I used to deny that I had emotions. I thought they were unmanly and indicative of weakness. “A strong man is not subject to his emotions” I would tell myself.
But the reality was that I did have emotions, and I was ashamed at what my emotions would tell me about myself. And because I was ashamed at what my emotions told me about myself, I denied that I had emotions at all. I wanted to be the sort of person who did not have emotions, so I pretended that I was. After a while, I started to believe it.
Self-deception is not a foreign idea to scripture. In Psalm 36, David writes, “I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked… In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin.” While I do not believe that emotions are sinful, I think we are often ashamed of them as if they were. Think of a wife with an angry husband. If she points out to her husband that he has an anger problem, a common response might be a vehement “I do not have an anger problem!” By saying this, the husband ironically exhibits anger. Furthermore, he fails to address his anger problem by refusing to acknowledge it altogether. The husband takes great offense to his wife’s comment and exposes himself as being self-deceptive.
This man’s response can be explained by the wisdom of Father Zossima in Dostoyevski’s fictional masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. Father Zossima is a wise, elderly monk of great reputation and admiration in his town. At one point in the story, Zossima is visited by a repugnant character of licentious lifestyle. This, Fyodor Pavlovich, is clearly uncomfortable in the presence of such an upright and reputable clergyman. As a response to Pavlovich’s restlessness, Zossima says,
I earnestly beg you, not to disturb yourself, and not to be uneasy… Do not trouble. Make yourself quite at home. And above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is the root of it all.
But the reality was that I did have emotions, and I was ashamed at what my emotions would tell me about myself.
Shortly after saying this to the restless man, Zossima refocuses his word of wisdom saying,
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others… The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it?
In this excerpt, Dostoyevksi connects shame, self-deception, and being easily offended. When a person is ashamed, they are inclined to deceive themselves so they can be unaware of very thing they are ashamed of. And this self-deception makes a person to be easily offended.
In the aforementioned example, the husband took great offense when his wife pointed out his anger. According to Zossima, this was a sign that the husband was deceiving himself. He was indeed self-deceived. He denied that he had an anger problem because he was ashamed of it.
Still today I will find myself falling into a similar sort of self-deception I fall once again to pretending that I do not feel certain emotions. I am deeply ashamed of them.
An early contributor to my coming to terms with having emotions was a conversation I had with a mentor of mine. He explained to me that our emotions are like the lights on a car’s dash board. They are indicators of what is going on inside. This helped me to realize that rather than denying my emotions, I should learn to watch for them. Only a fool would regularly continue to drive his car if his “check engine” or “fuel empty” lights were illuminated.
In another conversation, a friend and I meticulously explored how we should be interacting with our feelings. The following journal entry resulted:
Feelings are indicative of what we believe. We should trust our feelings because they tell us something true. Trust that your feelings tell you what you believe. Don’t trust that what you believe is right.
Rather than denying my emotions, I should learn to watch for them. Only a fool would regularly continue to drive his car if his “check engine” or “fuel empty” lights were illuminated.
In the latest season of my life, some things I have been feeling are fear, under-confidence, and an inordinate weightiness of certain current life decisions. As I name these emotions, I realize the need to correct my perspective. The answer is certainly not to deny these emotions in shame—to turn away in repulsion to myself. No, these faithless responses to the present circumstances of my life must be met with faith.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.” – Isaiah 41:10. Recently, when I read Andrew Murray’s devotional Waiting on God, I was reminded of the reality of this verse. Murray uses words in a masterful way that often transforms my feelings and desires into what is right and true. Murray writes,
The answer to every complaint of feebleness and failure, the message to every congregation or convention seeking instruction on holiness, ought simply to be, “What is the matter: have you not God? If you really believe in God, He will put all right. God is willing and able by His Holy Spirit…Yield yourself unreservedly to God to work in you: He will do all for you.”
The question Murray poses alludes to perhaps the greatest truth of all. Hear his question again: “What is the matter: Have you not God?”
Stop. Consider this.
When I set all worries and concerns aside and remember that the source of all goodness and power is working in me, I am transformed. When I focus alone on Murray’s question, slowly all my petty cares and concerns subside and I am brought to an embarrassing realization: I have forgotten God—I forgot that He is with me. My worries, fears, and restlessness are the sorts of things that might be exhibited in the pagan—the godless man. I must be reminded. I must ask myself again Murray’s question. “What is the matter: Have you not God?” I must ponder this question until I am brought once again to the familiar place of utter peace—the place to which this question will inevitably lead all Christian brothers and sisters who consider it.
When I set all worries and concerns aside and remember that the source of all goodness and power is working in me, I am transformed.
This movement from worry to peace could only take place because I came to acknowledge personal fear and restlessness. Would you be offended if someone pointed out that you were angry, afraid, sad, or jealous? Do you deny that you feel emotions altogether? May we humble ourselves by acknowledging how we feel, discern what our feelings tell us about what we believe, then always turn to the truths we find in scripture.
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Image Credit: Silvia Sala, Creative Commons