Isn’t it frustrating when recipients of God’s lavish grace bark at each other during the church board meeting? Or when a sermon fills you with a blaze of courage only to get snuffed out afterward by small talk with somebody who makes you feel small? Or when you fill up on the Bible first thing in the morning only for it to evaporate within the first ten seconds of dealing with that button-pushing coworker?
It would seem that God would want to give his children emotional, not just spiritual, maturity. But too often, our pursuit of spiritual growth hits a low emotional ceiling, from predictable outbursts to crippling embarrassment. Pete Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, laments the years in which “I experienced the growing tension of a double life—preaching love and forgiveness on Sundays and cursing alone in my car on Mondays. . . . I had ignored the ‘emotional component’ in my seeking of God for seventeen years.’”
I recently watched an excellent video series by a wise leader, Randy Gariss, co-director of Ozark Christian College’s Life and Ministry Preparation Center (LAMP). In this 8-part series called “Emotional Maturity” (which you can watch here), Randy gives us encouraging news about God’s plan for our lives: God cares about our emotional maturity and has given us tools for growing in it. Here are 6 truths I learned from Randy’s talks on “Emotional Maturity.”
1. God wants to sanctify us “through and through.”
Randy points us to a fascinating verse at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).
I recall during my undergrad days writing a very long paper for a philosophy class on what Paul meant by “spirit, soul, and body” (many more pages than the required minimum, and, as a tip for students, no, professors don’t usually appreciate it when you do that). Randy’s simple point was far more profound than anything found in my 20-some pages: God’s plan to sanctify us “through and through” was never meant to exclude our emotional well-being. The more time we spend as a disciple of Jesus, the more we can expect him to bring order and flourishing into our emotional chaos and darkness.
“The more time we spend as a disciple of Jesus, the more we can expect him to bring order and flourishing into our emotional chaos and darkness.”
2. We have emotions we don’t know how to manage.
Randy explains that, although everybody has dozens of emotions they experience from time to time, typically there are only a few emotions (5 – 7 of them) that people felt were acceptable in their families growing up. In some families, joy was squashed down to size. Or it wasn’t okay to voice anger or frustration. Or it wasn’t safe to admit failure. Other times, it’s our culture that frowns on certain emotions and keeps us from bringing them out into the light. The predictable result of all this hiding is that emotions stay immature and dysfunctional in the dark.
3. Chaotic emotions have to go somewhere.
When we find ourselves experiencing an emotion we don’t know what to do with, we often transfer it into an emotion we do feel safe with. (Are you an “angry person” . . . or is it that you have embarrassing emotions you don’t know how else to deal with? Could your propensity to turn everything into a joke be masking some feelings you’re uncomfortable with?)
Or we transfer the uncomfortable emotion into something physical. We might try to feel better and find relief through addiction or distraction or throwing ourselves fully into our career. Instead of going to God and his people to find healing, we set up backyard “Baal’s” and “Asherah’s” as places we can go with the things we don’t feel like bringing into the light.
“When we find ourselves experiencing an emotion we don’t know what to do with, we often transfer it into an emotion we do feel safe with.”
4. I’m probably telling myself a story begun by a second grader.
Our emotions are often tied to a story we tell ourselves about ourselves—a confused story we began writing as children. Feelings of embarrassment can instantly transport us decades back in time. Someone’s glance we interpret as disappointment can remind us of some of the earliest plot lines we wrote about ourselves. It seems silly, but FOMO can all too easily reinforce an early narrative we told ourselves that says people don’t want to be our friend.
Randy explains that there’s a far better story we can be telling ourselves. In the New Testament, it was the gospel story which rewrote the narrative of person after person who met Jesus. Most of us who call ourselves Christians believe the gospel at some level, but until it becomes our core story, we will keep telling ourselves lies about ourselves that keep us trapped in emotional immaturity.
5. Emotional health takes healthy amounts of solitude and togetherness.
Two things Randy emphasizes over and over are the power of solitude and silence in order to spend time with God and the power of spending time with a handful of godly friends with whom you share life. In both of these crucial relationships, you are safe to bring your emotions into the light of grace, where you can process them and they are no longer something you hide away and run from.
The book of Psalms feature prayers in which people bring their emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly—before God, lay them at his feet, find healing, and reaffirm their trust in God. Likewise, the book of Proverbs describes the importance of honest, trustworthy friendships for helping each other through life’s difficulties.
“In both of these crucial relationships, you are safe to bring your emotions into the light of grace.”
6. Nobody needs a cartoon version of me.
I have long been deeply grateful for Randy’s list of ten steps to wholeness, which he describes as ten “ducklings” that we need to keep bringing along as we walk throughout life. I won’t give the list here (again, watch the video series here), but it has ten areas of your life you’ll want to consistently bring into the light of wisdom. Without periodic attention given to crucial life areas, we become over-busy and bloated, resembling more a cartoon character than a human. This is a great reminder for all of us to pause, find our identity in Christ, and allow him to reign in grace and truth over all the areas of our lives, including our emotions.