Get a grip! Mind over matter! Suck it up, buttercup!
Sound familiar? You and I have become experts at “overcoming” our emotions, but I’d like to suggest today that – when it comes to those emotions which make us uncomfortable – the avoidance of them can’t last forever. As I stated Monday on Facebook: “I’m no psychologist, but I’ve learned a lot about the human soul over the last 31 years of pastoral ministry.” So, I’d like to expand on the thoughts which I started there because I think that the craziness of 2020 has caused most of us to suppress some negative emotions which we’re going to have to deal with, sooner or later. And my money is on sooner.
Why have we stuffed all those emotions this year? We’ve done it to survive. My theory is that, when we’re under significant pressure, we stuff stuff (I just made up that term, but I think I like it) – without even realizing it – in an attempt to keep life as “normal” as possible. There’s been a lot of that going on in our lives in recent months, as we have attempted to combat the madness and unpredictability of 2020.
So, amidst all of that obvious unpredictability, here’s my prediction: grief is coming. I predict that 2021, for many of us, will include waves of unexpected and unexplainable grief. Feel free to tell me next year that I got it all wrong – I welcome that – but it’s still my prediction.
Classic Christian anthropology assigns two primary characteristics to our souls: the intellect and the will. Our intellect and our will mirror the very nature of God Himself – they flow from the fact that we are created in God’s image. Animals do not have an intellect or a will in the sense that humans do, and that is a critical distinction between humans and animals. When we think of the “flesh,” we think of all of our bodily urges from “I’m exhausted” to “That girl looks off-the-charts amazing – how quickly can we plan a honeymoon?” to “I’m dying” to “Where is the Krispy Kreme?” But you and I are more than even all of that. Much more, in fact. There is also the “heart” at the very core of our personhood. Holy Scripture affirms this: Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23). And, in the universe of the human heart, there is the world of our emotions.
Now, there is a very real sense in which we are in control of our emotions. I certainly don’t have to act on every angry or vengeful feeling that comes my way. Can you even imagine a society where we all behaved that terribly, all the time? In other words, it is within our power to nourish and foster – and perhaps I’ll even use the word “tame” (bring under control) – some of our emotions. But, there is another sense in which our emotions are entirely out of our control. To demonstrate this, I would submit to you Exhibit A and Exhibit B, from your own life. Exhibit A: You didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. (I’m betting on at least a little agitation.) Exhibit B: When you woke up this December morning, instead of gray and cold when you went outside, all you saw and felt was cloudless sunshine and a warm, gentle breeze. (I’m betting on some surprise happiness.)
Self-control is a good thing and in fact a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But emotional suppression can cause serious trouble. Because here’s the deal: no matter how hard we try to suppress them, negative emotions don’t go away. In fact, they can destroy us from within. Or they tend to ooze out later, and often in harmful ways.
I think you can expect some grief. Here’s why: 2020 has cost you some things. I think about our high school and college seniors who missed much of their senior year – and perhaps their graduations. That’s not a big deal, unless you’re the senior. As COVID-19 has marched on undeterred, it’s happening again to another batch of seniors. (And this is just one tiny example.) So, when the grief comes, own it. Don’t deny it. It’s O.K. to wait for the right time to express negative emotions, as long as you express them. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven … a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3-4). Feelings of disappointment and fear and powerlessness are normal; it is suppressing them that is unhealthy. If you try to suppress those feelings forever, you’ll find the “ooze” looking more like numbness or depression or uncontrollable anger or self-destructive behavior. Or, all of the above. Our enemy can, and indeed does, capitalize on our suppressed emotions – they’re part of his arsenal of weaponry to be used against us when the moment is right.
Friends, grief doesn’t always look like grief. But grief is a normal part of life. So give yourself permission to grieve. Jesus wept with His friends. Think about that. Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears. Think about that. Do we think we’re stronger than Jesus? God invites us to be honest and to fully engage our emotions. His shoulders are broad enough for our sorrows. We’re counting on that for 2021!
And we are going to need each other. Times like these require acute sensitivity to the needs of others. We’re all paying a price for the social distance, and it’s a steep price. We’re to grieve with other grievers (Romans 12:15). And, because we’ve all lived under the “suck it up” mantra, we might have to encourage lament – for ourselves, and for others. We’re unaccustomed to it. We’re helping each other break up strange ground. In uncharted territory, we’re holding up each other’s arms (and hearts). Post-pandemic, people will have physical, emotional, and psychological scars.
On a more personal note, my own soul is particularly blessed – in this season of widespread distress – by the words of the ancient prophet, Habakkuk (3:17-19) … Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on high places.
Strange as this season may be, It is abundantly clear that the God of our salvation is here with us! Let’s help each other unstuff the stuffed stuff so that we can rejoice in Christ, and tread on high places!