This morning we begin a topical series entitled: “A Healthy Emotional Life: Biblical Answers for Negative Emotions.” In the coming weeks, we want to take a closer look at negative emotions like grief, anger, depression, fear and anxiety--and learn how the Bible says we can be delivered from bondage to these emotions into an emotionally healthy life.
I don’t think we need to spend time justifying why we’re spending time on this subject. By almost any measuring standard (counseling dollars spent, prescriptions filled, work time lost, road rage police reports, self-help book sales), Americans (including American Christians) are very concerned that they’re not as emotionally healthy as they should be.
On the surface, the subject of human emotions may seem simple. But when you start to look at it closely, it gets very complicated in a hurry. You may start out asking simply, “What are key steps to overcome my anxiety, depression, anger, etc.?”--but you will soon bump into other underlying questions like:
What is emotional health? If we have the wrong definition, we’re bound to miss it. Is it merely the absence of these negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions (e.g., peace, happiness, joy, etc.)?
Are negative emotions inherently unhealthy? Or do negative emotions have a place in emotional health? If they aren’t inherently unhealthy, when do they become so?
How easy is it to become emotionally healthy? Americans are notoriously into quick fixes. (This is one reason why “self-help” books are so popular.) If we are unrealistic in our expectations on this, it may (ironically) contribute to more emotional unhealth!
Should emotional health be a goal? I know this sounds ludicrous, but what if emotional health is not a worthy goal, but rather a result of pursuing other, more important goals?
This series will seek to discover the Bible’s answers to the main question: “How can biblical teaching help me overcome my grief, depression, anger, etc.?” The Bible is a guide toward emotional health. But before we can hear its answer to this question, we have to listen to its answers to these other more foundational questions. That’s what I want to get at this morning by explaining three biblical assumptions that are related to emotional health.
We are deeply broken people living in a badly broken world.
The first thing we need to understand as we approach the subject of emotional health is some very sobering news: We are deeply broken people who live in a badly broken world. We were created for a perfect world, but human rebellion has plunged the whole world, all of us, and every area of us into a deeply abnormal state. Only when Christ returns and re-establishes God’s loving rulership over the world will there be an end to sadness, pain and grief (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we will “groan” (Rom. 8:22,23).
This does not mean that the Bible is totally pessimistic or fatalistic about emotional health. God can give us substantial healing in this area of our lives. The same passage that insists that we will groan until Jesus returns also says that God’s Spirit begins a real work of healing in this life. But it does mean that we should reject all expectations of perfection in this life. We should manage our expectations realistically.
We are all inherently prone to certain emotional problems. We can see real progress in these areas, but we will probably battle with them throughout our lives.
Some of us have gone through horribly traumatic experiences (e.g., SEXUAL ABUSE). These experiences have left emotional wounds and scars. The feelings associated with these past experiences can also flare up in pain when triggered by certain situations. Again, God can and does provide significant healing over time--but the full healing will not come until the kingdom of God comes.
We will continue to be racked by painful circumstances (e.g., death of loved ones; serious illness; aging) as we go through life--and these things will bruise and wound us emotionally.
If you serve Christ, the Bible says you are a soldier in a great spiritual battle--and this brings it own kind of emotional pain (spiritual attack; hostility, rejection & betrayal; confusion; apparent ministry failure). If you know Christ, there is the compensation of his comfort and encouragement--but this comes to us in the midst of emotional pain; it does not eliminate it.
This is a very important point as we think about emotional health. If you expect (as American culture teaches us we have a right to expect) that life should be one long vacation with occasional bumps, you will suffer worse than necessary when this unrealistic expectation is shattered (including cynicism). But if you let the Bible temper your expectations--if you expect this life to be filled with suffering and live it in hope of Christ’s return and in gratitude for his encouragement and partial healing in this life, you will be emotionally stronger and healthier.
The fact that we are broken people living in a broken world also sheds light on how we should view negative emotions. On one level, they are abnormal because we wouldn’t feel them in a perfect world. But on another level, they are not inherently bad either. They are sort of like our nerve endings. They register pleasure, but they also register pain. Negative emotions tell us that we and the world around us are not as they should be. And just as physical pain can spare us from further injury and motivate us to seek medical attention, so emotional pain can motivate us to seek spiritual help from God. This is why Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matt. 5:4). All of the most important spiritual breakthroughs in my life have been preceded by periods of intense emotional pain.
In fact, it is unhealthy to not feel emotional pain in a broken world. Lepers lose limbs because they feel no pain. They have lost the gift of pain to their detriment. To be able to live in a world this broken without feeling grief, anxiety, depression, guilt, etc. would mean that you have become terribly inhuman and maybe dangerous (“The Terminator”). Do we want to become like the people in Brave New World, who eradicated all negative emotions through technology and drugs? Jesus personified perfect humanity in a broken world--and he felt all of these negative emotions (except guilt). It is when these negative emotions engulf us, control us, or define us that they become destructive. What then? . . .
We are designed for personal love relationships.
We can’t know what emotional health is or how to move toward it without knowing what it means to be human, knowing how we were designed to live. For example, if we were designed primarily to have sex and accumulate possessions, our emotional health would be primarily contingent to those activities. A defective understanding of what it means to be human will invariably lead to a defective understanding of pathway to emotional health.
The second key biblical assumption related to emotional health is that we are designed for personal love relationships. When God created human beings, he distinguished them from the rest of the created order by saying Gen. 1:26,27 (read). By using plural pronouns, God tells us something about the essence of who God is--God is a community of persons who live in loving community (cf. Jn. 17:24). And God tells us that he created humans in his image--namely, as persons designed for personal love relationships. This is why the narrative in Gen. 2 emphasizes that Adam was not like the rest of the animals--he was “alone” until he entered into a love relationship with another person. Humans were designed to live in personal loving community with the Triune God and with other humans, to receive God’s love and give it away to others. See also Matt. 22:36-39. This has tremendously important implications for emotional health!
This means that relational deficiencies are the cause of most emotional problems. Studies consistently demonstrate a positive correlation between emotional and relational health.
No wonder sexual freedom and material affluence do not correlate with greater happiness and emotional health! For the past several decades, our culture has proceeded on the assumption that humans are designed primarily to have sex and accumulate possessions. And we now have unparalleled sexual freedom and material affluence. The result? Not only not greater happiness and emotional health, but greater unhappiness and emotional problems.1 No wonder! Not only do sexual promiscuity and materialistic greed not fulfill our relational needs. Sexual promiscuity ruins personal relationships (sexual break-ups; divorce’s effect on children) and materialistic greed robs us of the time to build and maintain close personal relationships. No wonder that emotional problems are skyrocketing!
This is also why the medical model cannot produce emotional health. For many reasons, the prescription of medication for emotional problems has skyrocketed in recent years. One of these reasons is a medical model of emotional health that views humans as essentially physiological beings and looks primarily to biochemical causes and solutions for emotional problems. Another reason is that Americans want (and feel they have a right to) quick and easy relief from depression, anxiety, etc. I’m sure another reason has to do with the influence of pharmaceutical companies and health insurance agencies. QUALIFICATION: I am not saying that medications play no positive role in emotional health. Medication may help alleviate certain symptoms and give us more clarity and energy--and this is certainly a good thing. But the primary path to increasing emotional health is not good chemistry--it is . . .
It means that emotional health is not the goal--it is the by-product of building healthy personal love relationships with God and other people (Gal. 5 emotional fruits of walking by Spirit).
This begins with establishing a personal love relationship with God by receiving Christ. This relationship is the only one that provides the inexhaustible source of love that Jesus called “living water” for our love-thirsty souls (Jn. 4:10,14). Have you done this?
This involves sharing God’s love in real community with other Christians (1 Jn. 1:3,4). It is in this context that we experience God’s love in real and practical ways. It is in this context that we learn how to give God’s love to others. Are you in community?
This involves trusting God’s love enough to consistently give yourself away in love to others. This is the great paradox/secret to emotional health (Jn. 13:17; Acts 20:35). Not: “I will be emotionally healthy when others love me the way I want to be loved” but: “I will become more emotionally healthy as I learn to love others the way God already loves me.” Have you embraced this lifestyle?
Truth-guided choices lead to long-term emotional health, while feelings-guided choices lead to long-term emotional problems.
This is because our emotional lives are broken; they don’t function as fully reliable guides for our decisions. In an unfallen world, we could fully trust them to reflect reality. But in this fallen world, they are more like broken compasses. Sometimes they are accurate, but at other times they are wildly inaccurate. If we implicitly trust them to guide us, we will get seriously and painfully lost. We need another, more reliable guide for our choices--the guidance of God’s revealed truth.
This runs counter to what our culture often tells us. We learn through a variety of sources (MEDIA) that our feelings are reliable guides, and even that we must express and follow our feelings in order to be emotionally healthy (e.g., ADULTERY).
But the Bible teaches this general relationship in a number of places. In Gen. 4:5-7, God warned Cain against following his anger feelings. This choice led to the murder of his brother, and a lifetime of emotional misery. God’s counsel was to choose against his feelings to “do what is right”--which would result in a positive change in his emotions. God tells us in Prov. 14:12 that the course that feels right usually leads to death, and this is why we need to lean against our inclinations and trust God’s truth for guidance (Prov. 3:5,6). This is why Paul warns us that those who allow their lusts (fallen desires) to guide their lives will be deceived and corrupted (Eph. 4:22).
We cannot choose how we feel, but we can choose how to respond to our feelings. And choosing according to the truth rather than our feelings actually reshapes our feelings over time.
If you uncritically obey your feelings, you will injure yourself (and others) emotionally, and you will become a slave to your deceitful and corrupting desires (e.g., BITTERNESS; PORN).
But if you make decisions based on the truth (to act in love) regardless of how you feel, you (and others) will be spared much emotional injury, you will reap emotional health--and your desire can actually be re-trained to desire the way of the truth (ENGAGING, FORGIVING & AFFIRMING YOUR SPOUSE vs. WITHDRAWING, PUNISHING & CRITICIZING). This is what Ps. 37:4 means, and this is one of the most wonderful benefits of walking in God’s truth over many years.
But as long as I am a broken person living in this broken world, I must evaluate my feelings in light of God’s Word. And I must have a category for passing judgment against and disobeying wrong feelings, no matter how strong and persistent they may be.
Which compass are you trusting to navigate through life--your feelings or God’s Word? This is one reason why it is so important to learn God’s Word and consistently expose yourself to it. It forges truth categories in your mind, and it reminds you of those categories so you can make truth-guided decisions!
We’re going to keep coming back to these same biblical assumptions and principles in the coming weeks. We’ll see how they apply specifically to dealing with anger, grief, depression, fear, anxiety, etc.
1 See for example David Myers, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (Yale University, 1999), and Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study (New York: Hyperion, 2000).