What happens when your maps are wrong?
Imagine you’re a pioneer on your way to a new life. You’re crossing miles of unfamiliar terrain, so you’re glad to have a map along. With that map, you hope to steer clear of the worst dangers along the way.
What you don’t know is that your map is wrong. Will you get lost? Will you stumble into danger? You never know when you’re following a bad map.
In life, we get handed all kinds of maps. Some from parents. Some from teachers and pastors. These maps are ways of thinking about life. Often these maps are full of wisdom, but sometimes they contain myths. We follow them at our peril.
Many of us have received maps like this from the church about our emotional life. Here are four dangerous myths about emotions that you probably learned in church.
Myth 1. Emotions Always Lie.
If you grew up in the church, undoubtedly you heard a pastor say, “Whatever you do, don’t make an emotional decision.” Like all good myths, this one has a seed of truth in it. We can all name people who followed their emotions right off a cliff. (Maybe it was us!) Emotions spike with intensity. Sometimes in response we act in short-sighted, or self-destructive ways.
So, it’s not uncommon for Christians to think of emotions as temptations or distractions, to fear that emotions can only lead us astray. But that’s not true.
Response to Myth 1: Emotions always tell us something true.
Emotions don’t lie. They can’t. Emotions are like the check engine light on the dashboard of your car. That light is there to give you information vital for keeping your car in great working order.
In the same way, emotions exist to bring us information about our inner world and outer circumstances. Because of the way they are designed, emotions always tell us something true; it’s just not always the truth we think or expect.
This is why learning how to listen to our emotions is a vital part of maturing in Christ. We misunderstand or misinterpret our emotions for many reasons, including immaturity, inexperience and even sin. But that doesn’t mean our emotions are what led us astray.
Myth 2. Emotions Are Always Shallow and Transitory
Our experience with emotions is that they shift. They seem to come and go. How can something that seems so fickle be of use in making decisions?
If you experience a feeling that’s uncomfortable, what should you do? Worse, what if it’s a feeling that seems out of line with God’s will? The common pastoral advice is to double down on what you know to be true. Ignore the emotion, and trust that it will go away.
Again, this myth contains a kernel of truth. Emotions come and go. But when we ignore them, we set ourselves up in a dangerous position. Why?
Response to Myth 2: Emotions are messages from our deepest places, and they won’t just go away.
Here’s an example: You may wake up tomorrow not feeling as sad as you do today, but until you face your grief and deal with it, it will remain with you.
Trying to muscle up a happy attitude isn’t honest, and it’s not faithful. That sadness is telling you something important. What you lost mattered. You need to feel and process your grief.
God knows what you’re feeling, so pretending to feel something different doesn’t help you spiritually. It only distances you from an honest and intimate relationship with God.
When we deny our emotions or pretend to feel something else, there are always consequences. Suppressed anger will burst out at the wrong time with too much intensity. Denied hurt will bloom into bitterness. Ignored grief can bring depression.
It is not a mark of weak faith to admit and face our emotions. It’s the only path to an authentic relationship with our selves and God.
Myth 3. God Isn’t Emotional
Most of the pictures and movies I saw as a kid about Jesus portrayed him as some kind of dour, serene guru. But that’s not the Jesus of the New Testament.
The imagery many of us have in our minds about God—the stern old man with a long, white beard—is also nowhere to be found in scripture. It has more to do with classical stories about Zeus than it has to do with the God who is the father of Jesus.
Response to Myth 3: God is emotional, and our emotions were created in God’s image.
Read the gospels, and you will see Jesus comfortably express the full range of human emotion. There’s joy, happiness, compassion and love—like you’d expect. But there’s also some of the harder emotions. There’s frustration, anger, grief and maybe (depending on how you read the account of the Garden of Gethsemane) even fear.
Notice how God is portrayed in the Old Testament, and you’ll see a God who has chosen to be revealed in emotional terms, often embarrassingly so. Love, joy, jealousy, even wrath are all a part of God’s experience.
It may seem safer to think of God as unemotional, but it’s not biblical. The heart of emotional discipleship is discovering how our emotions are rooted in God’s character and learning how to express each emotion in ways that are loving.
Myth 4. The more like God you become, the less emotional you’ll be.
Ephesians 4 tells us that God’s project in our lives is to mature us in the image of Christ. We are invited to grow in godliness. But if our picture of God is one without emotions, what does that mean?
We’re left with the idea that the more scripture we learn, the more we pray, the more spiritually mature we are, the less emotional we’ll be.
Then, when we find ourselves overcome with sadness, or fear, some of us wonder if we’re failing as Christians. Would we feel sad, or afraid like this, if our faith was stronger?
Response to Myth 4: The more connected to God we become, and the more spiritually mature we grow, the more aware of our own emotions and the emotions of others we will be.
Growing in relationship with God always means coming closer to truth. Jesus told us that He is the truth and that the truth would set us free. One of the ways this happens is that we are set free from self-justification, denial and all the ways we distance from what’s really true.
In Romans 7, Paul gets brutally honest about his own sin and weakness. In 1 Timothy, he calls himself the “chief of sinners.” This isn’t false humility. This is the natural result of spiritual maturity, where we can acknowledge what is true about our hearts.
This is the most important reason why pursuing emotional growth as a part of discipleship matters. When we misunderstand or misinterpret our emotions, we hurt ourselves and the people around us. When we deny and repress our emotions, we limit our ability to be in intimate relationships, even with God.
We have emotions because they are a part of God’s design. They are purposeful. They are a vital and necessary part of a healthy life and a growing relationship with God.
If you are intrigued by this, or suspect it would be helpful to you to go deeper, you can learn more about all of this, including the scriptural background, in my new book, The Wisdom of Your Heart: Discovering the God-given Purpose and Power of Your Emotions.
Don’t let flawed maps lead you into broken relationships and spiritual stagnancy. Learn the truth about your emotions, and find yourself equipped to grow in a new way.
This article originally appeared here.