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The Value of Feelings

Dear Friends,

        For most of my Christian life I have been taught to not trust my feelings.  I think this has been a huge mistake and it is something that I have been trying hard to reverse for most of my adult life.  If I could summarize what I have been taught it would go something like this, “feelings can change like the wind so don’t put your trust in them,” or “if you do what you ‘feel’ like doing you will end up sinning…after all, you may not ‘feel’ like going to work today or get out of bed or pay your bills,” or worse yet, “what if you ‘feel’ like leaving your spouse or having an adulterous affair with your secretary.”  Because of statements like these and many more, the value I was taught to apply to my feelings was very low.  In the end, I even believed my feelings were sinful, where most of my sin nature resided, and something to be suppressed, ignored, denied, and repressed.  Certainly, I was communicated to that feelings were too mysterious for the serious and committed fundamental or evangelical Christian.

          In addition to this is the fact that an appropriate and balanced approach as to how I was to handle my emotions was rarely, if ever, modeled to me in the Christian circles in which I hung out.  Most of the adults in my life held a very tight rein on their emotions and looked down on someone who would be demonstrative or emotional.  Losing it in public was the last thing anyone would want to do.  It was always something to apologize for and be embarrassed about.  This was especially true for the emotion of anger.  If a person was guilty of an angry explosion, this was always interpreted as sinful behavior.

         The impact this had on me was to make me afraid of confrontation and conflict.  If someone became upset or angry with me it made me very uncomfortable to the point that I would get all panicky inside.  It’s like I would want to run a 100 miles in the other direction and if I couldn’t escape I would become embarrassed and sweaty and nervous and red faced.  I also learned how to bury my own anger and the rest of my feelings too.  Because of this I became very disconnected from these parts of myself.  I became the poster child for “the person who was out of touch with his feelings.”  I know I wasn’t the only one, rather, I think this was the status quo and the norm. 

         The more I do therapy and the more that I have studied theology, psychology and marriage and family theory, the more I have realized how erroneous my earlier training was and, how hurtful this kind of teaching on  feelings is.  What I understand now is how important our feelings are to our understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and how important feelings are in order to have a clear and healthy understanding of whom God is.

 God is the creator and author of feelings.  He is also a God who has feelings.  He feels jealous, angry, wrathful, loving, sorrowful, sad, loving, passionate, hopeful, proud, delighted, peaceful, rejected (without taking it personally), exploited, and a full range of other emotions I’m sure.  Jesus showed His anger when He cleared out the temple of the money-changers, His grief when He wept over the city of Jerusalem, and over the death of His friend Lazarus, His compassion for the woman at the well, and His disgust over the way the Pharisees used their religious power to dominate regular people. 

        Conversely, I was also taught in our subculture we call conservative Christianity, fundamental and evangelical Christianity, or the community of born-againers, the pre-eminency of obedience, and what we do over who we are, and how we behave and what we believe over how we feel.  In 40 years of my being a Christian I don’t believe I can recall one sermon or teaching on the importance of my feelings.  That is startling and telling in and of it self because we are taught not only by what is said, but also by what isn’t said.  Consequently, there is a whole body of people out there who are being taught daily not to value their feelings, and to disregard them, and to shove them down.  I believe this only adds to our subculture’s sickness and phoniness. 

         It is also very unnecessary because God gave us our feelings as a gift to us.  We have them because He made us in His image, and since He is a feeling God, we are feeling human beings.  Without our feelings we would be robots or like Spock from “Star Trek.”  Imagine being in-love or a romantic relationship without your feelings.  Imagine being a Christian and not having any feelings or emotions toward God.

         I spend a great deal of time in counseling helping Christians get reconnected with feelings they have been told are bad.  Sometimes this reconnection is more like a first-time connection.  I encourage people to cry when they feel sadness, to embrace their anger as their friend and ally, and to laugh when something is truly funny amidst the hard work of therapy.  This is an important part of what makes therapy therapeutic!

         If, like me, you have heard the negative message about your feelings, at least hear “this voice, speaking in the wilderness,” and “shouting from the mountain tops” about the incredible value and the gift of your feelings, and how they are necessary for you to own, understand, and be in touch with if you are going to be a spiritually mature person. 

                       Feeling free enough to speak out,

                       Paul