On my very first day of campus ministry at the University of Illinois more than 35 years ago, I wish someone had said to me: “Don, your spiritual health and your emotional health are very closely connected. Pay attention to this your whole career! There are positive and painful emotions. Jesus had them both. He never denied reality and neither should you. The truth is, people cannot be spiritually healthy if they are unemotionally unhealthy.”
I have discovered over the years that there really are just two kinds of emotions: painful emotions and positive emotions. Early in my career I might have agreed with that statement. But I probably would also have said, “Positive emotions are good. Painful emotions are bad.” I don’t think that now. Of course, it’s not true.
Emotions are amoral. There are no good emotions or bad emotions. There only are emotions that we feel. Certainly some emotions are more pleasant to experience and some that are more socially acceptable. I think that’s why we tend to categorize them. But when you are feeling happy you are not a better person than you are when you are feeling sad. There is nothing inherently better or worse about one emotion than another, only the way that we act when we are in the midst of them.
I agree with writer Alise Chaffin who says, “When we start to assign value to our mental state, we can begin a terrible cycle. We believe our grief is bad, so we try to stop feeling it. We’re unable to shut it down entirely, so we feel shame for feeling an emotion that is wrong. The shame tells us that we must be wrong because we’re unable to move past this and feel better. We sink further into sadness, which causes more shame, which keeps us from moving forward.”
Round and round I’ve seen people go, often falling deeper into the feelings of selfishness and helplessness. I know from pressing into my emotions, and encouraging others to do the same, that the only way to break the pattern of falling into selfishness and helplessness is to lean into grief.
There is nothing fundamentally godly to feeling the positive emotions of excitement, encouragement or joy. And there is nothing intrinsically bad about the painful emotion of sadness and allow ourselves to fully feel our losses, whether it is due to something traumatic or even in the midst of someone else’s celebration.
Grief is a crucial element of life. Read the Psalms (Psalm 13 for starters). As simply as I can say it: Press in and let yourself feel. You may feel a lot of happiness. And that’s great. But never deny the reality of pain that is all around us every day. … Welcome to a lifetime of guiding your ship through the waters of painful and positive emotions.