“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” ~ Psalm 43:5
My Dad played football in college, and was a racquetball junkie for a few years afterwards until a 60-hour-a-week job and Mom’s cooking did him in. But he lit the fire of fitness in me, and in college, racquetball became my go-to game as well. In short order I was playing it at a very high level, and began bringing home trophies from weekend tournaments. Every time I walked onto the court, I brought with me a devastating drive serve, a powerful back hand, a never-say-die tenacity, oh – and one other thing: I also brought with me a volcanic anger that would inevitably erupt at some point in the match.
It was ugly as sin, because it was sin, of the highest order, and though I was a supposedly a strong Christian who was on the fast track for pastoral ministry, this God-awful anger raged inside of me for nearly a decade. It was shortly after beginning my second pastorate that I realized this had to stop. I pulled aside our church chairman, a dear older man whom I had grown to love, and I said, “Bob, I need to confess a sin to you, and ask that you will hold me accountable.” Then I shared with him my inability to put out this wildfire in my heart.
“Why do you get so angry?” he asked.
For years I pretended it wasn’t ever there or wasn’t all that bad. But God – through my Bible reading, prayer and fellowship – had had enough and was clamping down on it. I had begun to pray about it. I had started saying “Sorry” over and over again to those I played with. I vowed to stop. I had a natural competitive passion that came out in other sports, but my pants never split and my skin never turned green at those times. Only in this.
“I don’t know,” I said to Bob. But his question was a good one, and I began to ask it of God. “Why, Lord? What’s going on inside of my heart?”
Emotions function like the instrument panel of our cars. When my engine light goes on, or the heat gauge starts to creep up above neutral, I’m being warned about something going on under the hood that I might not otherwise detect. A wise driver pays attention to those signals. Just as a wise person should pay attention to the readout of his or her emotions.
Yet as we observed in the last reading, most people are clueless to what’s happening inside of their hearts. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase emotional intelligence? Most people have the EQ of a ferret. Especially Christians. And especially on Sundays. A family can be fighting in the car on the way to church, and in the time it takes to walk from the car, up the sidewalk and into the building, they transform into a living, breathing nativity scene, with Mom wearing the Virgin Mary smile, Dad looking serene like Joseph, and the children compliant and cheerful, like the baby Jesus on Ritalin.
Whenever we find ourselves stuffing our emotions and slipping on masks with our brothers and sisters, rather than what we ought to be doing – coming before Jesus and his people openly and honestly, broken, needy, wounded – we turn Christianity into something it is not, and drain all the grace and healing right out of it.
Pastor Peter Scazzero has written several powerful books on the need for followers of Christ to pursue emotional health. In “The Emotionally Healthy Church” Pastor Pete writes of how for years he checked all the right boxes – he read his Bible, he prayed and fasted, he fulfilled his pastoral duties conscientiously – and still found that his marriage was crumbling, he was losing his children, and he found himself on the precipice of burnout.
Why? It wasn’t the fault of the Bible reading or the prayer or the church attendance – those were the activities that connected him to Jesus. But he wasn’t going on from there to connect Jesus to his heart.
When God finally broke him down, and forced him to look at what was going on inside his heart, what he saw horrified him. He saw a man ruled less by Jesus, than by a childhood growing up with a workaholic Italian father and clinically depressed mother. A childhood which filled his young heart with messages that played over and over in his mind: You must not fail! You must succeed! Business first, family second! But defend your family! Don’t let anyone see its cracks! And let no one see your cracks either! Always look like you have it all together!
As long as Peter convinced himself that his emotions were irrelevant, that his heart was fine as it is, that all he needed was another church service, maybe another seminar, more verses to memorize, maybe rebuke a demon or two, as long as he went on acting in those ways – he could not change. In his own words, he was ‘using God to run from God’.
Christians are notoriously good at spiritualizing away their pain, rather than facing their pain. They heal the wound lightly (Jeremiah 6:14). And this is why so many of us end up as performing monkeys rather than flesh and blood disciples.
So how do we grow in emotional health? As Pastor Peter shares in his books about his journey toward emotional health, I see him describing four stages we must go through.
First, we must Look In.
We have to face what’s going on inside our hearts. We have to know ourselves by giving God full access to our inner life. If my heart is like a mansion filled with rooms, I give Jesus the keys to every room. I don’t say, “Lord, there’s a tiny little room on the third floor that I still want to keep to myself. It’s the one with yellow tape, and the Do Not Enter sign on the door. There’s really nothing to look at in there. I’m sure you understand.” Take a guess where he wants to go first?
For me, this meant I had to stop stuffing my anger, or excusing it, and finally admit it was there. I had to call it out. Name it for what it was. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” cried out the writer of Psalm 43. St. Augustine in his Confessions wrote: “How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self?…Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I many know Thee.”
Second, Pastor Peter would say we must Look Back.
We have to identify the ways in which our present reality has been shaped by our past, particularly by our family of origin. This isn’t psycho-babble. Freud didn’t discover this. This is as biblical a concept as you can find. The Bible tells us that God “punishes the children for the sins of the father to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:4).
This verse is not saying that God makes us foot the bill for things our parents and grandparents did wrong. Instead, it points to the powerful spiritual and social truth that we are impacted by how we were raised.
We’ve all seen it, how alcoholism has a way of recycling itself in a family, generation after generation. Physical or sexual abuse seldom occurs in isolation within a family; it’s a hellish, pathological weed that snakes itself backwards and forwards around one’s family tree. The way a man learns to treat a woman, or the way a woman learns to look at a man, is seldom something we just decide upon one day as we mature. More often than not, it’s something that latched onto us as we grew up watching our mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles interact.
As I came to God with my anger, I asked him, “Is this my sin nature?”
“Yes, that’s true, he said. “Your sin and selfishness is involved. But look further back.”
“Oh, it’s my pride at work then,” I said. “I hate looking bad in front of others.”
“True, enough,” God said. “That pride in you is sure ugly. But this one’s deeper yet. Look further back.”
God kept working me over, taking me round and round the barn until finally he showed me that behind this particular anger was a gaping, bleeding father-wound. I wanted my Dad to notice me, and say he was proud of me. Racquetball was my father’s game. He taught it to me. This was his language. If only I could learn to speak this language, I would get his attention. And so every defeat was so much more than losing a game. It was, to my heart, losing my father.
Third, we have to Look Through.
Inevitably, in our journey, we’re going to hit a wall of anger or grief or confusion, as all that pain we’ve been avoiding or stuffing is going to come pouring out. With God’s help, we need to look through and push through that wall of hurt, however long it takes.
I didn’t realize it, but the reservoir of anger inside of me was fed by a hidden stream of resentment against my father. His 60-hour-a-week job kept him out of the house and out of my life. And I hated him for it. Meanwhile he was driven along by inner demons he didn’t recognize. He grew up in bitter poverty in rural Iowa and vowed with every fiber in his being that he would never let his children experience what his father had put him through. Here we were, two men, twenty years apart, pulsing with rage against a father we wanted to stick it to. But also – strangely enough – pulsing with longing to hear our fathers say, “My son, great job. I’m so proud of you.”
The “wall” brings us to the end of ourselves where we can only do one thing if we are to be healed.
Fourth, we must Look Up.
Look up and reach out to God who alone can give us the ability to work through our anguish, receive and give forgiveness, and learn to love again.
As God revealed this wound to me, I gradually learned how to transfer my allegiance from my earthly father to my heavenly father, whose blessing, approval and love I already had in full. (Remember the lesson we learned earlier, that God accepts us on the front end, before we’ve done anything good? Here’s one example why it matters.)
And as that truth began to wash into my childish, foolish heart – and this took a long time mind you – the anger washed out. I was able to let my father off that big hook I had him on.
And the reason I know this is not psycho-babble is that not too long after this break-through occurred, I found myself in the tie-breaker of the finals of one of the next tournaments. It was a battle for the ages, neither of us yielding, Captain American and Ironman duking it out. At 10-10 game point, I skipped an easy winner, and lost the match. With a sigh, and smile, I slipped off my glasses and put an arm around my opponent and said, “Awesome match. That was fun.”
It was only after I was toweling the sweat off my face a few moments later that it dawned on me. I hadn’t lost my cookies once. The anger was completely gone. And in my heart, the Voice came and whispered to me, “My son, great job. I’m so proud of you.”
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
How would you describe the prominent emotions inside of you?
Why do you think so many Christians struggle with sharing their emotions? Why are we so prone to putting on masks?
What are the 4 stages toward emotional healing we must take? Which of these do you think would be the hardest for you?
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “It Is Well With My Soul” (Horatio Spafford, Philip Bliss)
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