My son is almost 2, so I traffick pretty heavily in children’s books. One of my favorites, “Why do we say goodnight,” is by Champ Thornton. Especially for being a children’s book, this book has some really solid truth. I think his most helpful contribution is how he portrays the interplay between emotions and facts.
The book is about a conversation that happens between a little girl and her mother right before bed. At one point in the conversation, after the little girl tells her mother that she doesn’t like the night, her mother does two things. First, she recognizes the little girl’s fears (I’m glad you told me how you feel”) and then she attacks those fears with truth (“But stop to think, what else is real.”) In doing so, the mother expressed a distinctly Christian understanding of both emotions and facts, and in doing so, sets the same example that is modeled for us in the Psalms.
There are two pitfalls that we must avoid when we are filled with emotions that dishonor God. (Fear when we are commanded to be courageous, pride when we are commanded to be humble, bitterness when we are commanded to be forgiving, etc.) The first pitfall is to treat our emotions as truth. We feel a certain way and we conclude that must be how reality is. If the mother had believed this, her advice would be something like, “Thanks for telling me how you feel, you are right, the dark is scary. I’m going to leave a light on so you won’t have to be scared of it any more.” Under this view, the child’s emotion is what defines reality. Grow up on a steady diet of this and you will grow up unstable, for your reality will be thrown around as easily as your emotions are. Which for most of us, is really easily.
The other pitfall is just as bad. This pitfall ignores and delegitimizes our emotions altogether. This view says that emotions are not real and should be ignored. A mother who believed this would say something like, “You are too old to be scared of the dark,” or, “hey, just be brave, ok?” This view gives very little credit to the girl’s emotions. This view instead asks her to simply change them. Growing up on this may cause you to go wrong in a variety of ways. Not addressing your emotions can leave you emotionally immature, unable to process what you are feeling and stuck in a cycle of pushing down-with decreasing success-everything that you feel. It can also cause you to disconnect what you feel from what you do, as if action was more important than feeling. You may end up like the Pharisees. “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Matthew 15:8. Right action, wrong emotion.
A better way forward
So what do we do when we have emotions that are not where they are supposed to be? We do what the mother in the story did. Acknowledge the emotion, and challenge the underlying facts in order to change the emotion. We see this in the Psalms. Sometimes we think of the Psalms as the happy “short verses” that we teach our kids to memorize. Not so. Some of the darkest passages in the Bible are in the Psalms. So many of them are the psalmist pouring out his emotions before the Lord. In Psalm 42, the psalmist speaks to his own soul and is, in a sense, being both the child and the mother.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God: for I shall again praise him,
My salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
From the land of Jordan and of Hermon
From Mount Mizar.”
(Psalm 42:5 ESV)
The psalmist does not pretend his soul is not cast down. He does not pretend he is not in despair or turmoil. But he does recognize that it is happening because he is not hoping in God. Bringing to memory the underlying facts, that he can trust in God, changes his emotions organically. And so for the Christian, this is the way forward. Our wayward emotions are that way because they are being fed by lies. We need to disbelieve those lies, stay seeped in the truth of the Bible, and only then will we begin to feel rightly.