Today, I had two stressful flight delays and am currently on a plane praying that I make my connecting flight to get to a speaking engagement in time to preach. Yesterday, I joined hundreds from my church in NYC to worship Jesus and pray for one another; and in this gathering I witnessed miracles of healing, freedom and deliverance that left me in absolute awe of the Presence of God. The day before that I shed many tears while saying goodbye to my sister, my brother-in-law and my nephew as they embarked on a new chapter and a new move to Seattle. The day before that I sat with a member of my church to provide him coaching on leadership and public communication, and I watched with complete joy as he gained Holy Spirit-inspired confidence to develop his talent and invest in his calling.
Life is full-on. It doesn’t relent and it doesn’t ease up. Instead, it continually exposes us to moments and events that trigger within us a full range of emotions. We can be elated one moment and devastated the next. We can be laughing uncontrollably one day and the very next sobbing in secret. We can instantly find ourselves burning with anger at those we love and a mere few hours later enjoying a moment of peace amongst those very same culprits who triggered our previous rage. Within a single week we can find ourselves wallowing in frustration, rejoicing in gratitude, staggering under the strain of stress, overjoyed in the name of love, retreating in timidity, and momentarily paying a visit to serenity.
Our emotions are ever-changing, which makes managing them rather troublesome. How do we control and contain something that is continually morphing into something else, constantly taking on new shapes and forms?
It would be almost impossible to master one emotion at a time considering the rate at which it changes. But the truth is, we don’t ever manage one emotion at a time. Often, we are both happy and sad, disappointed while hopeful, excited yet nervous, perplexed while remaining confident.
We aren’t ever dealing with just one single emotion; we are dealing with a whole sea of emotions. Sometimes the waters are quite calm and pleasant, making for safe passage. Other times, the waters are rocky and volatile, making the journey bumpy if not perilous.
I’ve struggled to make sense of this daunting reality most of my life. I don’t always talk about this, and rarely write about this, but I grew up in a home plagued with addiction. My father was an alcoholic for the first 10 years of my life. He has since had a radical encounter with Jesus, and has been sober for around 25 years. I am so grateful for the miracle work Jesus has done in my immediate family, each of us walking billboards of God’s grace and mercy.
But it doesn’t change the environment in which I first formed my views about God, about myself, about the world around me. In a home where my father was often moody and angry and where my mother was often lonely and depressed, I was left with more questions than answers when it came to the management of emotions. When my father drank, I saw the dark side of emotions: feelings that were not only unrestrained, but were destructive to those in their path. And with others’ emotions running rampant in the home, there wasn’t much space for me to cry when I was sad, or to grieve when I had experienced loss, or to experiment with righteous anger or to steady my heart in peace or find contentment in the steadfastness of relationships and a safe environment. There were no words given to my emotions, and no training provided for such complex characters as anger, depression, happiness and fear.
It’s not that I didn’t feel. (I am pretty sure that is humanly impossible.) It’s that I had no idea what to do with my many feels. And not only did I quickly grow to see emotions as foreigners that I could not effectively communicate or connect with, but they were hostile foreigners that could not be trusted.
This was, of course, problematic for a few reasons. First, I am an extreme personality by nature. I feel things deeply, and I am rarely able to keep my reactions quiet and contained. Even with years and years under my belt of trying to subdue my natural passionate responses in the name of warding off unwanted emotions, I found myself with very little visible progress. Secondly, God made me with a capability to feel and a need to feel, so a life of avoiding my feelings was only leaving me with a dissatisfied and frustrated soul. And finally, with this cynical view of my emotions, I found that anything that prompted strong feelings within me was somehow wrong for doing so. A relationship that made me feel happy was too good to be true. A subject that prompted anger within me was something that should be avoided. A memory associated with deep sadness should be suppressed at all costs.
Emotions were the enemy and in the process of trying to battle them at every front, I found myself more times than not, exhausted and defeated, not to mention alienated from others and God Himself.
I knew I could not stop myself from feeling, so I tried a different approach taught to me in my home at a very young age. I escaped the need to face my emotions by wholeheartedly embracing an addiction. I did not choose the bottle like my father had. Instead, I chose another addiction much more widely accepted and even applauded and rewarded. With no one warning me of its dangers, but rather cheering on its deepening grip on me, I quickly became a full-blown workaholic.
Performance was my drug, and I quickly discovered that if I kept myself busy enough with very important to-do items that I would successfully build a fortress of productivity around me- a wall of meetings and projects and events and programs and leading responsibilities and workplace opportunities. These would keep hidden from my eyesight the gaping wounds and suffocating sin in my heart that each emotion was demanding I address.
Not only did I find safety in my work, but I quickly discovered my significance in it. Every time a boss recognized me or applauded me, every time I received a promotion or more responsibility, every time I was the youngest to achieve something or the first to solve a problem, every time people publicly recognized my “get it done” attitude or strong work ethic or determination to master the gifts and talents I had… well, I felt a feeling that was for me the exception to the rule. This feeling I allowed myself to feel. I felt happy.
But happiness built on one’s own performance is a double-edged sword. Of course, with every success you welcome in a new surge of excitement and glee. It’s an adrenaline rush that fuels you to work harder and do better. But when you don’t succeed, when the boss doesn’t acknowledge your work, when you get outperformed by someone else, when a weakness is publicly exposed or uncontrollable events remind you that you are not actually in as much control as you think, you feel powerless against the bombardment of unwanted guests storming your fortress- such tyrants as rage, anger, impatience, frustration, fear, anxiety, and depression, to name a few. And when they successfully invade, you find your happiness has been hijacked and you are now at the whim of their every fickle move.
You quickly start doing odd things you would never set out to do. You begin to envy and compete with others you were meant to support and love. You second guess yourself and even when others affirm you, you internally tear yourself down. You find subtle ways to persuade others to like you and manipulate situations to increase your amount of control. You do whatever it takes to convince the world around you that you have it altogether, while secretly you are falling apart.
There is no escaping our emotions. When we try to, we end up driven by emotions we were determined would not master us. We succumb to behaviors that sabotage our relationships, our calling, our identity, our sense of security, and our ability to be present and grateful.
A few years ago, I began to reach my end. The work that had once been my escape had now become my master. It was a vicious slave-driver always demanding more than I could give.
And it was during a difficult season of personal heartbreak and challenging circumstances that I found myself no longer able to hide behind work. And in my wearied state, I wasn’t sure I wanted to try to anymore.
I’ll never forget the morning I sat on my bedroom floor, leaning up against my bed with a coffee in one hand and worship music playing faintly from my iPhone a few feet away. I began to shake as I sensed the Holy Spirit fill the space of my room. I closed my eyes and in a vision, I saw Jesus come and sit next to me. His shoulder against mine, tenderly nudging me, He simple said, “It’s okay. We can face this together. It’s okay, My love. I am with you. Let me teach you not to be afraid.”. I suddenly felt the warmth of the embrace of the Heavenly Father. I simply said, “Okay. I trust You. And I need You. Oh, Jesus, I need You.” I began to cry, and I cried for quite a long time. But for the first time, I wasn’t afraid of the tears or the overwhelming emotions they represented. I wasn’t afraid because the entire time I sensed Jesus with me, holding me. As weak as I felt by the rushing emotions now being given the floor; I also felt a peace that I had not felt before. I may have been weak, but He was strong. Jesus was strong and His strength became my own.
For the first time in my life, I was not afraid of my own emotions. I didn’t need to escape them and I didn’t need to ignore them and I didn’t need to dismiss them and I didn’t need to be driven by them.
I could face them without being mastered by them because I was not facing them alone; I was facing them with my Lord and Master Jesus. He would teach me how to lean in and listen to them, how to discern them, how to discover my emotions are not meant to control me but to inform me. Behind every emotion was an opportunity to pray, to ask the Holy Spirit to shed lights on the places of my heart that need healing and the thoughts of my mind that need renewing.
From that day on, I saw my emotions differently. It forever changed how I work and why I work. It has opened my life to rich relationships, new adventures, deeper compassion for others and a closeness to the heart of God that I hadn’t known before.
Emotions, come to find out, are not the enemy to be guarded from or the oppressors to be enslaved by. When Jesus is leading our lives, our emotions become allies, showing us the condition of our hearts. And when we know the true condition of our hearts, we discover how much we truly need Jesus. Suddenly we become desperate for His leading and His love, and that my friends, is the first step to living an extraordinary life marked by God’s grace and goodness.
So, feel away my friend. Feel all the feels. But don’t feel them alone. Feel them with Jesus. Let Him teach you how to not be afraid.