This blog article is adapted from The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life by J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), Ch 3: “Forming a Tender, Receptive Heart,” 61-79.
One early evening at six, my wife Beth’s brief comment—"Remember, I'll be needing the car at seven tonight"—suddenly stirred up my inner parts and brought about an energized outburst. I yelled, "You didn't bring this up when we were coordinating our schedules last Saturday!" Where is all that unexpected display of energy and irritation coming from? Why would I react so strongly to that comment? Various factors contributed to this surprising flare-up. I would have to rearrange my schedule and thus not make progress on an important project I was working on. Coupled with a few other similar setbacks earlier in the week unrelated to Beth's involvement, this schedule change had finally set me off.
My on-task drivenness was being checked. At one level I had erupted because of a growing frustration. At another level, my "kingdom" had been invaded. All my coping strategies I’d learned in the past, mostly sinful, instantly and easily arose so I could self-righteously defend my fragile ego by blaming Beth for the problem. My response was really saying: "This is your problem, not our problem. I’m in the right and you are in the wrong. Admit it; wilt before me and admit how wrong you are, which affirms my complete innocence. You will have to fix the problem by yourself. Rearrange your schedule, not mine. My kingdom's borders don't budge."
Why do these disagreements between mates or friends or coworkers always seem like wars? Why do we automatically take the posture of defending our turf at all costs? One moment we seem to be calm, cool and collected. Then, all of a sudden, a volcano seems to erupt, spewing forth destructive lava. By God's design, we are all emotional beings. The sooner we acknowledge this basic fact of life, the sooner we can make significant headway toward growing a tender heart that can listen to God. This growth process may be especially difficult for us males in our Western culture, but even some women--Beth would include herself—will need to learn more about experiencing a healthy and robust emotional life. In our culture, men can engage themselves with full emotional energy at the baseball park, or in front of the football game on television or even while singing with gusto at church. But otherwise men are supposed to contain themselves, to be strong and silent. Weeping is for wimps. For most of my Christian life, I downplayed the legitimate role of emotions.
Because our emotional reactions and outbursts give us important clues to the hidden deeps of our soul, we must attend to them if we wish to make progress in growing a tender heart receptive to God. We are much deeper beings than the thoughts that typically come to our mind’s awareness. If we think our life is basically run by our conscious thoughts, we're fooling ourselves. Our life is mostly moved along by our emotions (i.e., e-motions) and our character, much of which remain hidden to us.
We must look to Jesus to show us the way to be strong people who are compassionately tender at appropriate times. Jesus experienced a wide range of emotions himself. He openly wept (see John 13:25); He felt deep compassion for people (see Mark 3:5); and he even displayed righteous anger (Mark 3:5). Consider this episode in His life for our instruction.
After Jesus' wonderful mountaintop experience of His transfiguration, Peter, James, John, and Jesus return to find an upset father surrounded by a crowd in debate and the other disciples who, although experienced at the ministry of exorcism, were not able to cast a demon out of a boy. The father approached Jesus to lodge his complaint: "I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not" (Luke 9:40; see also Matthew 17:16; Mark 9:18).
Instantly Jesus let out a very personal and emotional response, "'O unbelieving and perverse generation, . . . how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?" (Luke 9:41). The comment conveys frustration regarding the lack of faith of the father, of the crowd, and even of His disciples--or, as J.P. and I prefer to say it, a lack of God-confidence. Jesus then dealt with the situation: "Bring your son here'" (verse 41). As the boy was being brought to Jesus, the evil spirit threw him into a convulsion. When Jesus rebuked the demon in the power of the Spirit (see Matt 12:28), the boy was instantly healed. Later, while alone with His disciples, Jesus responded to their question regarding why they could not cast out the demon. "Because you have so little God-confidence" (see Matthew 17:20).
From this passage, consider the following general points, which may offer some guidance for how to respond appropriately with God's grace when facing difficulties and crises that arise with family members, friends, fellow church members, colleagues at work, and neighbors:
1. In a conflict situation, leave room for healthy emotional venting. "Venting" suggests the letting off of a bit of internal emotional steam or frustration. R. T. France notes that rhetorical questions, as Jesus made in this particular situation (for example, “How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?”), "need be no more than idiomatic expressions of frustration."[[i]] Because Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), His expression of frustration gives us permission also to vent our own frustrations. But we must also notice how He did so. He identified the object of His frustration in their lack of God-confidence ("What an unbelieving and perverse generation!" Matthew 17:17; Mark 9:19; Luke 9:41) as one commentator translates it)[[ii]]--more of an aside to Himself, the lament of a prophet. It's not a blaming statement starting with you, but with “I” although a few Bible versions unfortunately interpret the emotional Greek interjection “O” as “You” here. Then he owns His feelings: "How long shall I . . . put up with you?" And it’s not the time for fixit solutions yet. Now is the time for appropriate emotional expression and feeling the hurt or pain of the one venting.
By way of application then, to my outburst to Beth, if I had been honest to describe my feelings rather than play the blame game and spew all over Beth, my response to her could have been, "Oh no!" And then I would have paused as I began a new habit of describing my feelings and what my frustration is really about. "I feel so frustrated that I've got to change my schedule again this week. I'm never going to get that project done." Beth, secure in herself and without a need to defend her ego, would actively listen to my frustration, come alongside, and enter into my pain and empathize with me: "Yeah, I see how very frustrating that could be. That makes me sad too." Scripture encourages us to "mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). Of course, it will take many attempts at this kind of give-and-take to grow into a more healthy way of describing our feelings for us to really listen to the other’s venting without rising up to defend ourselves.
2. Together work on dealing with the immediate situation. Jesus asked for the boy, and the disciples brought him. Jesus interviewed the father about the problem and diagnosed it. He healed him, in dependence on the power of the Spirit (Matt 12:28) and gave the boy back to his father. So, after we leave some time for emotions to be vented and affirmed, we then look at the pressing need together as partners, rather than as adversaries. Of course, honest venting and empathic listening sets the best tone to move to this second step. If we start looking at the past to fix blame, we've moved back into the mode of sinful compulsions and defense mechanisms, and we're also wasting valuable time and energy that could be used to work on the immediate problem. If there is an immediate issue, it must be addressed right away. That is the primary concern, not the history of how we got here. "So what do we do now?" We face the conflict as a team. It's our problem, not your problem. We postpone any discussions of what brought the conflict on. In our situation, because only an hour remained before Beth was going to use the car, the only solution was for me to adjust my schedule.
3. Later, privately and at leisure, discuss the episode and brainstorm ways to decrease a recurring problem. After the healing was completed, the disciples went privately to Jesus and asked Him why they couldn't cast out the demon. Jesus explained that it was their lack of God-confidence. He then used the occasion to teach about God-confidence (see Matthew 17:20-21).
Once the impending crisis is addressed in some fashion, we can agree on the best time for reflecting on the event, when emotions are calmer and the pressing need of the problem won't oppress the tone of the conversation. We can then be honest about what went wrong. Each of us can admit the part we played. If need be, we can apologize and ask for forgiveness and receive it. For those of us who tend to fix problems, we can then offer systematic solutions that might help prevent this kind of problem from recurring.
At this point, a deeper question arises: how is growing deeper in our relationship with God tied with being more aware of our emotions? Because honesty before God is highly valued by Him, as indicated in David's psalm of confession: "Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place" (Psalm 51:6, emphasis added). If we know that God wishes us to open up our deep emotions to Him, we can't go on living the same clueless way. To ignore God's invitation to open us to His searching gaze would indicate a willful resistance to His loving embrace in the deep parts of our lives. Rather, as David closes Psalm 139, let us invite God in: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (verses 23-24).