Our thoughts serve as signals that something deeper is wrong.
You may find, upon surveying your thought life, that your thinking is fragmented, obsessive, phobic, or distorted. The principles governing your life may be unclear, or your beliefs may not be grounded in reality. You may minimize important things or categorize people and events as all bad or all good. Your beliefs about yourself and about God may be inconsistent with Scripture.
If this analysis of your thought life starts to feel like a list of charges against you, remember that the three areas of sin discussed in part one of this article have devastated the free agency of our minds. Original sin left us with a fatally wounded spirit seeking independence from God. Sins committed by others distorted our thinking and damaged our minds. The sins we committed further debilitated us. Our damaged thoughts are the natural response to the unnatural state of sinfulness.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul describes our situation in starker terms: He says we are slaves to sin.3 Jesus also said “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.”4 A slave cannot free himself; he must depend on someone else to set him free.
Like our behaviors, these thoughts are not easily modified. Even when we devote a great deal of effort, psychotherapy, meditation, or medication, simply focusing on our cognitive self is incomplete.
But, like the previous level of our iceberg, our thoughts serve as signals that something deeper is wrong.
Label the third level on your drawing “Emotions.” This aspect of our being contains the bank vault of our wounds. As Christians, we look forward to the eternal rest that will be ours in heaven; but we may have little earthly rest if we don’t resolve our emotional conflicts. Relational injuries puncture our “love tanks” from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. As our emotional reserves drain away, addiction, conflict with others, and depression are distinct possibilities. If our parents did not teach us to identify and express our feelings, we may find ourselves choosing new situations that simulate old injuries. We see this in women who choose poor male companions in the hope of receiving affirmation their father never provided. We seem programmed to recreate emotional traumas by doing the same old thing hoping to get a new and different result.
Left untreated, emotional wounds fester, leading to pain worse than the original wound. Paradoxically, until the painful consequences of our reactive behavior feels worse than the emotional pain we’re trying to medicate,5 we will continue to engage in harmful behaviors. In other words, we only stop when the iceberg sinks us.
When we find ourselves in trouble, it is helpful to explore our histories by asking key questions about our emotions, just as we did our thoughts. At this level on your chart, ask yourself:
What am I feeling right now?
Seems like a funny question, but it’s an important one. For example, if our family didn’t allow anyone to show anger, or they showed it in the wrong way, we may have crossed it off our list of “acceptable” emotions. Women, especially, may feel angry, but tell themselves and others, “I’m not angry, I’m just hurt.” Sometimes men are taught that fear equals weakness. We may hide fear behind the more macho emotion of anger. Drugs like work, sports, or pornography may be used to numb our emotions until we don’t feel much at all. As elementary as it seems, this question is a key starting point for everyone.
Why do I feel this way?
We use this basic question to start connecting the dots. Memories and thoughts link with lingering emotions. This simple cause and effect determines much of our struggle today. When we begin to make out the bigger picture, we can begin dealing with it. Past events and current reactions are put into context. Being well-informed about our feelings today, in turn, unlocks a more hopeful tomorrow.
How long have I had these feelings?
Did I feel this way last year … before marriage … in second grade? This question helps us identify the root of the emotional conflict instead of just the stem. It also helps to clarify our answers to the other questions.
What unresolved conflicts am I aware of?
It seems so much easier to try avoiding thinking of conflicts. We would do just about anything to avoid them. But letting bad feelings hang over our heads just makes life miserable. Let’s at least start by taking an inventory of what’s hounding us. The list may seem a lot more doable just because it’s written out. This process also gives God the opportunity to make us aware of other conflicts we’ve effectively put out of our minds.
With whom am I at odds?
Some interpersonal conflicts are obvious. Others may not be. The fight with the neighbor over their dog getting loose for the tenth time is a memorable event. The unspoken anger toward an intrusive relative last Christmas may have gotten swept under the emotional rug. We all know the pain of taking our anger out on the wrong person, or having it done to us. Making this list not only helps us quit tracking the “dirt” from those unresolved conflicts, but it also moves us a step closer to cleaning it out altogether.
How do I feel about myself during contemplative moments alone or when I am with others?
Modern psychobabble has sold us a false bill of goods. “Self-esteem” is a main tenet in many schools, essentially teaching kids that their performance determines their value. Unfortunately, our assessment of ourselves is often a collection of other people’s opinions of us, which we have in turn accepted as our own. We may know mentally that God values us as worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, but our emotions still believe otherwise. Figuring out what we really feel about ourselves is essential to emotional wholeness.
Many tend to resist exploring their emotional wounds. The fear of stirring up old pain is stronger to them than the desire to be free from current consequences. I have also known Christians who felt it was unscriptural or ungrateful to take a therapeutic inventory of their emotions. Others just want to “let sleeping dogs lie.” Dr. Phillip Brand clarified the important role of physical pain several years ago in the streets of Calcutta, India. As a Christian medical missionary, he served hundreds of patients suffering from leprosy.
Dr. Brand noticed that many of his patients developed infections from untreated wounds. As he cleansed and bandaged these wounds, he was surprised to learn that the pain rarely troubled them. They were numb to the signal God designed to alert them to the need for help. On occasion, one would burn herself severely while cooking and think little of it. More shocking, patients came to the clinic, having mysteriously lost toes and fingers at night. Dr. Brand later witnessed large rats coming out of the sewers to feed on the diseased digits of lepers as they slept on the streets.
The point of Dr. Brand’s story is that recovery – physical or emotional – requires input from pain. The eradication of pain is not necessarily the goal. For now, at least, understanding and accepting our emotional pain is key to opening the door into the deepest level of our conflict: our spirit.
As you label the final section of your chart, consider for a moment the human spirit. This is the area in which we are most individually like God. This part of us is what responds to majestic music and noble causes. It wants to be inspired. When we tried and failed at all those behavioral and cognitive solutions we were really trying to protect our spirits.
Many refer to the “God-shaped void” we supposedly have inside us. A more complete view of our spirit reveals that God created us to need, above all else, intimacy. By our nature, we are driven to seek an intimate connection with Him. No drug, religion, person, sex act, or consuming hobby can ever take the place of that connection.
Unfortunately religion about God has sometimes been mistaken for relationship with God. The structure of religion can’t satisfy the hungry heart longing to be cherished by another. Authentic relationship with God satisfies even the hungriest of hearts. Even if you grew up in church and professed Christ as a young child, religious rituals may weigh down your spirit until there’s no intimate connection with God.
To complete your spirit-level inventory, ask yourself:
Any “no” to the questions above represents a barrier to true intimacy with God needing to be brought down.
Copyright © 2004 Rob Jackson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.