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Emotional Ministry: When You Don’t Understand How You Feel

Imagine living in a world where you just don’t understand how you feel. Imagine, in this world, that no matter how you try, you just can’t quite express your emotions in a way that makes sense. For some of us, this isn’t some alien reality. For some of us–and for me–that’s just the world we live in.

The majority of the time I really struggle with both understanding and expressing my emotions, and unfortunately, that’s something that I’ve been living with and learning to overcome for most of my life.

It’s not news; my emotional literacy is as much of a work in progress as my verbal literacy has been for so many years. The backstory is that, for me, growing up I didn’t have a lot of chances to practice expressing my emotions and feelings to anyone. I was raised in a family where we were very closed off with one another. We wouldn’t talk about how we felt or give labels to our emotions, which made it very difficult for me to process them, even when I had the chance.

Over the past several weeks, I had a lot of time to reflect and just take moments to think, given we’re all in quarantine and some of us have a lot of time on our hands. What I came to realize is that I need to start being open, honest, and vulnerable about my emotions and feelings.

Even with God.

Especially with God.

It’s been a bit of a theme in the last couple posts–those that were written and published during the pandemic–that I’ve been thinking about prayer. In “Letters from Isolation” I discussed building community and being reflective on how God speaks to us, and in “Pathways of Listening” I talked about the often difficult, but beautiful experience of being in conversation with God, but the actual act of praying has long been something that I really struggle with.

I didn’t realize this was a problem until a few weeks ago, because, while I had wanted my prayer life to improve for a long time, I came to realize that a huge part of that was sharing my feelings with God and surrendering those emotions to him. This realization came when I was reading a book called The Kneeling Christian by Albert Ernest Richardson. “Yet many people do not trouble to bring even the little details of their own lives to God in prayer,”1 Richardson writes–a situation I am very familiar with.

If it’s so difficult for me to understand how I am feeling, forming it in my mind in a way that makes enough sense to express to God is an Olympian task. I’ve recently been learning how damaging it can be to not be open about my feelings and emotions with friends and family, so I want to make sure I can also express them to God.

When meeting with Alain and Kamal recently, I was sharing my experience with emotions and prayer, and Alain read from a passage in Romans 8. From that passage, verse 26 really stood out to me: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” That hit really close to home.

One way I express my feelings when everything is built up is by pouring my heart to God by crying, of which I described an example in my last post. I feel like God hears my cries and wipes those tears from my eyes and comforts me. He’s there right beside me and I draw closer to Him during this time.

I don’t express my feelings just by crying; if I did, that would mean I wouldn’t do a lot other than cry. I express my emotions by writing (like the blog you’re reading right now, which fortunately has an editor to help sort my thoughts), singing worship music, and getting out of my little bubble by going on walks or bike rides. But when I really reach a point where I feel like I’m going to break down and I need to open up to God, it is through tears that I break down to God.

When I cry out to God, it feels like all my emotions and feelings are being lifted up to him, despite the fact that I can’t really piece them apart for myself. I know God always listens to me, but it’s in those moments where I feel it most acutely. I escape reality when I cry out to God; I feel the wonder of his courts and the warmth of God’s encouragement, like He’s telling me He’s got my back. As much as tears are often associated with sadness or frustration, I actually cry a lot when I feel thankful because, honestly, words can’t describe how I feel. It’s like a spiritual high with God, if that makes sense. That’s the power of God. Anything is possible through Him; it’s crazy to think but it’s true. I’m grateful to have a God like Him. He’s changed me into a new person–a person I could never imagine I could be.

This reminds of the story in the bible found in Luke 7:36-50 where a woman wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped it with her hair and then poured perfume on it. The text tells us that she was a “woman who lived a sinful life” and some of our modern Bibles will also introduce the text with a (non-inspired) that identifies her as ‘A Sinful Woman.’ However, we see that this emotional moment is not just about her sin, but is rather about her joy at the perfect redemptive love of Christ. I can’t imagine what confusing mix of emotions would have been dancing and tripping through her body, but I do know that Jesus didn’t tell her to stop and compose herself. He understood her and accepted her as she was, dripping with confused tears for a love beyond understanding.

Despite a penchant for the purely intellectual that crops up from time to time in Christian cultures, we can see that our feelings are valid because our role model or our saviour had them as well. On many occasions Jesus wept, felt joy, sorrow, compassion, anger, exhaustion, frustration, and empathy. John 11:35 shows that, as a crier, I’m in good company, and if Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is any indication, the times when he “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” were likely emotional exchanges.

I’m still not the best at understanding my own emotions, or relating them in a way that others can understand. But I’ve learned that even in my own confusion, God always understands. As such, I just wanted to provide a word of encouragement to everyone (such words are my love language after all). It seems like I have seen myself saying this throughout this pandemic in my personal life, so I want to make it clear here that whatever you’re feeling right now is valid. It’s okay to be sad, scared, or frustrated, happy, peaceful, or joyful, something in between or something you can’t put a finger on. Even if you aren’t or don’t know how to feel or express your emotion, that’s alright. God already knows how we are feeling and still loves us at the end of the day.

Talk to Him, talk to each other, and let whatever you’re feeling spur you on to better connection, better action, and better love.

1 Unknown Christian (attributed to Albert Ernest Richardson), The Kneeling Christian, (Original publisher unknown, before 1930; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 29. Citations refer to the Zondervan edition, available here.

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Please be advised that this blog post may discuss topics related to suicidal ideation. If you feel that the content may affect your well-being, please proceed with caution. If you or someone you know

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