STEP TWO: Spot the Signs (negative emotions)
[DISCLAIMER: I hate this ‘step’ thing. I’m going to stick with it because I’m hoping it’s helpful, but keep in mind: the process of sanctification is not a ‘step’ process. The process of repentance is not a ‘step’ process. It’s a work of God through His Spirit alone. okay. That’s all. Stepping down off my soap box.]
One of the most practical ways that I have been challenged to engage this fight with my insecurity is to keep a close eye on the emotions that come out of my heart. These things serve as symptoms that let me know something else is going on inside of me.
Emotions are an awesome tool to discover the true source of your trust. If you want to know where your treasure is, follow your heart. Keep an eye on the things that are coming out of your heart and there you will find what you truly value.
I want to be someone who is emotional; I just want my emotions to be a reflection of true things about God, not lies. We were made to be emotional creatures so that our emotions could reflect who He is. So, the question is – do my emotions reflect who He is?
Insecurity hijacks our emotions. Emotions that were made to be glorious indicators of the greatness of God get arrested and are forced into serving our own obsession with self.
Our ‘negative’ emotions have been hijacked. We were given feelings like fear to reflect the holiness of God and our awestruck response to His majesty, but now we experience fear when our idols are threatened.
Our positive emotions have been hijacked. Joy was made to overflow out of an exaltation of Christ, but now we usually experience it now when we are made much of.
Or we experience a lack of emotions; an apathy or hardness in our hearts. Our hearts were made to overflow with emotions at the sound of God’s character, but now they remain tragically unaffected by anything – even the deep things of God.
One of the helpful things about the way I’m made is that I really do seem to engage with a wide spectrum of symptoms. Some of us struggle with negative emotions, and some don’t. Some experience zero emotions and some are happy all of the time. All of us though, have room to examine our positive, negative emotions or our lack of emotions and dig in and see what they’re testifying about our source of security. I’m uniquely wired so that I experience most symptoms at one time or another. The great benefit of that is that I make for an excellent case study. 🙂
Today we’re going to dig into ‘negative’ emotions. Negative emotions don’t necessarily equal ‘bad’ emotions; they’re just the emotions that we generally associate with a feeling of unpleasantness. This includes things like fear, anxiety, insecurity, panic, anger, irritation, frustration, hurt, despair, jealousy, covetousness, discontentment, melt-downs, sorrow, fear of failure, shame…you fill in the blank.
This step is about spotting a negative emotion as a symptom of our insecurity or unbelief. Our tendency when we see these things is to diagnose the wrong disease. We see our negative emotion and instead of seeing it as a symptom of our insecurity or sin, we see the root in the failures of others and so we waste the opportunity the emotion presents to fight our sin.
We can totally miss the opportunity that our emotions provide if we don’t push through defensiveness or if we allow our emotion to drive us to justify or blame.
As you invite people to speak into this process of engaging and battling your sin, or even as you begin to examine your heart yourself, you might begin to see defensiveness arise.
I have great friends who love me enough to challenge me and ask me great questions that allow me to exploit my ungodly emotions to identify roots of insecurity and unbelief in my heart. In the moments when I’m challenged by them, or by the Word of God or by the Holy Spirit, I often feel defensiveness rise up before I can even process what’s happening.
I feel threatened. I feel that same panic that some of you may feel anytime someone asks gentle questions that illuminate your sin, or when someone wants to process your weaknesses, or when someone says you’re not doing something as well as you think you are in your head.
I read this Spurgeon quote a couple of years ago, and it has helped me tremendously.
Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.
There is no feedback that we could hear that would paint us in too harsh a light. We have more weaknesses than we see. The great news of being found in Christ is that we are able to see our failures without it effecting our worth or value. When you feel defensiveness rise in you, when you feel the urge to defend or protest that the charges against you are wrong or too harsh, remind yourself that there is more darkness in you than you know, but Jesus is a greater light than you have yet dreamed.
Another big tendency that can hijack this process is something that you might be doing already as you read this blog. It’s the tendency to explain why and how the ‘negative’ emotion we’re feeling is justified. We are justified in our anger, in our frustration, in our hurt. In fact, as believers we can justify to the point that we convince ourselves that our negative emotion is fully godly.
Example: I have a tendency to get angry when someone doesn’t extend grace to the people who I believe should get grace. I have a fairly easy time extending grace to people who fall in the category of big screw ups. When I hear people withhold grace from someone who has failed in a visible and culturally unacceptable way I get furious. And I can justify my anger. After all – isn’t this a glorious reflection of the gospel in me? Isn’t my anger a beautiful reflection of the heart of God?
Here’s the thing: there may be a thread of my anger that is honestly a reflection of the heart of God. But most of it is rooted insecurity. I have no trouble giving grace to people in the ‘failure’ category because I’m someone who has in my testimony ‘big’ failure. I’ve screwed up in the big ways. I love that God has written my story in such a way that I am someone who is able to give grace to the visible sinner. But the painful reality is, my anger is more rooted in insecurity than I would like to admit. I get angry at people who don’t give grace to people like me because in deep places in my heart that I can’t even see, I am terrified and desperately insecure that maybe my sin really is worse than everyone else’s. I have a deep fear that maybe I should be disqualified because of my failure and in an attempt to drown out that fear I speak loudly against any implication that resonates with my insecurity.
And the only reason I can see that is because I have great friends who challenge me to fight the temptation to justify my anger. I try to push past it and see the root. The reality is, it is unlikely that any emotion I experience is 100% entirely rooted in godliness.
How can you tell if you’re experiencing an emotion that’s sin or not? Just ask yourself this simple question: is it rooted in faith? Is it an emotion that is testifying to your belief in something real? Is it an overflow of faith? Jesus was angry. He expressed emotions that looked like frustration, hurt, irritation, despair. Yet, in all these things He never sinned, and what that means is that each of these was an expression of faith. He was angry because God was being used. He was frustrated when God’s name was proclaimed falsely.
If my anger was from faith then it wouldn’t be tinged with judgment or disgust. If it was really a product of a gracious gospel-centered world view then I probably wouldn’t have a hard time giving grace to the people who fail to meet my standard of giving grace.
Look for your negative tendencies and refuse the temptation to justify them away. Ask your friends to push back on your justification.
Another way I work my way around my negative emotions is to blame.
When I’m sad – is it someone else’s fault? When I’m anxious, is it because of my employer? My coworker? My staff? When I’m lonely – is it because my spouse doesn’t love me rightly? Is it because my community isn’t living up to the call of God on their lives? Is it because my church is too big, too small, a failure?
It might be that the ‘design’ of a husband is to love his wife flawlessly. It might be that the ‘design’ of your employer is to advocate and protect you from becoming too overworked. It might be that ‘design’ of community and the church is to meet you in your lonely moments. But we can so easily do the math wrong in our heads and end up thinking that just because God’s revealed will is for these things to be, it means we’re ‘entitled’ to these things.
God’s ‘design’ was for me to be holy and pure and never put my trust in anyone but Him. But guess what? That’s not the reality I experience today. So what happened? Did I screw up God’s design? Did He hold out on me? Aren’t I owed all the things that He says are good?
Or could it be that even in my failure, or my spouse’s failure, or my church’s failure, God is at work to help me identify all the places I am placing my trust instead of Him. Could it be that He is at work through my weakness, through the failure of others, to display that He alone is a safe refuge, that He alone can meet my needs?
When we see our lives through a biblical lens, our situations and our circumstances are no longer a cause for anger or frustration or anxiety, but now we are free to see them as opportunities to shift our hearts more fully to hope in Him alone.
When you see the symptoms of negative emotions in your heart, fight to avoid the tendency to defend, justify or blame. Look for ways that you are explaining your feelings away or looking to someone else to change their behavior to fix the issue.
Today – invite and encourage your friends or spouse or family to challenge you in your moments of negative emotions to avoid the tendencies to defend, justify or blame. Don’t short circuit the process by explaining your negative emotions away.
If you’re someone who experiences negative emotions, my prayer is that you would see them as an opportunity to seek hope in a Savior who does not disappoint. The next couple of blogs will press into the symptoms presented when we experience positive emotions or a lack of emotion, so stay tuned!