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How We Block.
We can’t dismantle what we don’t understand. We’ve learned to build barriers that block our ability to feel, now we have to understand how in order to begin to break them down.
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If you haven’t stopped by The Lighthouse in a few weeks, we’re on a journey together - a journey to satisfy the ache inside us for deeper intimacy with God. We’re after something with Him resembling more than mere ritual. We’re after a real relationship with Him. One in which we experience His presence, hear His voice, and feel His comfort. This demands not only getting more of God, but more specifically, giving God more of us. So we’re learning to integrate our emotional lives into our spiritual lives by offering God the hardest and often most hurting parts of what we feel.
Now, last week we starting talking about why we’re prone to build barriers meant to block our more difficult emotions that we instead need to invite God to invade. We learned that we’re prone to block for comfort, in order to function, and sometimes just to survive. So we’ve talked about why we’ve built these barriers, but before we move on, we need to spend a few minutes this week discussing how we build them and here’s why:
We can’t dismantle what we don’t understand.
I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, we had to replace our old minivan. When I brought our new car home, I quickly discovered that it had a stripped screw on temporary license plate. I’m sure this sounds to you like it should be a relatively quick fix, but what was crazy to me was that getting to the back of this screw to remove it, demanded dismantling the entire back panel. Here was the problem: I had no clue how to do that. It’s not like I sit around for fun and take the panels off my car. I know how to put gas in and drive it. After that, I’m clueless. As a result, I had to watch a YouTube video to learn how that panel was constructed, so I could dismantle it and solve my problem. In a similar sense, that’s what we’re after here.
We can’t dismantle what we don’t understand. We’ve learned to build these barriers, now we have to understand how in order to begin to break them down. To that end, we’re going to talk about three ways in which we block the emotions God wants to meet us in. Let’s jump in.
#1. We Ignore Our Emotions.
In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the ancient Gk philosophy known as Stoicism. Simply put, Stoicism is about elevating logic, specifically the mind, above all else. The Apostle Paul was no stranger to Stoicism. Acts 17:18 even describes His encounter with some of the Stoic philosophers of his day. Paul even agreed with the Stoics regarding the importance of the mind. In Romans 12:2 he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” So to be clear: the mind matters deeply in our spiritual formation. But while there is much to learn from Stoic philosophy, there are also some significant limitations.
Modern Stoicism has focused much attention on the virtue of mental resilience. While Stoicism doesn’t teach the absence of emotions, it is often focused on the mastery of them.
One of modern Stoicism’s most popular evangelists is the author and media strategist, Ryan Holiday. His books have sold millions of copies and for good reason. Holiday has done a supreme job of dragging this ancient philosophy into the modern world and much of what he has pulled forward is helpful.
However, much of modern Stoicism still has an unhelpful bent toward demonizing the value of particular emotions in a way that distorts what God intends to do through them. For instance, Holiday writes, “We defeat emotions with logic, or at least that’s the idea. Logic is questions and statements. With enough of them, we get to root causes (which are always easier to deal with).”
That line of thinking makes sense, but here’s my questions:
Is “defeating” our emotions really the goal?
And just because logic is “easier” and more manageable, does that mean God doesn’t want to work in the difficult mess of unpleasant emotions?
As we established earlier, we are humans created in the image of a God who embodies the full range of emotions. So while I believe the intent is good, this is the very type of counsel from modern-day Stoics that allowed me to justify ignoring any emotions I deemed “unhelpful.” There is certainly an argument to be made that emotions which cause us to behave in a destructive or dysfunctional manner are certainly “harmful,” but I’d still maintain it’s our response, not the emotion itself, that is the problem.
In their important book, The Cry Of The Soul, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman write,
“Emotion links our internal and external worlds. To be aware of what we feel can open us to questions we would rather ignore. For many of us, that is precisely why it is easier not to feel. But failure to feel leaves us barren and distant from God and others.”
This is the most common reason we learn to ignore our emotions. It’s not always that they hold destructive power in our lives. More often, we simply do not like what facing them entails. So while I believe some of this modern Stoicism holds value, and mental resilience is a critical virtue in a corrupted world, my concern is that we may use it to justify the neglect of the very emotions God intends to meet us in.
I would describe my own experience of learning to ignore certain emotions not as Stoicism, but as the practice of “turning the page.” There was a time I conflated mental resilience and emotional health. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I assumed I was emotionally healthy because I could acknowledge difficult, even traumatic circumstances and then simply move on to whatever was next.
No real need to reflect.
No need to talk about it, or make sense of it.
No need to grieve.
I would simply “turn the page” and move on. And that worked . . . until it didn’t. Thirty-some-odd years of this practice all caught up and started to force its way out.
Here’s my point: Ignoring painful emotions does not eliminate them. It simply conceals them in a way that allows their power to compound.
The writers of Scripture put consistent emphasis on the practice of self-examination.
In Psalm 119:59 the Psalmist writes, “I thought about my ways and turned my steps back to your decrees.”
Lamentations 3:30 says, “Let’s examine and probe our ways, and turn back to the LORD.”
Haggai 1:7 says, “Think carefully about your ways.”
Prior to taking communion, Paul told early Christians to “examine” themselves in 1 Corinthians 11:28.
Obviously, there is a clear emphasis on the need to examine our lives for sin that hurts us and hinders our intimacy with God, but what I want you to see is that in the Scriptures, we learn that the Christian life is one of holistic examination, not selective ignorance.
We may block our emotions for a season, but doing so also impedes our ability to connect with God and others in a deep and meaningful manner. Here’s a second way we block the very emotions God wants to meet us in…
#2. We Run from Our Emotions.
Another way we block emotions is to live at a pace of life that so preoccupies our attention we lose the presence of mind necessary to fully feel. If you haven’t done this personally, you may have seen it in someone else.
Always on the move.
Always in motion.
Afraid if they stop, they will also feel.
I’m convinced this is one reason we’ve created a culture marked by so much frantic and frenetic energy. The busyness we’re so prone to brag about has the profound effect of blocking our ability to feel. The problem is, if we don’t feel, our connection to God and others will be severely limited. John Mark Comer writes of how the enemy of our souls is behind our busyness:
“Today, you’re far more likely to run into the enemy in the form of an alert on your phone while you’re reading your Bible or a multi-day Netflix binge, or a full-on dopamine addiction to Instagram or a Saturday morning at the office or another soccer game on a Sunday or a commitment after commitment after commitment in a life of speed . . . Both sin and busyness have the exact same effect — they cut off your connection to God, to other people, and even to your own soul.”
I find it very interesting that one of the most common invitations in Scripture is to wait on God.
Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart be courageous. Wait for the LORD.”
Lamentations 3:25 says, “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the person who seeks him.”
Psalm 46:10 says, “Stop fighting [be still], and know that I am God.”
In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Any pace of life that prevents us from the ability to examine our hearts each day is simply too rushed.
The scary part about this is we may not even realize we’re doing it. It has become so culturally acceptable to be overwhelmed, we think it’s normal. We don’t consciously realize we’re starving our souls and cutting off connection to God. So we can’t forget that the simple invitation of Jesus throughout the Gospels was, “Follow me.” Now, it’s pretty hard to follow someone you consistently outpace. So many of us have reversed Jesus’ invitation and expect Him to follow us. Whether it’s intentional or not, at least one reason we do this is that walking with Jesus, truly following Him, will inevitably mean His asking us to sit with Him in feelings, memories, and experiences we would rather not explore. And His intent is never to hurt us, but to heal us.
Sadly, rather than sit and find Him gentle and faithful to heal, we keep on running so as never to feel. We block our emotions by ignoring them, by running from them and finally…
#3. We Numb Our Emotions.
Sometimes when we find ourselves no longer able to ignore, or outrun our emotions, we turn to a variety of means by which we numb them. The options are endless. Sex, entertainment, food, and substance abuse, all have a powerful and dangerous ability to numb our feelings.
Then problem is, we’re not meant to limp through life numb to emotion. This is what Paul was getting at in Ephesians 5:15-18. He writes,
15 Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk — not as unwise people but as wise — 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit.. -- Ephesians 5:15-18 (CSB)
We’re not meant to limp through life numb to emotion. We’re meant to live fully alive and aware, even when that means seasons of discomfort.
I do want to clarify this point: there’s an important distinction between intentionally numbing our emotions and walking through an experience that is so emotionally overwhelming it leaves you temporarily numb. For instance…if you have ever lost someone you loved, you have most likely experienced the temporary sensation of feeling emotionally “numb” that results from being overwhelmed.
If a global pandemic and a contentious election weren’t enough to make 2020 the overwhelming dumpster fire to end all dumpster fires, I lost a very dear friend that year.
Darrin Patrick, was a pastor to pastors, but during one of the most difficult seasons of my life and his, he also became my friend. Prior to planting our church here in Salt Lake City, I spent just shy of two very long years pastoring an existing church in a small town in the South. It was tough and traumatic in ways I don’t have time to unpack right now, but in short I felt like my life was unraveling. As God’s providence would have it, Darrin’s was unraveling at the same time. As they say, misery loves company, so Darrin and I spent a good number of hours on very long phone calls commiserating and desperately seeking one another’s encouragement and counsel.
Thankfully, the circumstances in both our lives improved greatly and we got to share that as well. He came here to Salt Lake in early 2020 to speak at a small gathering for church planters and he and I had the chance to share a long dinner the night before.
We talked about all God had carried us through.
We talked about all that was good in life.
We laughed. A lot.
It was so refreshing to spend time with him when life was so much better for us both.
But that’s what made the tragic phone call I received just weeks later, so shocking. I will never forget a mutual friend calling me just after dawn in early May and saying, “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Darrin is dead.”
I was just devastated.
I cried. A lot.
I was hit by these overwhelming waves of tears off and on all day long. Then this strange thing happened later that night.
I couldn’t cry anymore.
I was numb.
If you’ve ever walked through one of these emotionally overwhelming experiences, you know this strange yet familiar move toward numbness.
That experience is normal and natural, but it’s also distinct from behaviors that intentionally tamp down our feelings and purposely pursue numbness. You don’t have to be an addiction expert to know that “numbing” is a common reason people run to addictive substances in the first place. Drugs and alcohol can do an excellent job of diminishing or cutting off our ability to feel. So can pornography, excessive entertainment, and a host of other behaviors.
In all of this, I want you to hear this: I can deeply empathize with the longing to deaden those emotions that cause such pain. The problem is, when we numb our emotions we negate our ability to fully experience life with God.
Where do we go from here?
The reality is, some of us have grown skilled at not feeling the very emotions God desires to meet us in. Some of us have spent years building these barriers and they won’t come down in a day. The good news is, if we have learned not to feel, we can also learn to feel. It will be neither easy, nor comfortable, but I want to assure you again that it’s entirely worth it.
A deeper experience of God’s person, presence, and power wait on the other side.
We’re walking through some heavy subject matter here. So it would be normal if you are feeling overwhelmed, or maybe even experiencing some degree of dread as we drudge this all up together. So I just want to continue to remind you that we’re not in a race.
Take a breath.
Remember that you’re not alone.
We’re taking this journey together and most importantly, God’s right there with you, slowly inviting you deeper and deeper into relationship with Him.
The common thread running through all three of these ways we learn to block our emotions is the decision, conscious or unconscious, to not examine our inner lives. So, let’s take a small step again in learning to examine our lives each day this week.
Each day, at a time that works best for you, open a note on your phone, or a journal and do your best to answer this simple question:
What feelings am I holding today?
Again, we all have varying levels of ease with this question. Some of us are adept and experienced at answering this important question. Some of us aren’t used to thinking about it and might at first think we have no idea what we’re feeling. Furthermore, some of us may be so emotionally closed off, we think we feel nothing. Regardless, here’s my encouragement:
Start where you are.
We’re going to go deeper and deeper into this, but let’s start small. Better to consistently perform small practices than constantly fail at sizable ones. Progress, not perfection is our goal. So rather than ignore, run from, or numb our emotions, let’s take this simple step toward them, inviting God to meet us in that place.