Feelings, grace, and sin

Emotional health is something I think is important, and something I think some Christians have a hard time with — in some circles, it is considered sinful, or at best a lack of faith, to ever feel anger, sadness, or fear…

Here are some thoughts about the matter.

Feelings are neutral, neither good nor evil in and of themselves. It is what we do with feelings that can be good or evil — this includes not only outward behavior (like hitting someone or saying something mean) but inward thoughts and attitudes (like thinking the mean things even though you don’t say them out loud).

The Sermon on the Mount and some other things Jesus said discuss how heart attitudes can be sinful — God looks to the heart, not just the outward things. I suppose it’s easy to conclude that all heart matters — thoughts, attitudes, and feelings — are equally subject to moral judgment. Especially when you look at some of the admonitions that say things like don’t be angry with your brother, or don’t be anxious; but I’m pretty sure that those admonitions are thinking of the attitudes and thoughts that usually accompany anger and anxiety, not the anger and anxiety by themselves. There’s also the verse (reference?) that says to be angry and not sin — so it must be possible to have anger apart from sinful thoughts and attitudes.

Even if I’m wrong — even if feelings can be sinful — what then? Or, even though we can distinguish logically between feelings and thoughts / attitudes, what if in practical reality they pretty much always do go together? In which case almost no one is ever really angry without sinning. So — what then?

Well — so there is room for repentance, and for leaning on grace, as a friend put it. Having confidence that God will keep his promise to finish our sanctification and to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

But repentance and grace / trust / faith does not preclude feeling the feelings.

You repent and trust AND sit in the angry feelings, or the anxious feelings, or the sad feelings, or whatever they may be. You work on being able to separate your feelings from your thoughts and attitudes — to repent of thinking mean things about so-and-so, while acknowledging that you are in fact angry with so-and-so.

You explore why you might be angry; perhaps you have just cause for the anger. Then you can deal with that just cause — perhaps a confrontation is necessary, or perhaps you can / will choose not to defend yourself — not because you deserve to be stomped on or don’t deserve defense, but because you know God is your defender and truly feel secure in that knowledge. Either way, giving your anger to God doesn’t mean it vanishes or he takes it away — it means you trust him with it and you trust him with what happens.

Or perhaps you discover that your anger is irrational or out of proportion. Maybe it has less to do with what so-and-so did or said, and more to do with some experience from your past, or some aspect of your personality, or the weather or your mood or what you ate for breakfast. Then, you can use your will to choose to disconnect your anger from so-and-so. The anger is still there — just because it’s irrational or out of proportion doesn’t mean it’s non-existent.

Trying to stop feeling it isn’t going to work. Trying to make it more than it is won’t work either. Mindfully let your anger be what it is, and dissipate on its own. You can take some actions to help metabolize it (relaxation, rest, better food, prayer, fun things, journaling, meaningful things, etc), but you can’t just will it away.

What if your feeling lasts “too long?” I’m not sure there is such a thing. You might have an attitude of clinging to the feeling or to what it means to you… that’s different. Discerning the difference can be tricky. I think mindfulness is the key — being open to the feeling being there, and being open to the feeling leaving. Being willing to listen to what your feelings have to tell you. Being compassionate in that way.

Trusting God and depending on him doesn’t mean that our negative feelings will dissipate faster. It does mean being in a secure place with a compassionate father while we metabolize those feelings. Trust God to manage your situation. Trust God to be with you with the feelings. But I don’t think it makes sense to trust God to stop the feelings themselves. As I said above, giving your negative feelings to God doesn’t mean he takes them away.

A less-thought-out final thought. I believe that the separation that occurred in Eden was threefold — separation from God, from others, and from self. Because of that, negative feelings are inevitable — toward God, toward others, and within oneself. As such, I think somewhat that negative feelings are symptoms of the fall… like sickness and natural disasters and war.

But, like pain, negative feelings have a purpose. Feelings give us information about situations, ourselves, others, and even God. It’s good to be open to learning from feelings.

Check out the tag in the right sidebar for “prompting events” — these are worksheets I’ve written out in dealing with various feelings at various times. You can use the outline, which I got from a DBT support group, to work through some of your own feelings. Would love to see if anyone posts one on their own blog.


2 thoughts on “Feelings, grace, and sin

  1. I think being aware of, and exploring one’s feelings is a cornerstone of emotional health. And emotional health is a sine qua none for happiness.
    I suppose a time comes in life when one can slow down enough to know what one is feeling. For me, that time has come!

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