Emotion & Spirituality

This is a sermon I gave in October at Wellington Central Baptist. There have been some people asking to see it so I will put it up here. Hope it will be helpful to you in some way.

The content

  • Start with my experience of learning to be aware of my emotions.
  • some of the attitudes about emotions both in christian circles and wider society.
  • a segment of Jonah’s story, as well as Jesus’ life, and see how they inform us about how God feels about emotions.

My story with emotions

I was brought up in an typical Asian family of Engineers and doctors, where emotions are not acknowledge, discussed or processed. I want to start by saying I am not an expert about emotions, I found it very hard, it was God’s constant conviction that I learnt to appreciate the importance of this area.

I remember once, a few years ago, that I met a young person whose life was very different from my own. Her life was filled with hardship, from the very beginning, she feel stress with having food, shelter, family, communities at her very young age. she has very little opportunity to see any kindness and warmth. She made it sounds a bit of matter a fact as she talked, but for me it was quite hard to hear.

I notice that my body tense up, my tears well up, my breathing being short. A lot of thoughts rushing through me as I see her. Whose fault is it? Why did this happen? There were a lot of impulses within me as well: I wanted to throw money at her life to solve the problems, I want to go and tell some people off for not helping her, I want to give her a hug and says that everything will be ok. In fact, none of these responses are helpful to her at that moment.

The few times after I first met her I wanted to avoid her. I started to create explanation to her and to myself the reasons why these things happen in her life. I was grumpy at authority figures who may have enjoyed some previledges, but had nothing to do with her situations.

It’s not until I notice and reflect on these urges and reactions that I realized what was happening: I don’t like to be with the negative feelings that I feel when I was with her, so I avoided her. I want to use money to solve her problems quickly, not because I want to help her, but I want her to disappear from my life so that I don’t need to deal with these feelings. I want to fix her because I was feeling inadequate, so I need her to be ok so that I can be the ‘fixer’. I felt really guilty for having a lot, having a better life. In my fear of losing saftety, I was beginning to create a false reality where I am superior than her, to explain why I will not experience the kind of suffering she is having.

In other words, I have made it all about me!

Sometimes I thought these impulses are good, after all, would I decide to move and change and give to others unless I feel a lot of shame and guilt? There is this underlining belief that we need to feel bad in order for us to change our behaviour. When in fact, the opposite is true. God’s invitation to us, with His own example is quite different.

When I noticed and name my own emotions in this situation, I can then process them so that my action has less to do with me and more to do with whom I want to help.

We often thought that physical help like money, food, solutions and information are the only things people need. They do help, but for many people these things matter little unless they feel like they themselves matter. Sometimes, the ‘help’ we give make people feel smaller, not stronger.

Ideas, thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes and actions are all profoundly influenced by feelings. To the degree that we are aware of our feelings, our behavior can be chosen. To the degree that we are not aware of them, our behavior is apt to be random. Random or impulsive behavior is incompatible with stable and mutually satisfying relationships.

Fran Ferder

If I want to say to that person – ‘you matter’. It takes my whole being to be with them. This may include being with someone who may have some emotions that makes us uncomfortable. It takes us to be aware of our own emotions to offer our real presence, to feel with that person.

Even if the solutions or resources were offered, we would be offering them in a way that feels different, it would also be received in a different way.

Emotions in our society:

  • Expressing emotions are often not acceptable, even when it is a fitting response to a situation:
    We apologize when we tear up, even if it was entirely expected under the circumstances. Men may have more pressure to express only some of their emotions like anger, it means that some other emotions may come out as anger
  • When feeling were allowed to be expressed, we do not often have the opportunity to express them with words to each other
    We don’t often feel comfortable in hearing emotional words being spoken even from a friend or family.
  • New technology allow us to have ‘appropriate’ and ‘perfect responses: “>_<   X-D
    We place ourselves behind safety of a screen, but often in reaction but not in authenticity. This helps us to mask what we really feel, we also judge harshly towards others who may be responding ‘inappropriately’.
    Technology amplify thousands of times of the effect of what is being said, We may ‘process’ in front of strangers as opposed to a few close friends face to face, and that can have devastating results if we open ourselves to strangers who doesn’t know us.

Emotions in Christian circles

  • Trying to ‘transcend’ our feelings too quickly without owning and processing.
    we say forgiveness too quickly, we move on from sadness without really being present with it.
    We feel like we need to have faith, we need to forgive, we try to bypass the actual feeling process and get to the end.
  • Over spiritualized some feelings means that some feelings are not allowed therefore we try to repress them.
    we thought that being ‘good’ is about not showing certain negative emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety and stress, or we thought that if we process them it will make them bigger.
  • Feelings are not useful, not to be trusted
    God only cares about what we do, not how we feel

So what happens?

  • When we deny our pain, losses and feelings, we become less and less human.
  • When we deny the negative feelings, we block the positive ones too.
  • When we can not be present to our feelings, we put up distance between ourselves and God, we put up a wall between ourselves and others

I do know that unless the emotive centre of our lives is touched, it is as if a fuse remains unlit.

Richard Foster

The passage we are going to read in the book of Jonah, This is when Jonah being spit out from the fish after refusing to go to Niniveh on God’s call. he then went to preach his message of doom there in the city. The people decided to listen to him and repent.

Vs 10: When God saw that the people had stopped doing evil things, he had pity and did not destroy them as he had planned.
Jonah chapter 4:
Jonah was really upset and angry. So he prayed: Our Lord, I knew from the very beginning that you wouldn’t destroy Nineveh. That’s why I left my own country and headed for Spain. You are a kind and merciful God, and you are very patient. You always show love, and you don’t like to punish anyone, not even foreigners. Now, let me die! I’d be better off dead.
The Lord replied, “What right do you have to be angry?”
Jonah then left through the east gate of the city and made a shelter to protect himself from the sun. He sat under the shelter, waiting to see what would happen to Nineveh.
The Lord made a vine grow up to shade Jonah’s head and protect him from the sun. Jonah was very happy to have the vine, but early the next morning the Lord sent a worm to chew on the vine, and the vine dried up. During the day the Lord sent a scorching wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, making him feel faint. Jonah was ready to die, and he shouted, “I wish I were dead!”
But the Lord asked, “Jonah, do you have the right to be angry about the vine?”
“Yes, I do,” he answered, “and I’m angry enough to die.”But the Lord said: You are concerned about a vine that you did not plant or take care of, a vine that grew up in one night and died the next. In that city of Nineveh there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell right from wrong, and many cattle are also there. Don’t you think I should be concerned about that big city?

The story of Jonah often facinates us – we get caught up with how he ran away and then ended up inside a big fish. We might thought that Jonah was lazy but this passage has revealed the real reason why Jonah ran away – he did not want to see Ninivites repent and receive mercy!

There are a few things I want us to pay attention here:

  • Jonah had good reasons to hate this situaion.
    he wanted justice (though he also want grace for himself, just not ‘them’). He wanted the people of Israel to enjoy the special statues with God, he wants the kingdom of Israel to suceed, this means that all gentiles need to be on the wrong side of God.
    Don’t we all felt that way before? My people, my ‘tribe’, my generation…
  • Jonah is excellent in his ministry. But did not feel for those who he minister to.
    Jonah had a really good understanding of who God is, perfect theology: he knows about God’s characters, he hears from God clearly, he have a really effective ministry – 100% ministry success rate – but he did not have compassion for the people.
    It somehow is possible to do a lot, to say a lot of things about God, be very successful in all of this, but do not feel for the people:
    This is not enough for God…
  • Jonah choose to removed himself from the community so he will not feel for them.
    He created distance, removing himself from them.
    Sometimes we rather give money so that we don’t need to be with the people in need. To create opportunities to be in touch with different people in the community requires us to be hospitable within us and it is not easy.
  • God cares about how we feel, not just what we do for him.
    God did not leave Jonah up that hill to sulk, even after seemingly what God asked Jonah to do has been done and completed. God is not indifferent to how we are, or only focus on what we do for him –  God cares about how we feel, God intends to ‘save’ Jonah here, not just the Ninivites.
    God longs for us to feel how he feels, the vine is an object lesson for Jonah to feel, so that he can feel what God is feeling. ‘Don’t you think…?’
  • Jonah was honest about his feeling:
    to his credit, he was honest with God about where he is at. Maybe even more honest than when he was inside the fish. When it was actually acknowledged, the feeling can start to be processed.
  • Jonah finally acknowledged his feelings
    We may read this story and think that Jonah is being bad for having angry feelings, but actually, we see this anger was there way back when God first ask Jonah to go to Niniveh, it was only now that Jonah acknowledge it. So the fact that it comes out in the open is when Jonah and God can finally address it.
  • God repeatedly brought attention to Jonah’s feeling
    We see the way God talks to him, with gentleness, patience and mercy. God brought attention to Jonah’s emotions gently, multiple times, even with an object lesson so that Jonah will feel with his body, the reality of God’s heart in this situation.
    God’s question to Jonah “what right do you have to be angry?” The Jerusalem Bible translation, “Are you right to be angry?” captures the intent of the Hebrew text.
    It may sounds as if God is saying, ‘you should not be feeling this way’, but rather – you are upset, are you seeing things in the right perspective?
  • Jonah had choices even in his anger
    There were multiple times that Jonah has chosen to be angry, he’s annoyed at a merciful God, and intend to change God’s character toward how he wished God to be – which is to be just, to punish those who deserves it. God did not change for him, and that made him more and more upset.  
  • What is our response?
    We don’t know Jonah’s response at the end – the book of Jonah seems to ask all of us the same question – this is what our God is like, here is God’s heart.  

    How do you feel about that?

What will your response be?

A just God makes more sense, more predictable, more understanable. God who feels? God who ask me to feel? What do I do with that?

We feel most uncomfortable with God who talks very emotionally in the old testament: there are feelings anger, jealousy, as well as motherly tenderness, sadness and grief… God not only freely display and talks about these feelings but also require the prophets to feel his feelings before they speak any message.

With the same vein we often want to imagine Jesus as a zen like figure who walks around this earth, always had an answer, stoic, gentle and meek.

Real Jesus had a lot of emotions! He display them, he talks about his feelings. He asked to have company with his friends. He ask them multiple times to feel what he was feeling.

It was not an emotionally frozen Messiah who gathered together a small band of followers and called them friends. It was not a sterile God keeping a proper distance who wandered over the Galilean countryside with women and men together. It was not an over-controlled Redeemer who begged for companionship and perspired in agony during his last hours. Jesus did not feel for effect. He felt because feeling is human, and being fully human is not incompatible with being divine.

Fran Ferder

We often focus on Jesus’ function on earth: to teach, to heal, to die… we neglect the fact that incarnation is about reaching out and feel what we feel. We might say that his whole life is so that he will ‘feel’ us.

Mission of God, starts with asking us to feel, especially for those who are different from us.

Mission of God, sometimes ask us to go towards suffering, contains much feelings that are uncomfortable to us, we are called to feel them.

Mission of God, invite us to feel how God feels about the situation before the urge to ‘fix it’.

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