“Dad, what does it mean to be emotionally healthy?”, Andrew, no. 2 son asked me. I was giving him a ride to a tuition class and was giving him one of my standard spiels about balanced development. As I periodically tell my sons, “you gotta grow, not just academically, but spiritually, physically, emotionally and relationally as well.”
I must have recalled some reading I had done for one of my Doctor of Ministry classes because I was surprised that I could answer straight away. “To be emotionally healthy means that you are able to feel and express your feelings healthily, but that you are not controlled by your feelings.”
Emotions have returned to the arena of public discussion, partly as a result of Daniel Goleman?s books on emotional intelligence. Still, there remains a strong stoic undercurrent in Asia, a result of our Confucian heritage. The true Confucian gentleman is not given to public displays of emotion.
There are also certain quarters of the church that are offended by any expression of negative emotions. These folks argue that if a Christian truly trusts in the victory of Jesus, he or she should not experience emotions like fear, anger, disappointment, fatigue, etc. But what does the bible teach about human emotions?
We look to Jesus for some clues since he is our model human par excellence. We note that he experienced overwhelming joy (Luke 10:21). Yet he was also enraged by the temple merchants (Luke 19:45,46). And he wept for a friend (John 11:35). A Christian view of emotions then would insist that emotions are part of our humanity.
It may sound trite, but we need to give permission for people to acknowledge their emotions. I guess I am thinking more about the guys. The “big boys don’t cry” credo seems to be fairly universal. And at the risk of offending my Campus Crusade friends, we also remember that in the “Four Spiritual Laws” we were told that feelings were at best a consequence of faith. The sub text, perhaps unintended, is that feelings were unimportant.
I have used the ” 4 Laws” often in my evangelistic efforts, usually at the “reaping” stage. We understand what Bill Bright was aiming at. The facts of our sin and salvation are true irrespective of how we feel. But a wholistic and complete understanding of Christian anthropology must include a desire to see a proper place for human emotions. Indeed we are told by Paul to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Hence I would want to see my sons grow up with a healthy emotional life. There are many things wrong in the world that should enrage them. There is also much beauty in life that should bring smiles to their eyes. There is also a time to cry. And I am glad that they did when they first saw their grandpa in his coffin. I also pray that a growing awareness of God?s goodness will lead them to a growing experience of joy.
However I also need to tell my children of the propensity of emotions to tyrannize us. I should know. As one who struggles with an explosive temper, I have found myself in the grips of discernment-clouding rage.
I have told my older boy how ashamed I was by my liberal application of corporal punishment when he was younger. Whatever the provocation, I know it was not appropriate and that it didn’t help him. I am grateful that my children are forgiving children.
In a fallen world, all aspects of human nature have been tainted by sin and that includes the world of our emotions. If suppressing and denying our emotions is one extreme, giving full and unedited vent to our feelings is the other.
I know of so many who are in the life-stifling grip of emotions like anger, rage and depression. Some of these dear folk require in-depth prayer counselling and/or therapy. Emotions are meant to be part of a wholistic human response to the circumstances of life. They were never meant to be our masters.
How are we to walk a path that leads to a healthy emotional life? I note that negative emotions first entered human experience when humankind sinned (Genesis 3:8-10). I also note that humankind already had the capacity to experience emotions from the exuberant response of Adam when he first saw Eve (Genesis 2:23).
I therefore suspect that our emotional life is linked to our key relationships. If we are in harmony with God and with the key people in our lives, we should also be in harmony with our feelings. The key to our feelings then is not to keep focusing on them, but to work at healthy relationships with God and our human significant others.
I am therefore quite worried (appropriate feeling?) because in today?s hectic world, relationships are suffering. Who has time to cultivate a healthy walk with his Saviour? And I don’t mean a 5 minute rushed bible reading before you hit the highway in the morning.
And while we now have so many more ways to keep in touch, how much time do we spend in face-to-face contact with our friends, listening with ears and eyes? And while I am so grateful for email, I can’t use email to hug a friend, to show him that he is not alone. An emoticon just doesn’t quite cut it.
So it is true. We are interconnected beings. We start with one aspect of human existence and find that it is connected to everything else. Emotional health? Can’t quite deal with that without also dealing with our spiritual and relational health. And yes, physical health as well. How do you feel when you are exhausted?
True Christianity should lead to true humanity. This may be the most powerful apologetic for the faith. We should be able to say: “Christianity is true. Look, those who embrace it become healthy and whole human beings.” Unfortunately this is often not the case.
So, like a broken record, I continue to tell my boys to trust God to help them grow in all areas of their lives. But this is no spiel. This is truth that we all need to hear.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan