Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

I have a friend who has recently been struggling over his feelings and emotions (among other things) through a difficulty. By God's grace, Steve has graciously ministered to him with sweet words of comfort, encouragement, and strength. So, with their permission, and after some editing on my part mainly to preserve as much anonymity as possible, several portions of Steve's half of the dialogue are posted below. I trust Steve's words will minister to others as they've ministered to my friend.

For many of us, what makes life pleasant or even bearable is the combination of certain people and places. We need certain people in certain places to survive emotionally. One without the other isn't enough.

Haven't heard from you for a while. It's possible that you're having second thoughts about your situation. Even if [there's failure], that doesn't mean you made a mistake. Although she isn't ordinarily ranked with Plato, Aristotle, or Descartes among the great all-time philosophers, Lucille Ball had a sage piece of advice: "I'd rather regret the things that I have done than the things that I have not."

It didn't change your situation, but to some extent it changed you, and that, in turn, makes it easier for you to change your situation. You can put that experience to good use in the future.

Remember the adage: I'd rather regret the things I did than the things I didn't.

Although you're entitled to your feelings, you need to be careful not to dwell on your feelings.

On the other hand, your feelings are justified, and there's no automatic expiration date on how you feel. You're naturally going to be reflecting on your experience for some time to come.

Be patient with yourself.

BTW, don't feel that you have to act like a plaster saint about your emotions. There's a kind of Hallmark card piety that's promoted in a lot of fluffy Christian books and sermons.

But if you read the Psalms or Jeremiah or 2 Corinthians, you see raw emotions on full display. And a full range of emotions. Not just faith, hope, and love. So you're in good company.

You feel lonely because you're alone, away from friends (except for a couple) and family, living among strangers, in a strange part of the world, with a disagreeable climate.

That part of how you feel is due to external circumstances. That will dissipate as soon as you move back home. We can sometimes change our feelings by changing our circumstances.

That sadness won't go away so easily, but moving back home will help.

At present you're in no position to gauge your future or your feelings. You're too close to the situation right now.

At the moment you basically have two sets of emotions. One set is from living away from home. Away from your family and friends.

The other set of emotions has to do with the [difficulty]. You're coming right off of that experience.

The first set of emotions is driven directly by your immediate circumstances. The confluence of these feelings with sort themselves out as soon as you move back.

So that part of the problem will solve itself. That will still leave you with the other set of emotions. But, right now, you don't know which is which. They blend in to each other.

As long as you're a stranger in a strange land, you're in no position to judge your feelings or evaluate your future. Wait till you get back, settle back into your old rhythm, before you even attempt to take stock of your situation.

Put another way, wait till you move back, till you've been there for two or three months. That will automatically shrink your sadness down to more manageable levels. You will have far less to cope with.

It's easier to climb a mountain in summer than in winter. It's an effort to climb a mountain at any time. But it's more of an effort if you have to contend with all the snow and ice. Wait for the right season.

There's nothing inherently sinful about being "selfish" in the sense of preparing for your own future or attending to your own natural, emotional needs.

You're being way too apologetic. You've done nothing wrong. Naturally your mind is still on this situation. That's not going to evaporate overnight. Go easy on yourself, not hard on yourself.

Life in a fallen world has a tragic quality. There are genuine losses.

I wouldn't worry about your other emotions right now. They're perfectly natural and understandable at this point. Give them time to fade a bit.

Moreover, we don't forget important things that happen to us (well, nursing home patients may be an exception!).

As long as you don't go on a shooting rampage, don't browbeat yourself about how you feel at the moment. :-)

Or, if you do go on a shooting rampage, make sure it's a video game!

Hope you're feeling somewhat better now that you're back home. You have a lot of fresh, painful memories to process, so the feelings won't fade overnight, but moving back to familiar surroundings, with family and friends, ought to help the healing process.

However, we're not necessarily the same person after some experiences. And it's unfair to compare ourselves to an earlier, pristine version of ourselves.

I wouldn't worry about your [bad feelings] if I were you.

Put it this way: it's enough to have these feelings; it compounds the problem if you also feel guilty about your feelings, because that piles one set of feelings on top of another. You're adding the feelings of guilt to your [bad feelings]. So, pretty soon, it's feelings about feelings about feelings, like a receding, mirror-image glaring over your shoulder.

So I think you should stop blaming yourself for your feelings. These are perfectly natural, normal feelings.

It's enough to feel [bad]. Don't blame yourself by feeling bad about your bad feelings!

One set of bad feelings is quite enough, don't you agree? :-)

It's a good thing that we have a capacity to form emotional attachments. But the flipside of this capacity is that we suffer accordingly when that attachment is betrayed or unreciprocated.

That, of itself, is not a bad thing. That's the inevitable result of forming emotional attachments.

It's only a bad thing when people cling to these feelings and feed them rather than allowing them to be reabsorbed.

2. In my experience, for what it's worth, there's a difference between giving thanks and feeling thankful.

I find that when I give thanks, even though I'm not in the mood, thankful feelings tend to be the result of giving thanks.

3. Finally, and this is more of a priority, don't focus on whether you feel spiritual. Whether you have holy emotions.

Instead, focus on what makes you feel good by taking pleasure in the natural blessings of life. What is it that normally makes you happy? It is walking along the beach? Having a meal with your family? Watching a movie with an old friend?

Natural goods are also godly goods. They come from God's hand. The innate sanctity of God's creation.

4. Apropos (3), we don't have direct control over how we feel. But we have some indirect control. We know, from experience, the things that make us feel better. So try to spend your spare time in places, or with people, doing what normally gives you pleasure.

That won't make the dark moods disappear, but it will give them some sunny competition. And that's a way of beginning the process of recovery. Shafts of light leading out of the forest.


  1. BTW, don't feel that you have to act like a plaster saint about your emotions. There's a kind of Hallmark card piety that's promoted in a lot of fluffy Christian books and sermons.

    But if you read the Psalms or Jeremiah or 2 Corinthians, you see raw emotions on full display. And a full range of emotions. Not just faith, hope, and love. So you're in good company.

    This is an incredibly important piece of advice in a lot of incredibly good advice throughout this post. In grieving the loss of my mother I have found it hard to reconcile my hope, trust and faith that the promise of the gospel is true with my sadness, pain and sense of loss. So often as Christians we do feel the need to "out a shiny face" on things. However, as you mentioned, all one needs is to glance at Psalms or Lamentations for that matter to see the very real grief that believers feel and bring to the Lord.

    I still have not figured out how to handle it all -- but I so appreciate seeing reiterated here that our emotions do not all have to be of cotton candy and other sweet fluff.

    It makes me thankful, and thankful again and again, that it is Christ in whom I trust, not myself, that is all my security.

    Thank you for this post and to those who were willing to have it shared. It did my heart much good and I'm sure I'll be reading it again.

  2. I'm very sorry to hear that Merlot Mudpies.

    But I'm glad to hear you're trusting in the Lord. And that you're striving to have the right or biblical perspective in and through all this. Thank God for his grace in your life.

    BTW, I'd like to recommend a very short but wonderfully edifying book called Behind a Frowning Providence by John J. Murray. I don't know if reading is hard for you these days in light of the pain, sadness, and sense of loss you're going through. But the book is brief in length (only like 20 or 30 pages if I remember right), so hopefully it won't be too bad.

    Also, I did a little post a short while back called "Sweet will be the flower" which might be helpful in some small way.

    Otherwise I trust you have the support of other close family members and friends, and of course the church, whom you can turn to for strength and encouragement.

    Lamentations 3:31-33: "For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men."