When my kids were little, they received a paperback picture book about emotions. Each page demonstrated a feeling with a fruit or vegetable that had a face. Within its pages, an angry apple or a frustrated strawberry tried to communicate with their friend, an amused pepper. Besides being a hilarious bedtime read, it had the added benefit of equipping my young children with language for their emotional landscape.
Most religious traditions, my own heritage of the churches of Christ included, have not done an adequate job of teaching us language for the emotional landscape of our religious experiences. While I was drilled to recite Bible knowledge—the books of the Bible, the 23rd Psalm, the Beatitudes—and to be able to navigate the pages quickly (anyone else remember Bible Shoot-out?), I didn’t learn to translate or experience that knowledge in the realm of emotion. For example, how do you imagine David felt when he wrote the 23rd Psalm? Have you ever wanted God to protect you?
Our lack of education in this area has resulted in a myopic view of God. We only see the attributes of God that are directly named in the Scriptures we study most. And, these views of God are not endearing or warm in their nature. Instead they are distancing, alienating characteristics.
“The Lord’s anger burned.” (2 Kgs 6, 2 Sam 22, Exod 2, Deut 6)
“The Lord regretted that he had made human beings.” (Gen 6)
“After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent?” (Isa 64)
Each of these traits of God’s character are true, but they are not the whole picture. We are looking through a microscope at the one tiny piece of the entire cosmos! Having only negative views of God, an entity we are told to love and worship, feeds our natural tendency to believe the worst about ourselves. In turn, the way we treat those around us is not our best nature either.
When our primary image of God is angry, we become shadows of our true selves. We are cowardly and restrained, afraid of making a wrong step. Our experience of God’s anger causes us to shrink back and be timid.
When our primary image of God is disappointed in us, we become harsh judges of all those around us. In order to avoid disappointing God, we, like the Pharisees, draw boundaries that were never God’s intention so that no one else will ever have to feel that disappointment.
When our primary image of God is distant or absent, we become self-sufficient and dangerously independent. If God has left us out here on our own, it is up to us to manage things well all by ourselves. We don’t need anybody.
These, and others, have created an incomplete view of God that hinders our ability to fully mature. After all, if we only used the right side of our body, what would happen to the left? It would atrophy and weaken. In the same way, our incomplete view of God’s very nature, as mirrored in our own emotional landscape, is atrophied. Being transformed into the image of Christ is not just a thinking exercise, it encompasses our mind, heart, body, and soul. So, how do we reclaim this fuller expression of God’s character in order to become more like it?
1. Take the time and effort necessary to name your own emotions, daily.
Through the avenue of examen prayer, notice your emotional landscape each day. I recommend committing for one month to the daily practice of naming your emotions in God’s presence. This is a practice that takes roughly 15 minutes at the end of your day. You will need quiet, uninterrupted space, a journal of any kind, and something to write with.
For the first two or so minutes, breathe deeply and slowly, allowing your body to relax and come to rest. Ask God to be present with you. Then, review the events of your day in order. See them like a movie that plays back in your mind. Choose a few, fewer than five, that really stand out to you. Notice how you felt in each of those moments and simply write down those emotions. Keep this running list for a month.
2. Look for themes.
After a month of this way of praying, read back through your list and see what emotions occur most often for you. Choose two or three. For each of these emotions, ask God to help you remember a story from Scripture where someone else felt this way and God met them there. For instance, if joy is an overarching theme for you, what about when Miriam lead the Israelites in praise on the safe side of the Red Sea? These passages become your devotional material for about a month. Rest with them, savor them, pray with them, and wonder with them. Live into them and see the full characters represented, both human and divine.
In his scholarly book, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, G. K. Beale reminds us why good theology is so important: the God that we know, meditate on, look for, and believe in shapes our own character. So, who is this God that you know?
Rhesa Higgins is a spiritual director and experienced retreat leader. She holds a B.S. from ACU in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of HeartPaths, a three-year program in spiritual formation and direction. Rhesa serves as the founding Director for eleven:28 ministries (www.eleven28ministries.org) in Dallas, Texas, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the spiritual vitality of ministers. Rhesa is also a partner with Hope Network. She is married to Chad and together they are raising their three kids. Rhesa loves good coffee, dark chocolate, baseball, theatre, and most any good book.