What do we do with negative emotions? Each of us, depending on our view of the world, define different emotions as negative or positive. We all feel anger, frustration, sadness, and fear. All of these emotions are valuable at different times. We feel each of them but we may not allow ourselves to experience them.
We tend to judge the emotions we are most ashamed of, negatively. Some think that sadness or fear is a sign of weakness. Others think frustration or anger is too strong or overbearing. Being completely consumed by an emotion isn’t healthy but allowing it to teach us is a path toward greater self-awareness.
My old tendency was to figure out the right way to live within my emotions. I often chided myself for feeling an emotion I perceived as negative. I would push it away, which isn’t easy or healthy, yet we all do it. We can pretend to be happy or content but, at least for me, that means pushing away all thoughts of sadness or frustration.
In a recent experience, I felt an inner hesitation as someone offered an alternative way of doing something. I noticed a pause within myself and immediately judged it as pride, my own need to do things my way. I knew neither way mattered but something didn’t settle right in this alternative way. This presented a choice for me. Do I judge my own inner reaction as right or wrong? Do I follow it or go against it? Or, do I listen to what this inner reaction has to teach me?
Thanks to a good friend’s advice, I decided to listen and allow God to show me something new. A few weeks ago, I introduced Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Nun from the 16th Century. She shared an image of a wax seal as a metaphor for spiritual formation. The wax is unable to impress the seal upon itself or even to soften itself. The only thing the wax can do is to remain where it is placed. This is the invitation as we listen to ourselves and God in the midst of our own inner journey.
This means I need to refrain from assigning meaning to my feelings in a given situation. We do this by giving them value, either good or bad. Honestly, our motivations are a mixture of both. In this particular situation, I could have judged my own inner struggle as being from pride and reject it. However, the invitation was to take this struggle openly to God to discover what it had to teach me. What I discovered was a desire to actually show up as myself in the situation from a place of confidence instead of condemnation.
I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to limit myself to fit into expectations, either mine or another’s. The invitation is to walk in freedom, the way God has designed. Listening to what was going on in my own heart and holding what I found there to God was a means of discovering a trueness that surpassed my judgment of myself. This seems more like a journey of discovery and brings grace to the conversation; acceptance and belonging along the way.
Instead of judging our hearts as we walk along, we are invited to trust God is always for us. From this place, we are invited into a face-to-face journey of relationship. When we can rest in our own belovedness within God’s gaze, we can vulnerably hold whatever goes on in our inner selves to God, to see what God sees. If we know we can trust God to love us regardless, then we can safely show up in relationship with God. This gives us a deepening freedom to accept ourselves and all the others around us.
This isn’t easy - but I believe God gently and continually shows us more of God’s character as we allow a deepening relationship. We do our part very imperfectly and God calls us beloved. God is always for us, regardless!
People often ask me about the safety of being quiet in contemplative prayer. How do we know what voices we are listening to? How do we make certain that we aren’t either lying to ourselves or listening to evil spirits? How do we know that we are being guided by God?
These are good questions. I have had to work through them myself. It seems that these questions come from a religion focused more on self instead of God. Thinking more about what I need to do to be safe in contrast to focusing more on the character and love of God.
I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us (Romans 8:38-39, MSG).
This is a verse which seems to speak to part of these questions. It captures part of God’s view of us. We will never be separated from the love of God. The Message translation speaks about this love based on an embrace with Jesus. It brought to mind another verse from John 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1, NRSV).
John is speaking about the Logos (Word) as Christ. The Greek word translated as with shows an intimate face-to-face relationship.(1) This is the embrace we are invited to experience, to enjoy, to dance within, and to be an invitation towards.
As we live life, it seems there is much that gets in the way of living freely within this embrace with God. Both Jesus and Paul spoke about being one with God - this is the intimate face-to-face relationship we are invited to experience. So what gets in the way?
It seems we place many barriers in the way and believe they protect us. Imagine a wall of our own making blocking our ability to experience God’s love. We aren’t really separated from God’s love but we are unable to experience God’s love as safe and true. Let me explain.
Spiritual writers talk about a true self and a false self. Our true self is who we are created to be. We are all created with an Imago Dei, Image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), in us. This is who we have been created to be.
As we grow and live in the world, we learn to protect ourselves by placing a false self around us. This false self is anything we want to be perceived as - beautiful, rich, smart, athletic, kind, a good Christian, even weak and needing to be rescued. We use these labels to define ourselves as we strive toward who we think we need to be, instead of freely living who we are created to be.
Even though some of these labels are good attributes, manufacturing these identities in ourselves becomes difficult to sustain. It is more like we are pretending to be what we ought, instead of living from a grounded place of freedom and acceptance of who we are. The false self isn’t necessarily bad. It is only an illusion that keeps us from living out of God’s loving embrace. From this false self, we are actually living “rightly” in our own strength.
So the barriers, the false self, we put in place get in the way of experiencing God’s intimate face-to-face relationship. Love doesn’t feel like love coming in or out of these barriers. The love that is real becomes distorted.
We all have these barriers. As I love another, the love is distorted through my barriers as well as through theirs. It can get very messy living as humans together. That is where grace, defined as acceptance and belonging, comes in. Believing we are all doing our very best and accepting we will all do this living together, very imperfectly.
Now, let’s go back to the verse we started with from Romans. If nothing can separate us from God’s embrace of love, then when we experience God’s embrace as unloving, what do we do? For me, I have begun a practice of noticing my own barriers that tend to distort God’s love.
First, that requires me to actually pay attention to what doesn’t feel settled inside of me - allowing those feelings to come. I need to be open to my own feelings instead of rejecting them as negative or bad. This requires a trust in God’s intimate embrace of love and allows God to show me the fears, lies, or doubts I have accepted as lived truth. These falsehoods have power and take up energy or space in my life as strongholds. They control my behavior more than I would like to admit.
In allowing God to touch these places, I can live from the freedom of being loved and accepted by God, regardless of anything. This can help me live with an ever-deepening singleness of intention toward God. From this place, I can begin to be absolutely convinced (Paul’s words) of my security within God’s intimate face-to-face embrace with me. From there, I can grow deeper in living within a singleness of intent toward God.
You can see this is a cyclical dance as we learn to love and be loved by God. As we realize we are more secure in God’s love than we knew, we are invited to be ever more trusting in prayer. This means trusting ourselves and God in God’s desire to go to any length to communicate with us in relationship. God is trustworthy in God’s fierce love for us, each one of us.
So why is contemplative prayer safe? It is safe because of who God is. God is for us and desires to meet us in prayer. Our desire for more of God is actually meeting God’s fierce desire for us. We can trust God to meet us in this space, regardless. It isn’t about fixing ourselves but allowing ourselves to surrender to our own belovedness and to accept God is for us.
(1) Cleon L. Rogers Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1998), 175.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!