Feelings: Dictator or Indicator?

I mentioned this article at my workshop yesterday here at a conference. Posting it for you all to consider. First published in early 2010.

Feelings: Dictator or Indicator?

It had been a challenging morning. With a 2 ½ year old & an under 6 month old, I was still adjusting to life with 2 kids. I was feeling frustrating, overwhelmed & impatient. And it wasn’t even 9 AM yet!

I generally would have just gone & hid when feeling this way, , but in a moment of uncharacteristic wisdom, I stopped, bowed my head, and prayed, “God, just help me. Help me to be patient today, to be more like You.” And God answered.

God reminded me that in such moments I have a choice. I have a choice in how I respond to my feelings. I can allow them to be a dictator or an indicator. I can choose to allow my feelings to dictate the truth of my reality (if a situation feels hopeless, then things are hopeless because that’s how I feel) OR I can allow them to indicate some truth about my reality (if I’m feeling overwhelmed & without hope, my feelings indicate something, for instance that I’m likely disconnected and needing a break).

Jesus was in touch with his emotions. He wept with Mary & Martha as they mourned for their brother Lazarus. He rejoiced with the disciples as He watched them learn and grow. He became irate when He saw God’s temple being misused. And compassion welled up in His heart as He looked out at the crowds He was teaching, as they looked “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:6).

Since we are created in the image of God, we also are created to be emotional. Emotions are generally a very good thing. We get scared when we encounter danger. The adrenaline starts pumping, and it helps us to act quickly. We hang around people who are fun because they bring us joy and make us smile. We responded to God’s tugging on our hearts not simply because the Gospel made sense, but because His kindness led us to repentance (Romans 2:4). God commanded us to love Him with our hearts. He also asked us to rejoice with those rejoicing, and mourn with those in mourning.

For a long time in my life, how I felt about myself dictated my feelings of worth. If I felt good about myself, then I was happy. If I said something stupid, then I would dwell on it for hours, even days, and call myself an idiot over and over. I also allowed how I felt to dictate who God is. If I felt that God loved me, then He loved me. If I felt rejected, then He must have rejected me. If I felt ashamed, then God must be ashamed of me. If I was in a sticky situation and I felt as if God weren’t helping me in the way I wanted Him to, then He obviously felt I wasn’t worth wasting His time on. In other words, I allowed my feelings to be dictators, rather than indicators.

We could apply these truths to many areas of our lives. I know as a young person, I was rather taken aback by the feelings I was having toward a close female friend. I remember reading about homosexuality in a health & sex book I found, trying to make sense of what I was experiencing. In the book, it said that if you had attractions for someone of the same gender, and especially if you acted on them, then you were gay. I remember thinking, “There it is, in black & white. I must be a homosexual.” This book reinforced the lie that my feelings dictated my reality.

Since becoming a Christian 11 years ago, I’ve slowly been realizing the place emotions are meant to take in my life. God’s recent reminder that feelings can be indicators or dictators is evidence that I’m still working this truth out. The struggle manifests itself in different ways these days. I know that God is present and working in my life, and that it would go against His character to not be faithful & good & trustworthy. Most of all, I know my worth was defined once & for all by the fact that God created me and that Jesus died on the cross for me. Yet at times, I still struggle with feeling overwhelmed and anxious. I’m the mother of two small children who also directs a ministry – of course I’m going to feel overwhelmed at times. But I have a choice about where I allow my thoughts to go with that feeling. If I allow feeling overwhelmed to dictate my reality, then I start feeling like the worst mother in the world, that I’m in over my head, wishing I could jump back in bed and hide for the rest of the day. If I instead choose to allow my feelings to be indicators, I might instead realize that I haven’t had a break for a while, the kids are stir crazy, and maybe I’d set us all up for success if we went to the playground for a while. Then I’d plan ahead for the evening and decide I’ll go out for a child-less cup of tea after my husband gets home.

Jesus clearly expressed His emotions, but He also kept those emotions in the proper place. Imagine the emotions He was feeling as He poured out His heart to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now imagine if Jesus had allowed His feelings in the Garden to be dictators, if He prayed, “God, this is too much for me! This is completely overwhelming. There’s no way I can go through with this, God, so you’re going to have to find someone else!” Where would that have left us? Instead, His final prayer was, “Not my will, but Yours.” He chose not to allow His feelings and fears to be dictators, but instead poured them out before His Father and trusted Him with the result.

As Jesus modeled for us in the Garden of Gethsemane, just because we experience intense feelings doesn’t mean that we’re meant to be driven by them or to live according to them alone. We’ll be given an opportunity to experience this choice every day, as we’re faced with life and the inevitable challenges it brings. In those moments, we can allow our feelings to dictate the mood of our day and the direction that mood will take us, or we can view our feelings of indicators, submitting them to God and allowing Him to direct our day. We always have a choice in how we respond.

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