A model for addressing and dealing with the many emotions we face everyday.
Jesus experienced emotions without flying off the handle or ranting. He deliberately chose His next steps. He responded to His emotions rather than unconsciously reacting to them.
Jesus responded, asking: “Where have you put him?” (verse 34). He was patient, respectful, and intentional.
If Jesus had reacted, driven by His anger (as we do sometimes), the Gospel writer might have recorded something very different. Here’s one possibility that I can imagine: “‘Where did you put him, you idiot?’ Jesus screamed as He shoved the nearest wailer in the chest, sending the shocked man stumbling backward.”
But no! The account given to us is very different. Jesus responded in a way that reflects who and how He wanted to be in the world. We have much to learn from Jesus’ response.
- Jesus felt anger, distress, and sadness.
- Jesus handled these emotions well!
- Jesus’ interactions were in alignment with who and how he wanted to be in the world.
- Jesus was congruent. Despite feeling strong emotions, He behaved in alignment with His values.
The goal for all of us is to develop our confidence that we, too, can act and live in a way that reflects who and how we want to be in the world. If we can slow ourselves down and consider our options, we’ll be able to intentionally respond rather than quickly react. And in doing so, we will become more like Jesus.
Handling emotions well doesn’t mean eradicating all difficult emotions from your life. Even Jesus didn’t get to do that when he lived on earth! But there’s still more for us to learn about dealing with our emotions. Anger isn’t the only tricky emotion we’d like to eliminate. What about sadness, jealousy, guilt, and all the euphemisms for anger: frustration, irritation, etc.?
Believers can have added difficulty when certain emotions are deemed incongruent with being a faithful follower of Jesus. We’ve bought into the belief that difficult emotions just fade quietly into nothingness over time, but that thinking gets us into trouble.
So, what do we need to know about emotions?
- God created us as emotional beings.
- Emotions don’t take very long to experience.
- Resisting the experience of an emotion requires far more energy than just experiencing it.
- We do lots of counterproductive things to avoid experiencing emotions.
God Created Us with the Capacity for Emotions—Even the Unpleasant Ones
God made us with the capacity for the full spectrum of emotions. So, emotions are God’s fault. Or gift. Or cruel joke. However you feel about emotions, God has given them to us, and I believe they provide us with wonderful information. And they often pose a serious challenge. But if we can start with the belief that emotions are part of who we are as created beings, then we don’t need to be afraid or ashamed of our emotions.
In fact, I’ll make a similar point with emotions as I do with thoughts: Emotions are morally neutral; it’s what we do when they happen that can become problematic. So, there are no negative emotions, just negative reactions to emotions. Therefore, judging or avoiding our emotions, as each of us is sometimes tempted to do, is fruitless.
Experiencing our emotions is the best way forward. Learning to do this is giant when you’re trying to reimagine self-care.
Emotions Don’t Take Very Long to Experience
It’d been a busy week, and I’d completely forgotten that the neighborhood block party was a potluck. Determined not to miss the chance to connect with neighbors, I grabbed what I had to contribute, which was . . . fresh oranges. I sliced up a few and put them as artfully as possible on a plate, hoping that I could slide them onto the table before anyone noticed they were mine. No such luck. When my husband and I arrived, only six or seven people were there, mingling around the food table, so there was no avoiding everyone identifying me with the orange slices.
“Oh, orange slices! That’s refreshing!” a kind neighbor said. I pushed my plate between the colorful and large tray of sushi and the delicious-looking seven-layer dip and felt embarrassed. I knew this emotion could ruin the evening for me if I let it, and I didn’t want that to happen. Instead, I took a breath and said to myself, Jesus, here I am, embarrassed. And I let myself feel it: the hotness in my face and neck and the tightness in my chest. After a moment, I felt myself reset, and I was able to engage and enjoy myself despite my meager offering.
According to neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s research, it takes about ninety seconds to experience an emotion. From the initial thought to the resulting emotion and to the physiological response (including all the noradrenaline dumping into your body and flushing completely through to the point that it is all the way out of your system) . . . ninety seconds. That’s it. She calls this the ninety-second rule.1 So, there is a way to get through an emotion, even an unpleasant one, in about a minute. The problem is that we do all kinds of things instead of practicing the ninety-second rule.
For Demetri, experiencing unpleasant emotions seemed impossible. He was processing the loss of a longtime friend due to a conflict they couldn’t heal. I could see him fighting to keep the emotion at bay.
“I’m afraid to open up to this sadness.”
“What do you fear?” I asked.
He was thoughtful for a moment, then gave an answer that I hear often:
“I’m afraid if I open up to all that sadness, I’ll never stop feeling it.”
“Demetri, bear with me. Do you fear that about emotions like excitement?”
“No, of course not.”
“Well, they are both emotions. They don’t last forever, but we don’t usually fear the positive ones; we allow ourselves to experience them. Does knowing that make it less scary?”
He nodded and finally allowed himself to cry.
Emotions have an arc—a beginning, middle, and end—if we allow each one to run its course without resistance. But that is the key caveat—without resistance. If we don’t approve of a particular emotion, we resist it by employing any method we can.
To learn more about what that resistance looks like and how to experience emotions more freely, click the book link below. This and other skills outlined in the book help each person know how to live the rich and satisfying life that Jesus wants for each of his followers.
Taken from Restore My Soul: Reimaging Self-Care for a Sustainable Life by Janice McWilliams © 2022. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Janice McWilliams is a psychotherapist in private practice, is a certified spiritual director, and has worked with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for 28 years in many capacities from direct student ministry to staff supervision and training. She is a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, speaker, trainer, and writer. She speaks and trains on self-care, marriage, and the Enneagram. Her blog promotes spiritual, relational, and psychological transformation, and she is the coauthor of The Small Group Leaders’ Handbook.
Janice’s degrees include a master’s in pastoral counseling from Loyola University in Maryland and a master of divinity from Howard University.