09 August 2015

Emotionally Healthy Faith

Ephesians 4:24-5:2

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

9th August 2015

This morning I would like to offer something different.  The bulletin says it’s now time for the sermon.  Well, not really.  This isn’t technically a sermon, that is, an exposition on the text per se.  Instead, this will be something else.  I’m not sure what to call it.  It’s a kind of rumination around some thoughts and questions sparked by these verses in Ephesians.  I’m inviting you in on a conversation that I’m having with this text.  And that’s why I’m reluctant to call it a sermon because there’s a lot in these verses that I don’t believe or agree with, a lot that I have questions or concerns about.  Perhaps in the end you’ll share my concerns; perhaps you won’t.  That’s okay.  Perhaps you hear something different in the text.  That’s also okay.  It’s all worth talking about and exploring together.  So, we’ll see how it goes.  It’s summer after all; we can mix things up a little.

What’s my concern or issue?  It’s the way the writer of the epistle—probably Paul or, at least someone who knew him, so let’s just say, Paul—talks about anger.  And not only anger, but also the way Paul approaches the full range of human emotions.  Granted, the text doesn’t explicitly refer to every emotion.  Anger is mentioned three times, along with bitterness and malice.  And there’s a call to be “tender-hearted” (Eph. 4:32), to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). 

To be clear, Paul’s not trying to offer a theological reflection on the place of emotions in the Christian life.  He is, however, talking about ethics and behavior.  He’s concerned with the way Christians live their lives and how Christians relate to one another in community.  Ethics certainly has something to do with a healthy emotional life.  However, Paul’s turn to Christian ethics, couched in the language of baptism—put off the old self, “clothe yourself with the new self,” as Paul says in 4:24, is the language of baptism—comes after he reflects on the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  For Paul, here as elsewhere, ethics flows from theology.  In other words, what we say we believe about God informs how we live and behave.  There’s no such thing as ethics for ethics’ sake in the Christian life.  The Christian is not called first to be “ethical,” but to love.  God’s love for us summons our love for God, which then leads us to love our neighbor and ourselves.   

This is why the Christian life is about more than “follow the rules” or behaving in a certain way as if we’re expected to be good little boys and girls.  I think it’s unfortunate that the NRSV’s heading for this section of Ephesians (headings in the Bible are not in the original manuscripts, but added by the translators) reads “Rules for the New Life.”  Rules?  Laws?  Rules imply standards and standards imply measurement, which requires judgment.  And so, quite naturally, when we hear a text such as this we hear it as a list, a list of things we should or should not do, and so, because we want to please God (because we assume that that’s all that God wants from us, obedience) we want to make sure we follow the rules.  It’s pretty clear what’s acceptable here and what isn’t from Paul’s point of view.  And what’s not acceptable in the Christian life is anger.

This is where I have problems with this text, with its approach to anger, and then the way such a statement leads to a general suspicion, in some Christians, toward our approach to and understanding of emotions.  My concern is that some of these verses can be (often are) pulled out of their contexts and established as a rule, a standard—for everyone at all times.

Hear this verse again, “Be angry but do not sin…” (Eph. 4:26a). Let’s stop here.  Yes, it’s okay to be angry, it seems, so long as anger doesn’t lead one to sin.  In other words, be angry if you’re angry, but don’t get stuck there and make sure it doesn’t get out of control and lead to something sinful.  The verse continues, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26b).  So you can get angry for a time, a relatively short time, no more than a day.  But that’s all the time you have to be angry.  If you give any more time to anger—no matter what the cause of your anger—you run the risk of making room for the devil.  Then, several verses later, we’re told, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander...” (Eph. 4:31). 

Which is it?  Should Christians be angry or not?  Is there an acceptable measure of anger in the Christian life?  Is there some kind of scale, an Anger Monitor that warns us when our anger borders on sin? Does anger always have to lead to sin?  Is it possible to be angry without being sinful?  Is it really a vice, as Paul describes it here, something that should be “put away”?  I grew up hearing that Christians aren’t supposed to be angry, along with the saying, “Christians are supposed to forgive.”  However, sometimes the Christian desire to forgive right away can be a kind of defense mechanism, a strategy used to prevent one from really feeling angry.  And is anger really of the “devil”? Is there something explicitly anti-Christian about anger?  Isn’t it simply an emotion?  Or is there something inherently bad about emotions?  What about sadness or fear or joy or awe?  Are some good and some bad? Do we just choose the ones we like or think are “Christian” and then reject the others? Dividing emotions into good and bad is not at all psychologically healthy and it sets us up, by “us” I mean Christians, for a lot of unhealthy behavior and leaves us tormented.

I’ve met very faithful Christians struggling with depression who felt guilty for being so. They hid their struggles from the rest of the community.  They assumed that Christians are supposed to go around full of the joy of the Lord 24/7.  To acknowledge sadness meant they failed as Christians.  Some forms of depression are actually caused by our inability to be angry.  And are we not allowed to be sad?  There’s a long, rich tradition of lament within Judaism, which we don’t stress enough within Christianity; lament is a faithful, even worshipful response to pain and sorrow and sadness in the world.  The psalms are full of psalms of lament.  There’s an entire book in the Bible dedicated to it: Lamentations.  But we don’t like to dwell on the sadness. We would rather boast in the joy of the Lord than discover God’s presence in our pain and suffering. This is probably why the Church loves hymns in major keys and why we hear complaints (why I hear complaints) when we sing a hymn set in a minor key.

There are Christians who know that they’re angry.  They’re actually in touch with their emotions and know why they’re angry.  I’ve also met plenty of angry Christians who don’t know they’re angry or suppressing their anger or denying it altogether (because Christians aren’t supposed to be angry) and then they put on a persona of cheerfulness, joy, and kindness, all the while inside they’re writhing, seething in anger. It’s the latter category, the Christians who don’t know that they’re angry, afraid of their anger, who are some of the angriest, and, sometimes, the nastiest people I know.  Then they project all that anger outside themselves, lashing out at the people around them, lashing out at the world.

The Christian community has much to learn from the field of psychology. From a psychological perspective emotions are neither bad nor good, they’re just emotions.  I like to think of them as energy in motion—e-motion.  They’re energy, affect concentrated around core experiences.  As energy they cannot be denied or ignored or pushed away.  The energy has to go someplace.  Unacknowledged anger, as energized affect, has to go someplace.  It doesn’t simply vanish.  That’s often why Christians who are not in touch with their anger can become so nasty.  It’s all sublimated, suppressed, and it comes out in all kinds of unhealthy, destructive (and sometimes toxic) behavior in the church. 

The Christian community also has a lot to learn from the recent Disney/Pixar animated film Inside Out, in theaters now.  I encourage you to see it or rent it when it’s available.  Although it’s an animated film, it’s really geared toward teenagers and adults.  Without going into the plot, “Through animation, the filmmakers bend the laws of time and space to take the viewer on a tour through the mind of 11-year-old Riley. We visit the brightly colored labyrinth of long-term memory storage, the carefully guarded fortress of the subconscious…, the warehouse of abstract thought, and the surreal enchantment of imagination land. The result is a visual delight and an animated marvel. The emotions that drive Riley’s personality—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear—interact with events in her life, shaping her perception of these events and her memory of significant moments.”[1] Joy is at the control panel, and she works hard to make sure that Sadness doesn’t touch Riley’s core memories and make her blue.  The movie highlights five core emotions.  The writers wanted to add another emotion, logic.  (Is logic an emotion?)  Should love have been included?  Is love an emotion?  I went to see the movie this week and really enjoyed it.  I thought it did a good job showing how emotions function within the psyche, how they have the capacity to empower us, and how trauma in life can shut down our emotional vitality or disconnect us from emotions and feelings.  Sometimes so-called positive emotions, such as joy, need to be tempered by the so-called negative ones, such as sadness and anger.  Sometimes sadness combined with anger propel us to do a lot of good in the world.

Think of Jesus’ cleansing the temple in Jerusalem, with a “whip of cords” (John 2:15) in hand overturning the tables of the moneychangers.  He was both sad (about how the temple was being used) and angry.  Now I’m not suggesting that we go about with a whip in our hands.  We don’t have to act out every emotion.  We can acknowledge our anger without lashing out in anger toward someone. We can be angry without punching someone in the face—perhaps that’s what Paul means when he says be angry but do not sin.  Taking our cue from Jesus, perhaps as Christians we need to be angrier.  Sometimes I don’t know why Christians are not more enraged about all kinds of injustices facing God’s people today.

There’s a new book reviewed this week in The Presbyterian Outlook, with a provocative title, The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus: Relational Smarts for ReligionsLeaders. The introduction reads, “This is a book about the importance of emotional intelligence in the culture and dynamics of congregational life, with Jesus as the exemplar.  Our hope is that viewing Jesus through the lens of emotional intelligence will actually advance our understanding of Jesus.”  We know about IQ, intellectual quotient, but we also need to know about EQ, our emotional quotient.  We need emotional intelligence, the kind of emotional intelligence that knows that emotions matter.

Emotions give us life, they move us toward the things that give us life, they make us real, authentic, human.  Yes, they can be a burden and get the best of us. Sometimes logic needs to reign in our emotions.  But to be cut off from our emotions is a very dangerous thing. This is true psychologically, but it’s also true spiritually.

More than fourteen years ago Dr. Esther Sternberg wrote a groundbreaking book called The Balance Within: The Science ConnectingHealth and Emotions.  She argued that unacknowledged emotional pain and stress can become somatized, that is converted into energy that causes disease in our bodies (Greek=soma). This is not to say—and please hear what I’m saying—that all disease is rooted in unacknowledged emotional pain.  She is simply making the case that there is a mind-body connection that has been lost in the Western philosophical and religious traditions, particularly in Christianity.[2] She wrote this book fourteen years ago.  The science behind her ideas has improved considerably.  We now know that emotions can be lodged within our bodies. 

Last week on Christa Tippett’s radio program On Being she spoke with Rachel Yehuda. Yehuda is professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. This episode, How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations,” explored the developing field of epigenetics. “Genetics describes DNA sequencing, but epigenetics sees that genes can be turned on and off and expressed differently through changes in environment and behavior. Yehuda is a pioneer in understanding how the effects of stress and trauma can transmit biologically, beyond cataclysmic events, to the next generation. She has studied the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks.”[3]  Yehuda affirms that our emotions and feelings matter, and we need to pay attention to how we relate to them and understand how they function in our lives. 

Emotions help to give us life, they shape who we are.  We can’t just put them away or shut them down or cast them aside by an act of will.  They’re a part of us, and we can even encode them in our genes and pass them along.

The Christian tradition hasn’t always valued the importance of emotional health. We’re coming to this late in our experience.  However, I believe, a healthy appreciation for our emotional health can and will enhance, even deepen the experiential dimension of our faith by moving us out of our heads into our hearts and bodies. Becoming more in touch with our emotions will make us more human, which is what Jesus as fully human came to offer. One of the early church fathers, Irenaeus (130-202) said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  When we are fully alive, when we are in the process of coming more and more alive as full human beings, God is being glorified; indeed God’s glory shines through us when we are alive.  Perhaps with a healthy (-ier) emotional life we can use our anger and our joy and our sadness and all the other emotions all for the glory of God.  Perhaps then we will be in a better position to truly “live in love as Christ loved us” (Eph. 5:2).  A healthy emotional life will make us better people, more effective followers of Christ, living lives that will be a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:3).

[1] From Kathryn Rekis’ review “Faith and Feelings,” Christian Century, July 22, 2015.
[2] Esther M. Sternberg, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (New York: W. H. Freeman & Co, 2001).
[3] On Being with Krista Tippett.  A recoding of this episode, as well as the complete transcript of the interview, may be found here.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this! I also really enjoyed seeing Inside Out. To know that our feelings, even the difficult or unpleasant ones, serve a purpose can be such a powerful message. We often turn to faith when we experience strong emotions, so its good to read about the intersection of the two! -Cammy

Kenneth Kovacs said...

Thanks, Cammy!