We live in a culture where it is often not OK to have feelings. We constantly see memes and decor that say things like “Life is too short to be anything but happy,” or “the prettiest girl is the one who wears a smile,” or “You are not allowed to feel feelings EXCEPT FOR JOY ALL THE TIME.” Maybe not that last one. But that’s the idea.
In the Christian community, we sometimes equate negative emotions with sin. After all, we’re supposed to be “inright outright upright downright happy all the time” and have the “joy joy joy joy down in our hearts,” WHERE? That’s right, kids. It’s in your hearts. And I do believe that faith brings joy to our hearts. But it doesn’t always feel like that.
I can recall a time when I was extremely angry. I am not a person who opens the Bible and the page it happens to land on becomes my mantra for the day. But, for whatever reason, I felt like I should go to Psalm 1, and there the first verse was “In your anger, do not sin.” I felt like it was God telling me that it was OK to be angry. But it was what I did with the feeling that counted. I could express it productively, or not. I could try and get revenge, or not. I could listen to my feelings, set boundaries, and guard my heart, or not. Feelings are not actions, and they are not wrong, necessarily. But we can react wrongly to them.
We can ignore them, or drown them out with work or substances or sex or shopping or food. We can unleash them on other people, deserving or not. We can dwell on them so heavily that the rest of life slips by unnoticed. In any of these scenarios, we don’t get what we need.
And feelings are good indicators of what we need. Feelings tell us when we’re hungry or tired, for example, but they also tell us when we need to protect someone, or ask forgiveness, when we need to connect with another human being, or when we need to connect with God. They tell us when we’re doing too much, when we need to refocus on the things that matter or the things for which we are thankful. In many cases it takes time and work to feel better. We must actively “seek peace and pursue it.” If you can’t figure out why you’re feeling bad or how to feel better, this might mean it’s time to ask for help, perhaps starting with a loved one, or trying a pastor or counselor.
It’s also important to remember that feelings are transient. They come and go with the seasons. They change depending on the amount of sleep you got the night before and what you had for breakfast. They are that flimsy. This means that you are not always going to feel a sense of overwhelming affection for your loved ones. It means that you’re not always going to feel a sense of complete peace and well being. For us evangelicals growing up on Christian pop music, it means we’re probably not always going to feel like we’re “falling in love with Jesus” (or some other weirdly romantic refrain), or even like we’re always falling in love with our spouses, to be frank. But again, feelings are not actions, and our actions can express love regardless of our feelings.
So, we can go through the actions of being a loving spouse even when we’re not necessarily feeling those romantic vibes. We can be kind to our kids even when we feel like telling them to stop being such little turds. We can attend church, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient, or practice liturgy and prayer even when we feel cold and uninterested. Often with patience, the feelings that we want will follow, and the foundation will be there when we need it.
So, in a nutshell: Listen to your feelings. Use your feelings to inform, but not control, your actions. Be faithful in love at all times. Seek peace and pursue it.