we might say.
I think this is a reaction to quickly judge emotions as bad and untrustworthy.
Consider Christ’s prayer in the garden, as he neared death. We read quite disturbing words from Luke’s rendering: “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).
I have not yet experienced my sweat becoming like drops of blood. Maybe you have. But I would take a stab at identifying this experience of Jesus as one of anxiety. It definitely isn’t happiness. It’s actually probably a mixture of things, one that includes fear and anxiety. And the word anguish that is found in Luke 22:44 is where we get our English word agony from. It’s a word that expresses great fear, terror, and anxiety. And all this experienced just after we were told in the previous verse that, “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.”
Come on, Jesus! You can do better than this! Stop with the feelings stuff!
But that is about the most real, human response one can express as they face their own torturous death.
I imagine some might say: Well, of course Jesus experienced that. But this was in his role as the Son of God that would die for humanity. He’s the only one who could do that. So, he was allowed to express that. We aren’t.
Something like that.
Still, however we want to slice it, as far as I can tell from Luke 22 (words in the Bible!), Jesus experienced and expressed anxiety. He did. And I think this is what makes him truly an amazing high priest who can “empathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15).
No, this doesn’t get into all the questions about anxiety disorders and even deeper related issues. But that’s not my point in this post. My desire is to bring attention to the fact that A) emotions are not bad, but are rather a good part of humans as image-bearers, B) that the people in the Bible exhibit emotion all the time, even Jesus himself, so C) stop judging yourself or others for their experience of real emotion, including anxiety.
We cannot simply say, “Don’t trust your emotions.”, or put a band-aid over them with statements like, “Just trust the Lord.” Jesus trusted the Father and yet still expressed anxiety.
Let people feel what they are feeling, let them share, pause and listen, commit to being present without judgment. It may just be that they need to be connected to a therapist for greater support. I’ve had to myself. But people need the space to process their emotions, including anxiety.
Don’t rob yourself and others of the gift of our emotions.