Emotions as Guides
Our emotions serve as guides to our inner landscape, leading us toward paths of connection and intimacy. However, many of us are taught early in life to view our emotions as mere distractions to our spiritual/relational journey – rather than allowing them to guide us, emotions seem like a swarm of gnats we repel and swat away. Truthfully, our emotions carry within them seeds of abundance, growth and healing, if we allow ourselves to hear what they have to say.
I want to look at four emotions: joy, sadness, fear, and anger. We will call them core emotions because, though we experience many different emotions, most if not all emotions are rooted in one of these four. First is joy! Joy is all about love, connection, and abundance. We experience joy when all seems right in the world. Next is sadness, which is about loss as well as connection. We experience sadness when we lose or anticipate losing what we love – joy and sadness are closely tied together, and we really cannot experience one without the other. Then there is fear. Fear is about survival, and it is our internal alarm system (think fight, flight, or freeze). We experience fear when we or someone we love is in danger. Finally, anger is all about protecting our boundaries, and we experience anger when those boundaries are crossed. Similar to joy and sadness, fear and anger are connected, and often when we experience fear, we naturally experience anger.
Emotions in Scripture
God gave us these emotions. Unfortunately, we often do not see them as companions for our journey, but as hindrances we must get past.
Various scriptures certainly have been used to back this up. We learn it’s okay to be angry as long as we do not sin (Eph. 4:26), which seems impossible, so we bottle up our anger. We learn God does not give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7), in fact God’s perfect love casts it out (1 John 4:18) – so we cast it out too. We learn our sorrow and pain can stay the night as long as they’re gone by morning (Psalm 30:5), but anyone who’s ever experienced significant loss knows all too well the extended stay mourning requires.
These verses are wonderful, but they’ve often been applied in a way which leads us to go around our emotions rather than through them. When we bypass emotions, we get stuck in counter emotions. When we evict our sadness, we evict our joy as well, and instead of feeling better we feel numb. When we “cast out” our fear we do not feel power, love, or self-discipline, but get stuck in anxious inner dialogue loops. And when we bottle up our anger, we do the same to our boundaries until we inevitably explode on unsuspecting strangers and loved ones. Living in these counter emotions tends to lead to further layers of defenses, where we attempt to counter our counter emotions. For example, if we are out of touch with our fear and tail-spinning in anxiety, we may try self-soothing with food, drink, or mindless social media scrolling, and from there self-loathing or self-righteousness, etc.
How Do We Befriend Our Emotions?
The invitation today is to begin seeing our emotions more clearly as guides, companions and friends for our journey. This does not mean we are controlled by our emotions, but rather learning to walk in friendship with them. So how do we befriend our emotions? Here are a few practical steps to consider:
First, emotions are not thoughts in our minds but feelings in our bodies. Where in your body do you feel anger, fear, sadness, joy? Can you locate it? Place your hands where you feel the emotion. Maybe you carry anger in your gut and arms and you carry fear in your back and shoulders. Identifying where your emotions live in your body is the first step in befriending them.
Next, what does the emotion need to say? Emotions cannot be thought through. They must be felt and heard. Our emotions carry messages from our inner landscape, and they often come as simple statements of reality or groanings too deep for words. Often feeling our emotions requires us to embody them as well. There is a lot to explore here, but start by asking the emotion you’re feeling, what do you need to do right now? Scream? Run? Punch the ground? Dance?
Also, your emotion may need to be heard by a friend or a safe community. You could also invite Jesus to meet with your emotions – often, allowing your adult self to host this conversation will allow our emotions to speak more honestly. Certainly, this is where various forms of contemplative prayer can really come alive!
Last, loving our emotions is a journey which requires us to locate, listen and feel them as often as needed. A friend and mentor of mine frequently reminds me, “Any emotion truly felt leads to other emotions.” Befriending our emotions is to welcome them as friends and inner companions, which can guide us toward greater connection and intimacy within, with God and our communities.
About the Author
Michael is a spiritual director, retreat facilitator, speaker and writer helping people explore their “inner landscape” in order to cultivate healing and wholeness in their relationships to self, others and God. Michael is an Elder in the Oregon Free Methodist Conference and served as a pastor for three years at Journey Church in Sherwood, Oregon.