Category Archives: Emotions

It’s a Mystery

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Recently I bought Josh Garrel’s new music album, Home. Several times in this album, he uses this phrase “It’s a Mystery”, referring to God’s kingdom and our lives. It’s a nice song lyric, but the truth is we really don’t like mystery. As humans, we are obsessed with knowing, and often it causes problems for us. We often speak for God as if we know his heart on every issue, forgetting that much of what we say is clouded with our own humanness and has no chance at getting even remotely close to how God really thinks.

The urge to ask why can prevent us from acceptance of what is happening in this moment. I’ve talked with people who suspect they have childhood abuse in their past, and they are downright obsessed with remembering the details so that they can heal and move on. But the fact is, being preoccupied with what happened and why is preventing them from healing. It’s possible to say “I have no idea what happened; it’s a mystery. But the result is where I am now, so I’m going to try to be in the moment and work on that”. The same thing sometimes happens when a spouse is betrayed by infidelity or some other seemingly unexplainable betrayal. “If I could just understand why, I could move on!” While that sentiment is surely part of the process, to get stuck there is a distraction. Moving on is going to be painful and difficult even if you know why. When it seems I won’t ever really discover the why, then my telling myself that I could move on if I knew the why, becomes a cop-out that gives me a pass to not do the hard work.

Paul could have been obsessed with why God wouldn’t remove the thorn he prayed to have taken away. Why, God? Why wouldn’t God help his good and faithful servant Paul with this struggle? Paul would have never reached his place of joyfulness and usefulness had he been thus preoccupied. Why did it take so long between when David was anointed and when he became King? Why did Job have to lose his family along with all his belongings? Why did a God full of grace not allow Moses into the promised land? Why? I don’t know; it’s a mystery. What I do know is that these characters did not allow the why’s to distract them from doing God’s will with joy. Why is a distraction; the need to know pulls us from enjoying God’s provision and instead fills us with a suspicion that things might be “going to hell in a hand-basket” or that God has somehow forgotten that we need deliverance from our present circumstances.

I don’t know why you have anxiety. But if you do, you do. You should pursue all avenues of knowledge and healing. But if in the end, you are just a person who has anxiety, don’t let the endless repetition of “why?” get in the way of being an absolute, joy-filled, all-in disciple of Christ. I don’t know why you drank the exact same amount as your roommate in college and you ended up addicted and they didn’t. You can dwell on the “why?” and the unfairness of that and blame it all on God until your last breath. But then you’d be missing the joy of intentionally embracing life in the midst of the mystery. Don’t let the mystery prevent you from finding healing, from seeking for God’s provision and blessing wherever you find yourself.

 And then there is the matter of interpersonal communication. I’m always advocating for more curiosity. For example, if I’m in an argument with my teenager and he yells “you don’t know what it’s like!” you know what the temptation is, right? Of course, to tell him all that I know! “Are you kidding me? I was 17 once! I know how boys think, I know exactly what you’re doing!” Has any conversation like this ever ended with two people feeling closer to one another? Of course not. On the few occasions when I’ve been able to soften my tone, lower my voice and say “You know what, you’re right – I don’t know what it’s like for you. But I’d like to. Help me to understand what you are thinking”, those conversations have always ended well. It’s good to remember that even other people can be a mystery. We might think, based on experience, that we know why our husband just did that or the reason our friend just said that. But approaching the conversation from an unknowing, curious place will usually bring you closer and teach you something.

Isn’t it enough to accept that we don’t know? But God knows. And we will know. Someday. But for now, let’s stick to the things we know for sure. God is love. Therefore we should love. That’s something we can know. For example, our politics might be different. Does God agree with you or me? I don’t know; it’s a mystery. But does God love you and me? And should I love you too? This I can know and do. If I say I can’t love you until I know if God agrees with you, I violate the things I do know.

Accepting mystery means that I give up my “right” to understand the way the universe works. It means I admit that I might be wrong about the way I view things. It’s scarier because it means I might not be in control; I might not be able to say for sure. But it releases me from a struggle I can’t win into a life I can be victorious in. It frees me to love you no matter what; it allows me to let God be God; it lets me trust that He’s got this. My only job is to listen to His promptings and follow Him, not to figure out all the rights and wrongs, or to right every wrong. I can do the things I know to do – love my fellow man, take care of the poor, feed the orphans; rejoice always; serve; the list goes on.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

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Take it from the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need”. Or, take it from Paul, “So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12, NLT)

I think most of us intellectually understand that we won’t always get what we want, and that sometimes not getting what we want is a good thing. Why then, do so many people resist their actual experience? I hear so often, “if only I could get rid of this anxiety, then…” I could be happy, could be more productive, could travel, whatever. People do this on any number of maladies – if only this, then that. If I tend towards depression, of course it would be great if I were never depressed again. And yet, I know that I have learned many things in times of sadness or low spirits.

The truth is that God can heal – He could take away your anxiety, your depression, your marriage struggles, whatever your “it” is. And in some miraculous cases, He does. But usually, God allows a process. We don’t know what Paul’s thorn was, but whatever it was he struggled with, it kept him from being proud and he eventually learned to love his weakness because it allowed him to boast about God’s strength. God loves a process of learning, because process teaches us something about ourselves and also something about God. That God can use us – even us! – is something to boast about. Paul didn’t get what he wanted, but he got what he needed.

I’m not talking about a cop-out here; there are things in our lives that should change, and we have the power to do something about it. If you have an anger problem and you yell at your wife, I’m not suggesting that you just say “Well, I asked God for help and it hasn’t come yet!”. Or, if you eat donuts every morning and you are hurtling towards diabetes, I’m not suggesting you should simply say “I’ve asked God (three times!) to take away my blood sugar problem and nothing is happening.” Even though we don’t know what Paul’s thorn was, I think we can be assured that it wasn’t something that he could have achieved himself with discipline or better habits. This thorn was something that only God could remove – and God decided not to for Paul’s good.

With that in mind, think about something in your life that you wish would change – something that isn’t completely in your control, like anxiety or a difficult person you are in relationship with. Think about all the time you spend wishing it was different or dreaming about what life would be like if that changed or went away. Well, what if it never changes? What if this is how it is, but instead of wishing it away, you could just find acceptance that this is how it is? What if you could look for the lessons, the blessings, the ways God can use you even though this is what’s happening.

Also, understand that willing acceptance is not the same thing as giving up. For instance, let’s say you have anxiety. Willing acceptance means you let go of being angry about it, wishing it would go away, trying to figure out why and spinning about what’s wrong with you. It’s opening up that space with acceptance and then seeing what is possible even though you are experiencing anxiety. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see your doctor, go to therapy, read books and research answers. It simply means that you willingly accept that in this moment, this is where you are.

The bottom line is, wherever you are in this moment with whatever challenges you face, it’s where you are. You may heal, find answers, stop being anxious, lose weight, fix your relationship some other day – but today, right now, this is where you are. Willingly accepting that truth and then being available for life and for God anyway is your most powerful position. What would it be like to rest in this moment wherever you are and let that be okay?

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Ride that Wave!

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Emotions are king in our culture. We write love songs while we look for love; we pursue happiness with everything we’ve got. We avoid painful feelings by shopping, eating, drinking, having sex, watching TV or wasting time. When we have good feelings, we hold on to them for dear life, often pursuing them in ways that don’t bring lasting contentment. Most of the clients who come to me start by saying they either want to “be happy” or “get rid of” some bad feeling.

If you think about the way God created the world, there is a lot of ebb and flow – the sun rises and sets; the tide goes in and out; the moon is a sliver and then it’s full. Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 4 says “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven; a time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” Our emotions are meant to ebb and flow. If we desire healing and emotional growth, every emotion should be fully experienced. God understands and loves for us to pour out our hearts to Him, in the midst of our experiences, whether they be good or bad, happy or sad.

We see a great picture of this while reading the Psalms. In Psalm 88, it says “I am forgotten, cut off from your care. You have thrown me into the lowest pit, into the darkest depths. Your anger weighs me down; with wave after wave you have engulfed me.” (Vs. 5-7). Here the psalmist is expressing some deep, dark and painful emotions both about God, and to him. A few chapters later, we read “You thrill me, Lord, with all you have done for me! I sing for joy because of what you have done! O Lord, what great works you do!” (Ps. 92:4-5). Now, the psalmist (a different author) is rejoicing with great and wonderful joy. This isn’t instability of character. Rather this is God preserving emotion in his Word to show us that He can handle all of our emotion as we experience our lives. Again, not all behavior is beneficial, but God loves honesty about how we are feeling.

So what do we do about all of these feelings? If we use the metaphor of ocean tides, instead of getting rid of emotion we think is negative, why not find a “surfboard” so that riding the tides of our emotion becomes an adventure? If you are sitting on your surfboard in the ocean, you can sit there through many large waves before you actually choose to stand up and surf one. You also might be sitting on calm seas one day, and getting knocked off your board and thrashed around on another! This is all part of the experience of surfing. A surfer understands that the waves are not at his beck and call – he will have varying conditions. The one stable resource he has is his board.

One of the primary steps in learning to work with emotion, then, is to observe it and feel it without impulsively acting upon those feelings; this is your surfboard. What would it be like to become angry at poor customer service and not complain or make a scene – simply as an experiment to observe the rise and fall of what anger feels like in your own body. For most of us, the behavior that follows our emotion (like yelling when you are angry) comes so quickly that we tend to think we can’t control it. Feelings and thoughts are inextricably linked and difficult to separate, but behavior is an entirely different thing. It is possible to be fully angry and not respond angrily. It is possible, if you found yourself having feelings for someone outside your marriage, to experience those feelings without acting upon them.

Think of it as a scientific experiment: How long would anger remain in your mind and body if you simply observed it and watched it rise and fall without buying into it or attaching your thoughts to any particular part of it? If you were curious about it but didn’t feed it all of the evidence about why you think you are justified to behave poorly? You can do this with any emotion, and for each person it will be altogether different. For me, anxiety might be brief and tolerable, but sadness almost unbearable. For you, observing anger might feel completely impossible but experiencing loneliness is ok. It’s a life-changing shift to realize that not everything you feel needs to be acted upon.

EXERCISE: Take a look at this list of emotions. Pick a couple that are uncomfortable for you but not unbearable. Practice dedicating yourself to simply experiencing this feeling without doing anything about it. How long does it last? Where do you feel it in your body? Ride the wave as it crests and recedes. Later, you can choose more difficult emotions, but commit to working on this one emotion at a time.

 *Read my comment(s). My dear friend has agreed to give her non-therapist view of my crazy ideas to get the conversation started.  Jump in!*

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