Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Making Feelings Feel Heartfelt

Has it been ten years?

I can't really remember, but it doesn't really matter, either.  I just know it's been a relatively long time, as far as life spans go for these types of things:  a small, simple, unpretentious home group.

Suffice it to say that our consistent little community has been meeting on and off for years.  At first, it was every week, but now, it's every month.  Sometimes we share a meal, while other times, we meet for what turns into hours of conversation.  Conversation about what God's doing in our lives, or about a particularly troublesome passage from His Word, or even simply current events in the world around us.  Over the years, we've had a marriage, the birth of children, the onset of a chronic disease, new jobs, unemployment, and retirement within our group.  I'm the only member who still attends Park Cities Presbyterian, the church where we all met.  And, due to a variety of life changes,  there are only five of us who meet regularly any more:  a software engineer, a lawyer, a stay-at-home mom, a Wycliffe missionary, and me.

Yet we keep on going.  And I'm grateful for that - and for them!

One of my friends from that group loaned me a book to read after a recent discussion we had about emotions and dry faith.  Published in 2008, it's written by Dr. Matthew Elliott and entitled Feel: The Power of Listening To Your Heart.  The cover is bright red with an embellished design reminiscent of nerve synapses, and inside, the text is arranged in a highly stylized font and paragraph alignment of a distinctly European flavor.  Which makes sense, considering Elliott spent a lot of his education at prestigious European universities.

Elliott's premise in Feel revolves around his conviction that we believers in Christ minimize the purposes of our God-given emotions to our own detriment.  We're taught in conventional Christian theory that emotions can corrupt our faith, and that our brain needs to overrule our heart.  Emotions are unreliable and can destabilize our lives, according to the dominant teachings of Western theology.  What Elliott wants to do is expose the myths and misconceptions he sees in what we're told about our emotions, and free us to explore the realm of our emotions in a healthy manner:

"Because of our culture, secular philosophy, and the rational age we live in, we are inexperienced when it comes to this business of experiencing our emotions in daily life.  Mere novices.  Through emotions, God enriches our lives with feeling and response, but we have set emotions aside.  In the process, we have lost the art and life skills of understanding emotional experience.

"God wants us to be emotionally mature with emotionally full lives.  Becoming emotionally mature is not, as many teach, about becoming emotionally controlled.  It is about becoming emotionally adept, emotionally wise, and emotionally skilled.  It is about having lives that are chock-full of wonder and feeling - and then having the ability and practiced skill to live well and wisely in a richly emotional world." - page 151

It is because this friend of mine in small group has known me so long - and so well - that I accepted her recommendation of this book, because otherwise, I wouldn't have given it the time of day.  I'm one of those people Elliott is trying to target with his book - somebody who's extremely skeptical about the role emotions should play in our lives.  I'm well aware that God gave us emotions and that all of them can be both beneficial and detrimental to our walk with Him, depending on how we use them.  My problem, however, is that I'm not good with determining the best and worst ways of evaluating my feelings.

Might Elliott's book offer some clues?

It depends.

First of all, it depends on the degree to which you're already aware of your emotions.  I call myself a "recovering cynic" because I know I've got issues with negativity, literalism, and idealism, which means the things for which I hope tend to be unrealistic.  It also means I'm not the most joyful, happy, or contented person around.  Many other people, on the other hand, are happy with fluff, and content with whatever is popular - only they don't know, for example, how to fear sin and see it as God does.

So for the vast majority of Christians - and yes, I realize I'm throwing them under the bus here - Elliott's book can be quite useful and illuminating.  Actually, he points out some things I try to address in my essays regarding our evangelical habit of minimizing insight for the sake of expediency.  In addition, emotions can vary significantly from individual to individual, and in our results-oriented culture, greater profit can be realized with lowest common denominators.

Like individuality, emotions usually are relegated as impediments to progress, instead of contributors to contentment, because they can require time and contemplativeness.  Elliott talks about stopping and breaking down our emotions to see what's at their root.  He talks about memorizing scripture passages that can serve as mental guides in this process.  Good grief - who has the patience to do that these days?!

Which, actually, for better or worse, is one of Elliott's main points.  His writing veers between the ponderous and the clipped sound bite.  He never provides a convenient bullet-point list of do's and dont's.  If you're looking for quick applications to serve as band-aids for your tattered - or stifled - emotions, Elliott gives you few.  He actually expects his readers to develop deeper relationships with God and other loved ones around them so that their emotional life can blossom the way he says God intends for it to.  Just as emotions are experiential, harnessing them is an experiential process.

At first, the type of people for whom his book is geared will likely revolt in frustration!  I know I did.  But perhaps that, too, is another of Elliott's aims.  To a certain extent, it can seem as though Elliott thinks we should all ditch rational thought and coast along through life on our feelings, but I suspect he allows that theme to run through Feel so that jaded readers will recognize what they're missing by compartmentalizing their valid emotions.  Yes, it would be nice if Elliott had some concrete tips for integrating emotions into a well-balanced walk with Christ, and maybe he thinks he does, but even in my perceived lack of them, I can see how the individuality God has hard-wired into each of us makes a mass-market guidebook to emotional stability so elusive.

The big clue in Feel may not be as user-friendly as we'd like it to be, but it's that our emotions are only bad when we exercise them improperly.  And suffocating them is using them improperly.  On the other hand, I still say that the degree to which individuals can successfully live with their emotions depends significantly on their overall personality.  Creative types, for example, likely have a head start in harnessing their feelings more than corporate types, although both types use their emotions more than they probably realize.  They're likely simply using them ineffectively.

For his part, Elliott wrote another book in 2006 entitled Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament, that apparently serves as a sort of prequel to Feel.  I'm not planning on reading it, and I'm not exactly recommending Feel with rapturous abandon.  Still, I think Elliott is on to something significant when he makes no attempt to minimize the amount of time it will take to develop a healthy emotional life.  He says it's a life-long endeavor, done in community with God and His people.

My decade-long small group may or may not be the most ideal model for discipleship, but I feel from Elliott's book that it's probably been a good incubator for what he's recommending.

Not that we should go about with our heart on our sleeve.  But it should be more accessible than the lock box we often keep it in.


1 comment:

  1. I clearly hear the cynic, but I'm glad to hear some acknowledgement of important points too. What I heard from Elliott's book was a consistent reminder that feelings alone or brain alone was not fully utilizing all of God's gifts to His children. It leaves such a one-sided believer less in touch with God than he or she could ultimately be. Balance (as you so eloquently put it in your last paragraph) is the key.

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