I’ve admittedly had a lot of wrong assumptions about the person and character of God throughout my faith journey to date. For a time, I remember imagining Him as this distant entity completely ruled by logic. Weighing the good and the bad and then decreeing judgment and punishment if the bad outweighed the good. I believed that He wasn’t pleased by emotional expression of any kind, and instead wanted us as believers to dedicate ourselves solely to knowledge, in-depth biblical research and theology. Those things are important of course, but I now feel like I have a healthier, more biblically sound understanding of who God is. An understanding informed by John 4:24 (NLT) “For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” God wants my thoughts AND my emotions. He wants both, because He is both. He made us in His image, so as image bearers of Him, we too are filled with emotion by design. We honor the very essence of God in us as image bearers when we are willing to recognize our emotional selves. We honor the essence of God in others as image bearers when we are willing to engage their emotional self as well. So then why does it feel like so many of our relationships have the tendency to settle on the surface? Why do we become so “picky” about who we engage with on an emotional level?
In my own life, and in my work as a counselor, I find that there are some common themes around why we might avoid connecting with others on an emotional level. Some of these include: fear of rejection and/or abandonment, a desire to avoid feelings of disappointment in others, a persistent mistrust of others, guilt or shame about our emotional process, or a desire to avoid pain and hurt at all cost. The common thread throughout these themes seems to be a desire for self-protection through “emotional safety.” It makes logical sense why we want to protect ourselves in this way. Vulnerable human interaction has the potential to be messy, unpredictable, and painful. The reality, however, is that when we place our highest value on self-protection in this way, we can fall into patterns of isolation, withdrawal, emotional numbing, intense emotional distress, anxiety, or feelings of loneliness and depression. We weren’t designed for self-protection and isolation; we were designed for intimate community.
I find that scripture is filled with examples of emotional displays of God toward us, and of Jesus toward others when He was on earth. The Bible often speaks about an emotional Jesus who (for the purpose of displaying God’s glory) was moved to respond to others who were experiencing suffering and pain (Matt. 9:36, Luke 7:13, Mark 1:41). I think it’s beautiful that there are also many different depictions in scripture of the emotionally intimate nature of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples (John 13; John 15:12-13; Matthew 26:36-38). These were relationships where they moved toward each other in their emotional process, not away from each other out of the fear of getting hurt. I think it’s both a difficult and beautiful example for us to follow.
It’s easier to risk emotional vulnerability when we believe that it will be reciprocated. It’s much harder to do that when there is no guarantee of the outcome. Jesus acknowledged this in Matthew 5: 43-47 (The Message Version) “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy’. I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best- the sun to warm and the rain to nourish- to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the loveable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of the-mill sinner does that.”
There’s a concept used in group counseling called a microcosm, “something (such as a place or an event) that is seen as a small version of something much larger.” What this means to me is that the way that we move toward one another within the body of Christ, specifically the confines of our church family, is likely the way we move toward others in the larger context of the world. Community in our church is the ‘practice’ of our call to move toward others in a display of God’s love and compassion. This furthering of the kingdom of God cannot be done apart from the risk of emotional vulnerability. God doesn’t just leave us reeling in the fear of losing our emotional safety though. What He calls us to He promises to help us through. Isaiah 41:10 (NLT) “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand”.
If emotional safety is our aim, then what safer place can there be but the Father’s own hand?
Below are a few questions for further exploration, areas that God may be calling you to walk in increased emotional vulnerability both for your spiritual growth and for the furthering of the kingdom of God.
1. Do I quench the prodding of the Holy Spirit to move toward others in emotionally vulnerable ways out of fear? If so, take some time to read through this list to see if any of these fears fit, if not, try to sit and prayerfully ask God to reveal other areas of fear to you.
- Rejection (“They will ignore me,” “They will be invalidating toward me,” “They will think I’m being “fake,” “They will think I’m “weak,” “messy” or “dramatic)
- Inadequacy (“I won’t have the right things to say,” “I’m socially awkward,” “I need to warm up to people,” “I don’t have a relationship with them so it will be weird for both of us”)
- Uncertainty (“Do I really feel the Holy Spirit prompting me toward this person,” “Will they think I’m being presumptuous in sharing with them what God has placed on my heart,” “Will this person use this information against me in the future,” “Is it really my place to say this”)
2. Are there patterns in my life where I prioritize self-protection over emotional vulnerability? Do I numb away from my emotions? Do I view emotions as an obstacle to overcome, rather than an opportunity to honor or grow in my design as an image bearer of God?
Ask God to show you practical steps toward practicing increased emotional vulnerability at church, in your marriage, in your family, in your friendships, at work, or in your community.
Ask Him to help navigate you through the potential pain and fear of emotional vulnerability, and to provide healing and restoration that will strengthen you for the ongoing nature of His high calling on your life.