I was only a toddler when I developed a system of lifeless surrender. My mother was seriously ill. The babysitter who cared for me, repeatedly locked me in a closet for hours at a time. My family had no way of knowing what was happening. I started living by the general rule that most of the time people are better off when I am out of the way.
Throughout my childhood I had a dresser cattycorner in my room, pulled just far enough from the wall that I could slip behind it. The space behind the furniture became my retreat. While I hid physically, I taught myself to stash my emotions in hidden corners of my soul. I became a “good girl,” one who complied, pleased everyone as much as I could, and almost never cried. It would be decades before I crawled out of my emotional corner.
Bitter: Through It!
As a young mother I often played “bear hunt” with my children. It is a game with hand motions that tells the story of children on an adventure. They face various uncomfortable, frightening, messy obstacles, and each time they repeat, “Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Oh NO! We’ve got to go through it!”
My thirtieth birthday launched the decade that brought me back to life. God used a series of bad things that happened for my good, though he did not initiate them. My parents divorced, my father-in-law and mother-in-law, wonderful people whose examples and love sustained me, were both diagnosed with terminal illnesses. In his own pain, my Christian husband began a downward spiral that eventually ended in our divorce.
I could not miss the fact that I had to learn a new way to deal with pain. I was growing bitter. I knew bitter people and I did not want to be like them. In desperation, I sought the help of a feisty older woman. Dee became my spiritual director. She steadfastly refused to let me continue my childish survival system of numbing and hiding. I am thankful for that terrible time. By overwhelming my old coping system, the pain gave me a new opportunity to learn to live.
Even still, the depth of my pain was invisible to me. It was obvious to Dee. In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard says,
“ . . . those readinesses and feelings that run our life, whether we are aware of them or not, reside in fairly specific parts of our body, and they reveal themselves to others through our body language – in how we ‘carry our bodily parts.’ They not only govern our immediate responses in action, but also are read with great accuracy by observant people around us and then determine how they react to us. We wear our souls ‘on our sleeve,’ even when we ourselves are oblivious to them, and that governs the quality of our relations to others.”
Dee read me with great accuracy, she even sent me to the mirror, hoping I would be able to see my rage reflected there. After each meeting I laced up my shoes and ran until I could not breathe. Gradually I learned: Fury . . . Grief . . . Fear . . . “You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You’ve got to go through it!”
Sweet: Walls Fall Down
I was a chick who never hatched, preferring the protective, confining environment of the egg. I ached to stretch and squawk, to love actively and hear God’s voice. New conviction that I could not fully love God or others without exposing my heart and soul, replaced the old belief that it was better for everyone if my feelings remained hidden. Dee helped me find my desires, grief, sadness, and anger. I started to peck at the eggshell; I learned to cry when I was sad and own my anger when I was mad.
We are made in God’s image and part of that image involves emotion. The Bible speaks of God’s delight, satisfaction, and joy but also his anger, sadness, and even regret. The prophets who knew God best were most assured that he would love them no matter how they felt. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jonah, David, and Jeremiah bluntly expressed intense anger, self-pity, even despair. Jesus “offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears . . . ” (Hebrews 5:7 MSG)
I learned from Madam Guyon and others that I could learn from these heroes of scripture by praying with holy imagination. Through imagination, I joined Elijah in his cave and emerged to hear God whisper. I shared David’s rage, and he voiced mine in his fiercely angry Psalms. I marched around Jericho, hoping God would demolish the person causing my trouble. To my surprise, God demolished my own wall instead.
Now, many years later, a spiritual director myself, I am often in Dee’s role. My directees and I listen to emotions that are emissaries in disturbing disguises. They show up in tight shoulders, clenched jaws, hands in fists, eyes stinging, upset stomachs or hearts that physically ache. These are firm knocks on the door, demanding that we open up. It is safe to answer the door because we have a parent at home. We pause to look at God, to remember who he is. No pain can do real harm if God is in the house.
In following Teresa of Avila’s lead, we can open the doors to the interior rooms of loneliness, loss, anger, disappointment, betrayal, and enter with confidence that our Father is with us. He wants us to know he is right there, that we do not need to keep things hidden away.
The first thing to ask when opening to feelings, is, “Who’s there? What is your name?
Specifically identifying emotions is important. Listen to them with curiosity. “What is it, disappointment? What do I need to hear?” We learn to listen without interrupting or redirecting. God listens with us. Some of these conversations are short, taking place in the time it takes to draw a deep breath and let it out. Some have a lot to tell us. We may need to schedule an appointment so that we can give it our full attention.
It is often helpful to pray kinesthetically when entertaining a fiery emotion. Swim laps, hike a mountain, or take a run. For some people, the best option is to vent emotions in writing.
Ask God for his opinion. He does not care that some emotions make awkward guests. He often allows them to stay for a while. God never condemns, but he does sometimes lead us to repent. With kindness, never condemnation, he invites, “let’s think about that differently.”
God continues to invite me to be fully present and free. I still discover new interior rooms and open locked doors. Sometimes a new depth of joy, deeper love, and more robust well-being jump out from behind a door. Those friends celebrate with me as I continue to welcome uncomfortable emissaries.
Roberta C. Bondi. To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church.
Lawrence J. Crabb. Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy.
Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics.
Lois Lowry. The Giver. Children’s fiction. The best explanation I know of the dangers of censoring emotions and pain. If you only read one book off this list, read this one.
Peter Scazzero. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to Be Spiritually Mature, While Remaining Emotionally Immature.
Sheldon Vanauken. A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph.
Dallas Willard. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Chapter 9.
- Body scan. Dallas Willard said, “For good or for evil, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life.” Start at the top of your head. One body part at a time, notice tension or pain. Tense the muscle then release it. Ask God to name whatever is stored there then take it into his hands. Repeat until you have surveyed your whole body. Breathe deeply and rest.
- Follow the Leader. Choose a biblical figure whose story feels relatable. Read the story slowly, at least a couple of times. Using imagination, put yourself in their place. Let the voice of the biblical person help you voice your own feelings to God. You may want to express them in writing. The Psalms also provide wonderful emotional coaching. Pay attention to the progression of emotion and ideas then exchange the words with your own.
- Find Your Inner Sanctuary. Establish what Quakers call an “inner sanctuary,” a quiet place in your soul, where you are aware of God and can enjoy his presence. Ask God to be near. Be attentive to what wells up in you. Practice listening when you are alone but challenge yourself to live from this inner sanctuary with God while you are also interacting with those around you.
- Soul Care. Find a spiritual director or a dedicated, mature, soul friend who can read you with accuracy, draw you out, point out closed doors, and listen to God with you.