God is sending us invitations to understand his character better, but not one human alive likes the packaging of his invites because it reveals our raw interiors, so we keep turning them down…
In the tragic play Antigone, Sophocles nodded his head to a near-universal human truth: “No man delights in the bearer of bad news.”
The ancient historian Plutarch described how this often plays out in Lives, his biography of various well-known Greek and Roman nobles. He wrote about Lucius Licinius Lucullus, noting that the famed military man won an important victory because of this all too common human trait. “The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes [the king of Armenia] that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”
The idea that we don’t enjoy hearing unpleasant information should be news to no one, as should the concept that we often pay the price for ignoring such messengers. Perhaps, though, we’ve worked on becoming the manager who can calmly receive an update on a project that’s failing, or we’re determined to be the parent who doesn’t lose their head when a child comes home with a bad grade.
Nevertheless, we all fall into this error of deliberately ignoring bad news. How? If we’re always the coolheaded coworker, the patient parent, the forgiving spouse, the attentive sports couch, the moral Christian, how are we dismissing important albeit disagreeable messenges? We couldn’t possibly be…could we?
As it turns out, these essential but oft-dismissed messengers come from inside us, and they’re called emotions.
At peril of stating the painfully obvious, every human dislikes negative feelings. No one wants to feel depressed or jealous. We all want out of the worst emotions as fast as possible, and we justify that desire in a variety of ways. Nonbelievers may say things like “I don’t have time for negative vibes. I just want to live my best life now.” Believers may say things like “Anger is a sin, so I’ll just submit it to God and move on with my day.” Like King Tigranes with a Roman conqueror on his doorstep, we simply order the music to play louder.
Dr. Dan Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman noted that the damage this propensity within us causes to our spiritual lives cannot be underestimated. They wrote, “Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice. …However, we often turn a deaf ear — through emotional denial, distortion, or disengagement. We strain out anything disturbing in order to gain tenuous control of our inner world. We are frightened and ashamed of what leaks into our consciousness. In neglecting our intense emotions, we are false to ourselves and lose a wonderful opportunity to know God. We forget that change comes through brutal honesty and vulnerability before God. Only face to face with our deepest ruling passions is there hope of redeeming the fabric of our inner world.”
Some may point out that scripture says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, patience and many other positive emotions (see Galatians 5:22) and that we’re also told, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13, ESV). How are we supposed to live in joy and hope while also allowing ourselves to experience grief or rage? That’s impossible.
However, the Bible acknowledges that different seasons in our lives will invoke certain responses from us. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4, 8). There is a time to grieve of losses, celebrate God’s good gifts or perform the hard, angry work of demolishing failed dreams.
In his podcast, Gary Wilkerson mused, “We were created to be emotional beings. We weren't created with just a brain. Our emotions were put into us by God, but they have been corrupted in some ways by the fall.”
He noted, “Part of the challenge is figuring out when our feelings are sinful and when they aren’t. It’s tempting with some feelings to say, ‘Oh, all of this type of emotion is bad.’ One example would be jealousy. We look at that and think, ‘Don't ever be jealous,’ but God is jealous. God told the people of Israel, ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV).
“You know, if a man is not in some ways jealous over his wife, that’s a problem. If she's spending too much time with another man and they're starting to connect in ways that is improper, the husband should be jealous. He should go in and correct that unrighteous situation. So our emotions can come from a godly place, but they can be infected by sin or used by the enemy.”
Fortunately, the Bible gives us a guidebook of how to handle our emotions, both at their highest and lowest, in the best possible way through the psalms.
We are not given 150 psalms of joy and hope. In fact, the majority of the psalms detail confusion, doubt, heartache, accusation, terror and grief with ruthless honesty. Denying emotions can easily come from not wanting to depend on God or acknowledge the ideas we’ve held about him that are being disappointed. Despair can overwhelm us without a firm hold on who God is. Anger can burn at expectations we had of God that he has apparently failed to fulfill.
The psalms’ raw language breaks through our denial and invite us to cry out to God and then reorient ourselves to who he says he is and the promises he has actually given us. At other points, the psalms can highlight the depravity in our emotions and desires, like when the writer admits, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:2-3). It is inviting us to confess these sins to God.
What’s more, not all of the psalms are talking just about our negative emotions. Allender and Longman point out, “Oddly, so very oddly, God chooses to reveal His heart through the tainted reality of our sinful inner world. For example, He allows the psalmist to portray His anger in terms of a drunk who has just awakened with a hangover and is unleashing his rage (Psalm 78:65). What are we to learn about God through this startling picture? Does it imply that God is somehow sinful? Of course not. …Language that speaks of God in what we would consider negative emotional terms reveals the mysterious humility of God…it is an effort to open our vision to perceive the unusual heart of God.”
Our anger against someone who has hurt us is a dark mirror of God’s anger against sin that warps and damages relationships. This doesn’t necessarily justify our fury and certainly doesn’t put a stamp of approval on lashing out from that place of anger. Instead, this emotion invites us to wrestle with the implications of God’s anger at sin, both in that other person and in us. We are drawn to a higher place of contemplating how the log in our own eye and the speck in our brother’s both blind us, and this grieves God’s righteous and fatherly heart.
Emotions have something desperately important to tell us about the quality of our heart, the questions we have about God’s character and the nature of God himself.
Don’t shoot the messenger.