Engaging emotions without engaging God is a recipe for disaster.
Our emotions are fundamentally designed to force us to engage him, and the great lie—which, ironically, both stoicism and hyper-emotionalism buy into—is that we can and should deal with our emotions apart from bringing them to the Lord.
If we don’t engage God but simply use a “Bible-based system” or “method” of handling our emotions, we lose the core hope we have as Christians.
That hope is not in a system of strategies we can enact (though we are grateful for an action plan!) but in a Savior and Shepherd and ever-present help in time of need who sees us, knows us, loves us, and actually has the power, right here and right now, to help us with the turmoil of our hearts.
ENGAGING GOD MEANS POURING OUT YOUR HEART
Engaging God in our emotions is quite simple (even if it can be exceedingly difficult to bring ourselves to actually do it). Psalm 62:8 captures it with profound simplicity:
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
If you trust God, David tells us, then pour out your heart to him. Or, put another way, trusting God necessarily includes pouring your heart out to him.
What does it mean to “pour out your heart”? Pouring out your heart simply means naming the colors you feel most strongly. It means bringing the sloshing mixture of churning paints to God and upending it into his hands one sentence at a time.
This is really quite a shocking thing for God to invite and even command us to do. Why would God be willing, much less eager, to hear the inner distresses and delights of people who from birth have rebelled against him? Why would God want hearts poured out into his hands when those hearts are divided, full of treasures that compete with single-minded devotion to him? Why would God choose to care about or listen to the weeping or pleading or crowing of a sinful creature who caused his beloved Son to go through physical and emotional anguish we could never fathom? Would you offer your shoulder to cry on to someone who killed your child?
We need to press this point. All of us are easily presumptuous, blind to the privilege offered us in God’s call to pour out our hearts. Imagine, the Father himself cares what you think, invites you to earnest conversation with him at any time, for as long as you need. A stunning honor—and yet we mostly see prayer as a tiresome duty. (Even the familiarity of the term prayer can work against us.) It doesn’t occur to us most of the time that prayer can and should include simply talking to God about what is on our hearts.
Yet this is exactly what we observe over and over in the Psalms.
Too often, even taking the time to ask in prayer for God to help us or do things for us feels inconvenient and impractical. How much more inefficient, we think to ourselves, to do nothing but blabber on in prayer about one’s feelings! Yet, in his mercy, God chooses to offer his listening ear to us, drawing out the depths of our soul in the safety of relationship with him.
We need to be brought up short by the shocking gift of pouring out our hearts to God.
THE GIFT OF POURING OUT OUR HEARTS
The importance of emotions in our relationship with God shouldn’t really surprise us. Relationships need emotions like fires need oxygen. It stands to reason, then, that if our emotions are the way our hearts were made to align with God’s, our relationship with him actually ought to be the most emotional relationship we have.
Fundamentally, God gave you emotions to connect you, bind you, and draw you to himself. To engage your emotions in any other way than by bringing them to him goes against the very grain of your human, image-bearing nature. Is it possible for human beings to make significant changes to their motives and feelings through willpower, creativity, sheer grit, dumb luck, or self-effort, without any reference to the God who made us?
Yes. Because God made us with the power to have real impact on our world and ourselves, and because of God’s mercy on us, even people who don’t believe he exists can do things that cause their emotions to run in paths they prefer.
But for your feelings to reflect God’s feelings about this world and all that happens in it, you must bring your feelings to him. Trying to develop a heart whose emotions overflow from loving what God loves without bringing your feelings to him is like trying to fly by flapping your arms instead of boarding an airplane.
WHY YOUR ENGAGING MATTERS
Psalm 62 says one more very important thing we haven’t mentioned yet. It doesn’t end with the command to trust God by pouring out your heart. It ends by telling you why you can pour out your heart and why you can trust him.
God is your refuge.
It is hard to overstate the emphasis Scripture places on this point. Countless verses echo the words of Psalm 71:3,
Be to me a rock of refuge,
to which I may continually come.
Unless you know God is trustworthy, you won’t entrust yourself to him, especially not the precious treasures of your inmost heart. Only a God who promises to hear you and who really will handle the fragile affections of your soul with tenderness inspires the necessary confidence in us to lay our loves into his hands. It is because David knows how deeply we all struggle to trust God with the things we really care about that he emphasizes that God is a refuge when he calls us to bare our hearts.
WE CAN TRUST GOD
Scripture is full of similar promises. Why does Peter speak of “casting all your anxieties on him” (1 Pet. 5:7)? Because, Peter tells us in the simplest of words, “he cares for you.”
Do you realize what it means to care for someone? To devote time and energy and thought and effort to what will be good for another person and then act on that because you feel deep concern and affection for him or her.
Or, when the author of Hebrews encourages us to come confidently to God’s throne with our needs for sustenance and mercy, notice that he begins by reassuring us that Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakness and frailty (Heb. 4:15–16). God, the author of Hebrews wants us to know, is both strong enough and close enough to handle our most fragile treasures.
The Bible will not compromise on this point: we really can trust God. We have every reason to believe he is utterly committed to doing good to us and that he is more trustworthy in caring for us than we are in caring for ourselves. And we need every bit of it if we are going to pour out our hearts to him.
It’s all too instinctive for us to remain distant, disappointed, or demanding and, as a result, to pull back and keep our hearts to ourselves.
Content taken from Untangling Emotions by J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
J. Alasdair Groves (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the executive director for the New England branch of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). He is also the director of CCEF's School of Biblical Counseling.
Winston T. Smith (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the rector at Saint Anne's Church in Abington, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Marriage Matters.