Each month, three staff members respond to an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s teachings. For this round, Jamie A. Hughes, Sandy Feit, and John VandenOever chatted in our team Slack channel about the role emotions play in our lives as Christians. How useful are they? What do we do when negative feelings seem to be all-encompassing? This month’s discussion excerpt comes from Dr. Stanley’s book Finding Peace: God’s Promise of a Life Free From Regret, Anxiety, and Fear.
“Anxiety, panic, and fear are normal human responses to a tragedy or deeply unsettling situation. There is no fault in feeling these emotions.”
“Now, anxiety, panic, and fear are normal human responses to a sudden accident, tragedy, crisis, a deeply unsettling situation, or bad news. These responses are nearly instinctual. They are “automatic.” There is no fault in feeling these emotions. They are part of God’s built-in warning system to us so we might take action to seek protection, ... something of fight-or-flee reaction to what we perceive to be threatening. Every person feels moments of anxiety, panic, or fear at times.
The error comes when we accept these emotions, whether with open arms or begrudgingly, and allow them to linger and gradually find a resting place in our hearts. If we do that, these emotions become chronic or long lasting. They become our “state of being,” not just a temporary response ... Rather than allowing negative “stuff” to capture our hearts, we need to do what Jesus did and taught.
Are you forgetting Jesus’ example? I find it fascinating that Jesus, our Master, was a realist. Jesus never called those who followed Him ... to live with their heads in the sand. To the contrary, throughout the Gospels Jesus confronted problems. He acknowledged the fierce temptations of the devil and the controlling power of sin at work in the world ... He called His disciples to be “in the world” and yet not “of the world”—in other words, not to be ruled by the world’s evil systems or governed by human tendencies.”
Aline Mello: Here is a question to get you started: What has been your experience in times of anguish? Can you relate to what Dr. Stanley says about negative emotions moving from temporary to permanent?
Jamie A. Hughes: I lost my grandfather five years ago, and there are days when I go through the motions without really thinking about my grief. And then there are days, when things are in upheaval in our family or the world, that I miss him so badly it physically hurts. I moved through all the phases of grief as expected, but there are days when the anger flares up in me, even after all this time.
Sandy Feit: I’ve found that worry can take hold and become stronger and stronger, till it’s “who we are” in our responses to hard things.
John VandenOever: I find it difficult to recall times of anguish. I have certainly felt overwhelmed, but those are often temporal, finite situations. I know that I will someday deal with some very harsh realities, including death of a close loved one, and I believe that God is always preparing me through the smaller things.
Jamie: Death of someone we love is all-encompassing. It brings in all the negative emotions, doesn’t it? Fear, pain, anger, sadness. Helplessness, too, because we know just how out of control we are.
Sandy: I can tell by John’s response that he’s been at this Christianity thing a long time. As one who came to it as an adult, I had a lot of programmed fear/worry responses to undo or to let God work out of me.
John: It’s true—I’ve been a Christian since I was young. But I wouldn’t say it has become easier. I know a lot about worry. And anxiety about the little things.
Sandy: No, it’s never easier. But it becomes more normal the more we are “practiced” in Jesus’ way.
John: Just last Sunday my wife and I heard a wonderful lesson from our pastor on worry. We let it soothe us and transform us. Then we got home and the A/C wasn’t really working. You should have seen how quick the worry and anxiety flared up! We’d just had it fixed five weeks earlier. I began a small spiral.
Just as there are many things God calls us to do, which we ourselves can not do in our own strength, taking thoughts captive is something possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sandy: A big part of dealing with negative emotions is taking thoughts captive. Like in 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV). And that takes practice! We have to retrain our instincts and bring them into submission to the truth we learn in God’s Word. It can be strenuous to gain victory over such patterns of behavior because they are deeply ingrained—some starting as instinct in childhood (fear, panic). But just as there are many things God calls us to do, which we ourselves can not do in our own strength, taking thoughts captive is something possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.
John: I find it helpful to take the long view. To step back and recognize that God knows the problem. In fact, He’s been ahead on the road the whole time.
He’s prepared me for it. It’s an opportunity to put into practice what I’ve been reading, assenting to. Nothing touches us outside of His plan. And He has our good and His glory in store.
Sandy: Yes, we are in the world but not of it. And it takes instruction/training/drilling—seldom just once, often repeatedly over a lifetime, each time upping the ante or going a little deeper in the lesson. And the more God “comes through,” the more faith will grow—and the more we can expect new “opportunities” to exercise our strengthened trust.
John: For people who have lost very close loved ones—how did you feel prepared?
Sandy: You don’t.
John: Or dealing with sickness, Jamie.
Jamie: Nothing can prepare you for it. You have to let it knock you flat for a while and then process how you’re going to deal with it, how you are going to live your life the best you can in light of the loss.
Anyone who says otherwise, in my humble opinion, is lying.
Sometimes, sitting with a thing that makes us uncomfortable is the way we bring about true change. It’s only when we’re shaken out of a stupor that we do something. Rather than push the emotion to the side, label it as undesirable, maybe we should sit and wrestle with negative emotions for a while.
It’s by facing emotions and coming to terms with them that we better understand them and ourselves. However, far too many Christians just want to push the “bad feelings” away.
Sandy: One purpose negative emotions serve is to be a marker along the way, so we can see how far we’ve come.
Jamie: Well, as a response to this part of the quote: “There is no fault in feeling these emotions. They are part of God’s built-in warning system to us so we might take action to seek protection, ... something of fight-or-flee reaction to what we perceive to be threatening. Every person feels moments of anxiety, panic, or fear at times. The error comes when we accept these emotions, whether with open arms or begrudgingly, and allow them to linger and gradually find a resting place in our hearts.” What I’m thinking is that wrestling with emotions isn’t the problem. It’s by facing them and coming to terms with them that we better understand them and ourselves.
However, far too many Christians just want to push the “bad feelings” away and get back to religious equilibrium. I think that can be a problem, too. Accepting only certain emotions impoverishes our faith and our witness.
Sandy: One thing I notice over and over is how Jesus didn’t belittle people for thinking or feeling wrongly. Rather, He met them where they were and gently moved them ahead. Look how Jesus responds to Thomas—not with belittling or impatience, but with understanding of his human nature, the way Thomas was wired.
Same with other things that needed to be overcome: preconceived ideas about the deeply embedded shame/history of the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus’s perceived threat to his reputation, the disciples’ naivete and small view of Jesus’ power … Jesus met people where they were and then showed the way forward.
Jamie: When someone else is going through something, how can we comfort with the comfort with which we’ve been comforted if we’ve not sat in the emotion long enough to process it and be comforted after a time?
There’s a movie I love called Young at Heart. Frank Sinatra plays a downtrodden character named Barney, and at one point he says, “Talking about my lousy luck is the only fun I ever have.” That’s the definition of wallowing. You take delight or comfort from ripping open your old wounds and looking at them again. But loss isn’t something we can minimize. Grief is a part of this world, and it needs to be experienced if we’re going to love our neighbors.
Sandy: I wallow when I turn to the “poor me” part of widowhood. But it’s healthy grieving when I’m trying to see what God has in mind for me through it. Doesn’t mean I hate it any less, but I’m turned toward the positive and future aspects of it.
Jesus didn’t belittle people for thinking or feeling wrongly. Rather, He met them where they were and gently moved them ahead.
Jamie: I think about that with my grandfather a lot, Sandy. I mourn him of course, but I have to deal with the fact that he is gone. Someone has to emulate him, step into that place and address that need. I’m trying to apply what he taught me by virtue of who he was (not overtly). And growth is happening because of his example. I would never have had to do that hard work if he was still here.
When I found out I was ill, I had a hard time accepting it at first. After all, I had never been sick before, never had an allergy or a broken bone. It was paradigm shattering. I realized that if I kept trying to “go back to the way things were,” it wasn’t going to work. There was no going back. And if I kept trying, kept lamenting that loss, I was going to get stuck forever in disappointment and sadness.
Don’t get me wrong. There are days when I do feel those things, but overall, I have incorporated illness into the new normal. It has shaped me in ways being well never could have.
Sandy: In the Old Testament, God keeps telling the Israelites to remember what He has done for them—I think that’s true for us as well. And I think that’s one of the reasons Jesus did similar miracles more than once (feeding thousands, raising the dead, curing blindness). We need to remember, rehearse, and build on whatever little faith we might have so far.
John: That makes me think of this part of Dr. Stanley’s quote: “I find it fascinating that Jesus, our Master, was a realist. Jesus never called those who followed Him ... to live with their heads in the sand. To the contrary, throughout the Gospels Jesus confronted problems.” Jesus confronted problems.
Sandy: And let’s face it—grasping spiritual truth doesn’t come naturally. We start out as purely physical beings and to understand life must rely on what we can see, touch, measure. Throughout childhood, schooling reinforces that scientific method approach: test hypotheses by experimentation, and prove with reproducible results.
John: That’s powerful—Jesus’ way.
Sandy: But still, the disciples must have been used to thinking concretely, practically. A+B+C=D type of thinking. And just as we all had to be instructed/trained/drilled to learn how physical life works, we also have to be instructed/trained/drilled in how spiritual life works. And for any of us who have kids, we know that explaining or demonstrating once usually isn’t adequate. So even after seeing Jesus feed a huge crowd once, they needed to see it again.
The more Jesus comes through for me, the more I expect that He’ll do it again. And He does!
Art by Jonathan Todryk