My Relationship Status with My Emotions? It’s Complicated.

Recently I woke up in the night feeling terrible, like I had sinned in some great way. Over the course of my life I’m sure I’ve had this experience dozens of times, maybe hundreds. How do I make sense of that? Where did that emotion, that feeling come from?

Scripture commands us to feel certain emotions. We’re told to rejoice and be joyful. Other emotions are commanded like love, peace, compassion, and fear. Those are virtues, but aren’t they also emotions? We’re told to mourn and to weep. Most (all?) of those are certainly more than just a feeling, but they are not less.[1]Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63. For example, what makes a Christian definition of joy actually Christian is that it involves a mental evaluation. The Apostle James tells us to assess trials as joy (Jam 1:2). So it’s a feeling we feel after evaluating our trial. Of course Scripture also tells me not to have certain emotions—sinful anger or anxiety for example.

Unwanted emotions have been compared to the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They tell you that something is wrong. The warning light is not the problem; it just points out that something is a problem. Others have said that emotions or feelings tell us what we value, what’s important to us, what we think or believe. “Emotions are the surface expression of deeper desires and values” and “Different emotions are valuations. Emotions gauge how desirable or undesirable people find the particular situations or objects to which they respond.” [2]Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.

I believe all that. Yet… I’ve woken up in the night and felt guilty, but with no obvious reason for it. As I scan my day I cannot recall a reason or circumstance that would justify this feeling.

What do I do with that feeling? That emotion? I tell God that I will confess whatever his Spirit brings to mind, but I rest in the gospel. My status with God doesn’t change because I have (as far as I can tell) an unwarranted feeling of guilt. My standing with God is always through Christ’s righteousness, not my own (2 Cor 5:21) and it’s not at all based on what I feel.

In our theology of emotions, can we make an allowance for some emotions being unwanted and not related to our values or beliefs? Maybe some times they are like the check engine light which is normally on in all my cars–I have terrible cars ;)–which some times just means the dealer wants me to bring my car in for expensive service. It doesn’t really signify more than that. In other words, in some cases the dashboard light means nothing.

It’s complicated. I’ve counseled people whose feelings were not in synch with their circumstances. Often they’ve been given a diagnosis of depression by others, and they come wanting help with their feelings. They would welcome sadness if it were appropriate. They have no reason to feel sadness, yet they do. Maybe it sounds like not much help, but I can’t assist them in feeling any particular way. That’s beyond my abilities, and I think, the abilities of any Christian counselor.

I do encourage them to keep their focus on Christ. I tell them that God can give them the strength to do right even when they don’t feel like it. That Jesus really is more satisfying than they think. But I don’t promise that feelings will change. Often they do, but sometimes they don’t.

In a world broken by sin I’m not surprised that sometimes the warning light of our emotions is going off at the wrong times. It’s a type of suffering. I’m not putting my situation in this category. The lack of synchronicity between my feelings and my life has normally been rare, short-term, and not severe. The depressed people I’ve had the privilege to counsel have had a larger gap between what they should feel and what they do feel and for a longer time.

Ed Welch says that “God doesn’t prescribe a happy life.” [3]Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15. And, “It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God.”[4]Welch, 31.

How do I help? I tell them that doing right when they really, really don’t feel like it takes an extraordinary faith. I think that. I believe that. I know that. They are exercising more faith than I am when they do right. Attending church on Sunday morning is really hard when every cell of your body tells you to stay in bed. I like attending church. I love my fellow church members. I am getting something out of attending church that does feel good. But what if you feel worse after obedience than you did before? That’s how some counselees have felt over the years. If so, then doing right really becomes an act of faith that is far more than my faith in showing up Sunday morning.

When your feelings don’t seem to fit your circumstances, you can be satisfied that God gives grace to do right. Your weakness lets the power of Christ rest on you (2 Cor 12:9-10). When your feelings don’t align with your life, you can remember that your feelings don’t define your status with God. He sees you as righteous because you are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:21 (ESV)

References

References
1 Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63.
2 Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.
3 Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15.
4 Welch, 31.

You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Post Is About You

I’m writing you because I’ve always liked you and appreciated your heart for ministry.[1]The blog title is with apologies to Carly Simon. However, I’ve noticed over the years a failing that is more harmful than you might initially realize. It has several symptoms, but one is that you take credit for the little success that God has allowed you to be part of. It’s like Laura Story says in her song, “Grace,”

My heart is so proud
My mind is so unfocused
I see the things You do through me
As great things I have done

It seems to me that you think ministry success is intrinsic to you and not to God’s grace through you. Yes, some have been influenced and blessed by your ministry. Some have enjoyed your preaching and been changed by it. I’ve talked to people that are very appreciative, but you’ve imagined that said something about you and your talents rather than God and his grace. (And I should know since I’m writing this post to myself.)

God says he hates pride (Jam 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5), but you don’t seem to hate it that much. You realize that, right? You express envy of others’ ministry—you know this is true! Rather than rejoicing that God’s Kingdom is advancing through other unworthy servants you wish it was advancing through you. You want to be the nexus of God’s work. Scripture says there is one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and you want it to be you. That attitude dethrones Christ. You need to be dethroned, not Christ.

Actually, envy is very likely one of the chief characteristics of your heart. You look at other Christian families and wish your family was in the same stages of life as they are with the same seeming success. Do you see how unseemly that is? Paul tells us to…

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Romans 12:15 (ESV)

You do weep with those that suffer; however, even that is tainted by your own tendency to think that maybe, maybe God has given them suffering and not you as evidence of his chastisement of them and his joy in you. Do you see how sneaky your pride is?  

But the first half of the verse you rarely obey. You hear of the blessings that others receive, and inside you sound like the child you once heard who screamed, “BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?” You want the blessings of certain milestones with your children, and you’re not satisfied with God’s timing. You long for the acknowledgement that others receive, and you’re not content with how God has used you so far.

Please listen carefully; don’t be defensive. You act a bit like Diotrephes in 3 John.

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 3 John 9 (ESV)

One of your college professors memorably said of Diotrephes, “The loving of prominence and the longing for preeminence is in all of us.” [2]Doug McLachlan I don’t know if it’s in all of us, but it certainly is in you. You want to be recognized and acknowledged. It’s not a little failing; it’s actually a grotesque distortion of the servant attitude that Christ displays throughout the Gospels and the Apostle Paul so richly described in Phil 2. Do you count others as more significant than yourself (Phil 2:3)? Do you look out for the interests of others or just your own (Phil 2:4)? Not often you don’t.

Listen, I like you. I’m your biggest fan. I’ve known your ministry from the beginning, and you’ve always talked about transparency and vulnerability; your response to this can show how transparent you really are. So far, you’ve talked about it without being very transparent or vulnerable yourself. Wouldn’t it be good for you to admit that pride is more entwined with your service than you have realized? Could that be the first step towards more humble ministry; even a more God-blessed ministry?

Even you writing this post is probably an example of pride in your heart costumed as faux humility. You do realize that, don’t you, don’t you?

Consequently, I hope you read these words more than once and recognize that God could use them to set your life on a trajectory of more pleasing service to Him. It might not be more successful by the temporal measures of ministry success, but it could be more God-glorifying and Christ-exalting. And isn’t that why you claim to serve anyway?

References

References
1 The blog title is with apologies to Carly Simon.
2 Doug McLachlan

Husband, Unlock Your Phone!

When we lived in North Carolina, our neighborhood had a pool, and my wife and kids were there all the time. Sometimes my family would have lunch at the pool and I would meet them there. I would drive there, eat, change clothes, jump in the pool with the kids, change back, and drive to work. We had four kids which wasn’t so many that I couldn’t count them. 😉 I’d look for my almost three-year-old Riley and not see him in or around the pool. Turns out he was hiding in the shadows under the cabana. If I caught him under there, he would say something fearfully like, “Are you going back to work soon, Dad?” because he was nervous that I would take him to the “deep water” and make him jump off the side. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

He thought hiding in the shadows was the place to be. I thought bringing him out into the sunshine was a better idea. Better for him to come out into the light and deal with his fear of the water.

It seems better to hide in the shadows, but God encourages us to come out into the light.

It happened again recently, but it’s a story that is repeated over and over again throughout the last 20 years of ministry. A wife knows that something is wrong in her marriage, but she cannot figure out what is going on. Or maybe she actually suspects that her husband is unfaithful.

What’s a common warning sign that I’ve seen pretty much since the advent of the cellular phone? “Well, he wouldn’t let me look at his phone. He was really secretive about it.”

A husband that won’t let you look at his phone is a big deal. I cannot think of a good reason for why a husband would keep his phone private from his wife. He’s hiding something.

Husband, unlock your phone!

I’m saying unlock it, but I really mean give your wife your password. My iPhone has two faces that can open it: mine and my wife’s. She and my adult kids know the numeric password. Why do you need your phone locked from your family? Live in the light.

Of course unlocking your phone means nothing if you aren’t going to give up your sin. The problem isn’t the advent of passwords on phones, The problem is that too many men are hiding who they really are.

Proverbs 28:13 (ESV) Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

Don’t pretend to be what you are not. The locked phone is just a symptom of a heart that likes to hide in the dark. What this verse is saying is that when I have an attitude that says I must cover myself; I must hide my sin, I won’t prosper. I won’t be growing at the rate that God wants me to.

Take some steps out into the open. Have a lifestyle of transparency. Your marriage needs this. You need this. Husband, unlock your phone.

Identity in Christ Fuels Vulnerability

I have two stories that might not seem related, but I think they both illustrate something important in relationships. In my first pastoral ministry the church owned a Christian camp in the Colorado Rockies. It was a gorgeous location with a view of the Continental Divide, and they provided some Rocky Mountain activities like rock climbing. Now I had never rock climbed in my life, but they trained me, and I belayed campers along with the rest of the staff. My own first experience involved me really trusting the rope and the belayer on my way up. When it came time to rappel, I had a hard time taking that first step off the rock face. Eventually, rappelling became my favorite part of rock climbing. With both climbing and rappelling, because I was tied to the rock at the top, I could venture out. I could take a risk. I could scramble all over the cliff face because I was tied to the rock.[1]That’s a vintage pic by the way ;).

The second story is set in my college and seminary years. I had various student leadership positions in the small college and seminary I attended and even in the Christian camp I worked at for five summers. I didn’t reject these roles, but I knew something wasn’t right about how insecure I was in them. I had a hard time taking initiative and risks. In the camp I was eventually put in charge of our comedy sketch show where I felt this stress to make apathetic teens laugh on a weekly basis. It was great when they did, but when they didn’t… it was a long night. I knew something was wrong inside me, but I couldn’t put it into words until I read Ed Welch’s 1997 book, When People Are Big and God Is Small. That was the first time that I understood that I wanted others to like me more than I wanted to please God. It helped me make sense of a lot of angst in those years

I’m thankful that Welch’s book has given many of the college students I disciple a biblical category to describe their battle with sin. One primary way the fear of man shows up is in a fear of rejection. College students won’t pursue relationships because they imagine that it will eventually fall apart, and they might be rejected. This affects potential dating relationships, but it also can affect even godly same-sex relationships. A girl is afraid of starting a potential iron-sharpening-iron relationship because the other girl might eventually decide she doesn’t like her. Guys can think this too. They fear this, and therefore, they won’t risk.

That’s the problem, and Scripture has the answer to it. One passage to consider is in Ephesians.

Ephesians 1:3–6 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (ESV)

“Beloved” is a term of affection for Jesus Christ. He’s the darling and special Son of the Father. So you being in the Beloved means you are in union with Christ. The New Testament often says we are in Christ or He is in us. It means we have a union with Christ that allows us to receive all of these spiritual blessings from God. It’s in Christ that God has poured out his grace on us.

Jesus is the supreme object of God’s love—that’s why he’s called the Beloved. Since we are in Christ, we are also the objects of God’s love. Do you wonder why God the Father would ever love you? I’ve wondered that about myself. It’s because He loves his Son, Jesus Christ, and you are united to Christ. I’ve blogged before about the practical blessings of our union with Christ (see here and here).

In Ephesians 1:6 the Apostle Paul thought God was worthy of praise because God loves you and me. It is pretty amazing, isn’t it? God loves you. You with all of your failings, weaknesses, rebellion, wanderings, apathy, misplaced values and priorities. You with all of your love of the wrong things and carelessness towards the right things. God loves you.

Good theology should lead to good practice.

Your relationship with God through Christ won’t ever change. God’s love for Jesus doesn’t ebb and flow and therefore his love for you doesn’t vary. The relationship that matters the most in your life is the one that is rock solid; it’s secure. Therefore, you can risk relationship with others.

Identity in Christ fuels vulnerability. Because you don’t fear being rejected by the Father, you can handle rejection from others. God won’t ever reject you because he won’t reject his Son. So, like a rock climber, with that anchor point, you can venture out and hazard relationship with others. They might reject you, and that is not preferable. We all prefer people loving us to hating us. But it also doesn’t have to be devastating. Your relationship with the Father is most important, and it’s secure.

If you’re not vulnerable, if instead you’re self-protective, could it be that you don’t see the security of your relationship with the Father through Christ? But if you do, you can be vulnerable with others. Your identity in Christ can motivate vulnerability with others.

References

References
1 That’s a vintage pic by the way ;).

Are You Having a Good Day?

I’ll bet you’ve been asked this question or a question like it in the past week. Have you ever wondered how to answer? It seems a bit superficial for a believer to base their evaluation of a day just on how circumstances have worked out so far, right?

My wife and I worked with our kids when they were single-digit ages on what they meant when they said they were having a good day. How did they know whether it was a good day or not? As you could expect, often their criteria for having a good day included things like playing in the McDonald’s play-place or not having chores around the house.

I asked my six-year-old daughter one time if she could have a good day even if she got in trouble at school or if lunch wasn’t one of her favorite meals? She thought about it and said, “Maybe… if I got to go to a birthday party later that day too.” Her answer was different in the details, but not much different in the thought of many Christian adults. We evaluate whether it’s a good day or not by whether life goes as we planned that day.

My wife works in the student life office at the Bible College I teach at, and she has had opportunity to have this conversation with some female college students. She’ll ask them what makes a good day. Some have been surprised by the question; they’ve never thought about how God might define a good day. Recently a student answered Laura that a good day is a day when she gets all her to dos done. My wife wisely pointed out that if that’s your criteria, you are setting yourself up for failure because rare is the day when we get to check off all of our jobs.

So what’s a better evaluation? Well it can’t be based simply on fortunate circumstances. That’s how any unbeliever would evaluate their day. I like what the Apostle Paul said.

2 Corinthians 5:9 (ESV) So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

Our ambition is supposed to be summed up in pleasing God. So it’s a good day if you can go to bed knowing that you pleased God that day.

So how does one please God?

  • Did you rest in Christ’s righteousness or did you try to earn favor with God through your work? (2 Cor 5:21) It’s an easy temptation to think our spiritual disciplines earn us God’s blessing. And since we’ve served God and worshipped God that morning, shouldn’t he make our day go the way we want it to? But the only reason God can bless you on your worst day or your best day is because you have Christ’s righteousness. Did you live today believing that?
  • Did you love your neighbor or did you have tunnel vision on your own problems? (Mt 22:34-40) I get very self-focused when trouble comes my way. Yet Jesus doesn’t tell me to love my neighbor only when my plans are thriving. During Christ’s worst physical suffering on the cross, he was able to specifically and practically love his neighbor (Jn 19:26-27). It’s often my closest neighbors—my family—that get ignored at best and blamed at worst when my plans are falling apart.
  • Did you trust God’s sovereignty or did you fret because your plans were thwarted? (Rom 8:28-29) This is the ground zero of pleasing God. Do you live what you believe? Do you hold your plans for the day with open hands allowing God to change them? Can you make plans and also think, “if the Lord wills…” (Jam 4:13-17)?

If you can answer those questions positively for any day—no matter how much suffering you experienced or how severely someone sinned against you or how many plans went up in smoke—then you had a good day.

So, are you going to have a good day today? Are you going to please God? I pray so.

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