A while ago an email drifted through my inbox from The Gospel Coalition. Ususally I delete them, mostly because I find most of them to be uninteresting or not that helpful. Thankfully they list the subjects of the email right off, so you can delete them fairly quickly. But this one caught my attention, because one of the articles in the email was called “Moms, Don’t Trust Your Fickle Feelings“.
“OK”, I thought, “don’t rush to judgment – see what they say.”
And I got mad.
The author, Gloria Furnam, has good intentions: wanting to help moms cope with the difficult days (months, maybe years) of motherhood where “we don’t always feel motherhood is a gift.” However her solution, what I see so many other well-intentioned Christians offer as well, is not that helpful.
The solution to bad feelings (and feeling that motherhood isn’t a gift is a bad feeling here in case you missed it) is to whack them with the Bible, apparently. The author writes, “Every minute of our lives has been numbered by a gracious God who does all things well…We need our shortsighted vision corrected with eternal perspective. But eternity just seems so far away. … We need to renew our minds in God’s Word, and walk in the obedience of faith with God’s help. Our fickle feelings about motherhood must submit to God’s truth.” I’ll translate: God is sovereign, and God gave you the gift of motherhood. It is a gift, even if it doesn’t feel like a gift. If you’re feelings say otherwise, your feelings are wrong.
This last piece about “our fickle feelings” really resonated with me. I grew up in a very Reformed church, and one of the things I recall hearing over and over again, if not explicitly then implicitly, was that feelings can’t be trusted. Any and every feeling must be accounted for and judged. Am I loving something or someone too much? Am I prideful when I feel a sense of accomplishment? Is fear a sign of not trusting God enough? Anger? We’ll have none of that. I went through most of high school and college afraid of my feelings and completely out of touch with them. Feelings come from “the flesh” and lead to sin. The solution was proper theology, more scripture and submission to God’s sovereignty. I had to get out of my heart and into my head.
Perhaps that’s why so much of the “feelings are bad” idea seems to come from the more Calvinist/Reformed end of the theological spectrum. The first of the Five Points is that we are completely and totally depraved, including and perhaps especially in our feelings and emotions. Even good feelings about God, for example, must be tempered with fear and trembling: “Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law.” In my reading of The Institutes I doubted whether Calvin thought an immutable God could have any feelings at all, given that feelings change and God is unchangeable.
Along with the Reformed suspicion of emotion is the prevalence for dualistic thinking in Christianity. Christians seem to be preoccupied with labeling things bad/profane/of-the-flesh or good/sacred/of-the-spirit, especially emotions. The problem is that emotions themselves are neither good nor bad – they just are. The object of the emotion might be good or bad, but too often we misidentify the emotion with the object. This was one of the things CPE showed me: when I would say that I “felt good” or “felt bad” about something, I was not identifying the emotion but self-identifying. I had to learn how to feel angry without “feeling bad”, and that feeling angry sometimes “felt good”. Furthermore, while dualistic thinking is helpful in setting boundaries and frameworks, we forget to move on past them toward unitive thinking, where we are loved by God as a whole person – not just collections of parts, some worthy and some not.
I can’t tell you how damaging this belief system was to me, and is to many others who believe that their feelings are somehow their worst enemy. It leads to a stuffing down of emotions and internal distress that can lead to those negative emotions worsening to the point of clinical mental illness. Pairing this emotional strangulation with the idea that “bad days” were due to our own weakness (not in the Bible enough, not trusting enough, not having an “eternal perspective”), or even brought on by God to expose our weakness, is a good recipe for several years of therapy.
The idea that our thoughts influence our emotions is not new, and neither is it wrong. It’s one of the foundational principles of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which has helped many cope with depression and anxiety among other psychological issues. Countering irrational thoughts that lead to things like chronic anxiety is a key component to therapy. But that is different than the notion of trying to stifle a real emotion with “the truth of Scripture”. While mid-course “attitude adjustments” can be helpful in small doses, the continual repression of these feelings makes things worse. Negative feelings are necessary in life. They are warning signs that something is wrong and that something must be done to regain health and balance. They aren’t “bad”, we just tend to experience them as such.
This is something that we as Chaplains need to remember to keep our eyes and ears open for. So often the leaders of our faith teach us that our feelings can’t be trusted, and because our feelings come from the deepest part of ourselves, I can’t trust myself. I find people in my work that are afraid of letting their true emotions out because of a fear of being punished for them. It comes out as “I shouldn’t be angry”, or “I know you’re not supposed to question God”, or “I know it’s not right to feel this way.” This idea can paralyze people in guilt, shame, and indecision. We can break this by providing a safe open space where the person won’t be judged by the emotion expressed. From there we can see whether a blockage needs to be removed so healing can begin, or if negative self-thoughts need to be addressed, or if emotions are getting confused with objects.
Normalizing experiences and feelings, including allowing feelings to be expressed, sounds pretty mundane in some cases. But it’s one of the most important things we can do.