By Kalei Swogger
“The heart is deceitful above all things.” As a child, these words formed the foundation for my understanding of spirituality and emotion, even while I was hearing the opposite, “follow your heart,” from Disney movies and TV shows. In the middle of this dichotomy, I concluded that feeling is a natural part of being human, but feeling can easily become a sin. Alongside the obvious emotions like fear, envy, and anger, even joy needed to be scrutinized for any hidden unholiness. In fear and trembling throughout the day, I remember compulsively confessing, “Forgive me, God, if that was wrong,” sometimes without having said or done anything prior to the prayer other than simply feeling.
The pastors I grew up around would deny this was ever a part of their teaching. However, messages like “deny yourself,” “take up your cross,” and “the heart is deceitful,” combined with a constant battering of apologetics, doctrine, and theology solidified the idea that spirituality was a practice of the mind intended for ruling the heart. Church became torture. I never felt free enough to enjoy service because I was always trying to “capture my thoughts.” Somehow, I even found flaws in simple daily tasks. What I now understand to be spiritually triggered anxiety, I would have then labeled as holy self-examination.
Fast forward several years, and I now understand that these teachings skewed the original intention for our emotions set in place by their Creator. Our emotions are a direct reflection of who put us on this earth. Compassion, love, disappointment, jealousy, anger, sorrow, joy, regret, satisfaction, zeal, loneliness, feelings of abandonment, hopefulness. Everything we feel exists because it was first felt by God. Feelings are not something to be denied, but rather a guide to aid us on our spiritual journey.
Emotionally healthy individuals have the capacity to discern their self and their values from their feelings. The most independent adults have the capacity to be self-directed and maintain momentum towards their goals, regardless of their emotional state. Psychology has tested these principles and repeatedly found them to be consistent. Nowhere does the research suggest that denying emotion leads to a healthy individual. This is why counseling exists as a thriving field. People seek counseling to understand and repair the damage done in their life and relationships because they were not able to heal from, or were even aware of, destructive emotional wounds.
The same thing happens to Christians. It is easy to cover up a lack of emotional maturity with a faith that calls you to deny yourself, serve selflessly, and beware of a deceitful heart. However, none of these things can truly be accomplished if we remain unaware of our emotions. Emotion is one of our most direct routes into the spiritual realm. Personally, I’ve never heard “the voice” or felt a clear connection with God. However, I have felt a deep sense of peace, love, joy, and clarity in moments where this would be uncharacteristic of my self on its own. In these moments, I chose to be aware of the panic, anger, or disappointment driving me, to wrestle with it, and thus allowed God to speak by providing a solution or emotional alternative. By being aware of my emotions, by being in touch with them, I am able to solve conflict, understand others, and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to search for the being we name God.
Without grasping emotion, our perspective of God becomes limited as well. He becomes dry, a tyrant, an impersonal character acting behind the scenes. But if we add emotion, if we really read to understand, we see that God has many dimensions, feelings that go to the highest highs and the deepest lows. And when we understand ourselves as a reflection of this God character, we understand that we too have this capacity, and are meant to embrace the ebb and flow of emotion.
We need to be unafraid of listening to our feelings, not allowing the emotion itself to be the ultimate reality, but to guide us to the underlying issue, question, or truth. My hope is that our generation can embrace the tradition and foundation of the past, while moving forward in more freedom to embrace the deeply emotional tradition of our faith.