Scientists marvel at the interconnected nature of all living organisms. Though many stubbornly refuse to recognize the fingerprints of God in creation, they still speak in awe of the complex design of things they observe and refer to the delicate balance of nature.
A simple flower provides a prime example. The plant is comprised of many parts, each playing an important role in its overall health. Damage to any one of these parts affects the well-being of the flower. If a rodent eats away at the roots, the plant doesn’t get the minerals and water it needs. If the stem is damaged, food cannot be delivered where it is needed. If insects strip away the leaves, photosynthesis (the conversion of sunlight and carbon dioxide to food) does not take place. If the stigmas are damaged, the necessary pollination cannot occur. To have a healthy plant capable of growth and reproduction, each critical part must be healthy.
In the same way, humans are very complex organisms with highly interdependent parts. And it is not just the inter-connected nature of our physical organs and body parts that is important. The various dimensions of our being also have a strong impact on one another. For example, our physical health affects, and is affected by, our emotional health. Proverbs 17:22 says that, “A cheerful heart is good medicine but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Along similar lines, Proverbs 14:30 states, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”
Historically, the church has focused primarily on the spiritual dimension of the believer’s life and has not always recognized the need to minister to the whole person. This limited perspective of the church’s calling is a tragic misunderstanding that has hindered not only the growth of individual believers but also the ability of the church to impact the world for Christ. Until a person develops emotional health and healthy relationships, he will only be able to advance so far in his own spiritual walk and will be limited in his ability to minister to others.
Because we are complex beings, understanding spiritual growth demands that we understand many components of our lives. One of the primary connections that we need to understand is between the emotional and relational facets of our lives (what we are calling the restorative dimension) and the spiritual aspect. It is critical that we give attention to the restoring dimension of a believer’s life as well as the spiritual dimension. Spiritual growth will not occur in many areas unless there is maturity in the restorative areas discussed below.
We need to develop emotional health.
Developing emotional health begins with learning to think correctly because emotions are a natural response to our thinking about, or interpretation of, the things that happen around us or to us. Thinking correctly involves both what we think (content) and how we think (process). Incorrect thinking is often based on an incorrect or inadequate view of ourselves, of others, or of God. These viewpoints or perspectives are largely formed in childhood and are influenced by the people and events closest to us. It is critical that we learn to counter falsehood with truth.
Consider the following example: A student receives a “B” on a test and feels worthless. The “worthless” feeling is the content of his thinking. He arrived at this content or conclusion by the following thought process (beliefs that led to the student’s conclusion). First, “I must always be perfect in order to be valuable.” Second, “I made a mistake, and therefore I am not perfect.” Third, “Therefore, I am not valuable. I am worthless.” Both the content and the process need to be corrected. The key is to be able to identify where one’s thinking goes wrong or, to put it another way, to identify which proposition is not true. In the example above, the second phrase is true (he did make mistakes; he is not perfect), while the first and third are not. The student’s thought process starts on a false premise and inevitably ends with a false conclusion.
The experiences of the prophet Elijah as recorded in I Kings chapters 18 and 19 provide a good illustration of the principles we have been discussing. On the heights of Mount Carmel, Elijah enjoyed two great spiritual victories⎜the defeat of the prophets of Baal and answered prayer for long-awaited rain. However, the enormous expenditure of physical and emotional energy left Elijah discouraged and despondent, and he descended into self-pity.
God, knowing the interdependence of the various dimensions of Elijah’s being, first provided food and rest. Then He confronted Elijah with the truth he needed to hear to correct his wrong thinking. In verse 10 of chapter 19, Elijah said to God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty (a true statement). The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword (also true statements). I am the only one left (a false statement), and now they are trying to kill me too” (again, a true statement). Essentially, Elijah was accusing God of giving him a raw deal, and it was an incorrect premise that led him to this faulty conclusion. In His response, God didn’t waste time affirming the parts of Elijah’s argument that were correct; he simply charged him to carry on the work and informed him that there were 7,000 other faithful servants who had not bowed the knee to false gods.
Along with learning to develop right thinking, we need to develop certain emotional skills if we are to achieve emotional health. These skills include learning to process emotions in the present and learning to process emotions that have been buried.
We learn to process emotions in the present by being able to identify how we feel and express those feelings, even if they are unpleasant. It is often helpful to talk about your emotions with a trusted friend. Use words that describe how you feel. Say “I feel . . . angry, sad, anxious, confused, embarrassed, secure, happy, relieved, daring.” Be as specific as you can and don’t use a “weaker” or “safer” word when a “stronger” one is appropriate. If someone has offended you, you may need to talk about your emotions in a controlled way with that person. Once you have processed your emotions, you need to release those that are negative. This release may mean choosing to forgive, if someone has offended or wronged you.
Consider the example of King David of Israel as someone who knew how to process emotions. David was “a man’s man,” feared by his enemies and respected by his friends. His resume included such feats as the slaying of the giant Goliath, killing a lion and a bear with his hands and a club, and winning victories in numerous battles. Yet David was a man who was able to express his emotions. If he was happy, he freely and unashamedly expressed joy. If he was angry, he called down curses on his enemies. If he was despondent, he cried out in anguish to God.
Some of us may be uncomfortable with the force of David’s emotions (or of other’s emotions expressed in Scripture, including God’s). While it is important to remember that David often used figurative language, including hyperbole, metaphor, and simile, this does not lessen the reality of what he was expressing. In fact, poetic language is a gift from God to be used in just this way. The same can be true of music, dance, painting, and even play. (Note the successful use of “play therapy” to help children express their emotions.)
Another necessary skill is learning how to process emotions that have been buried. “Burials” often take place when we don’t know how to or don’t feel the freedom to process emotions in the present. To deal with buried emotions, remember the unresolved, painful situations and allow the related emotions to surface. If emotions do not surface, you may need to seek help from someone who understands emotional issues (for example, a counselor or members of a recovery group). Once buried emotions surface, they can be dealt with as “emotions in the present” (using the suggestions above).
Some people may get stuck at some point in the attempt to deal with buried emotions and need to seek outside help to complete the process. Just as the Holy Spirit gifts individuals within the body of Christ as teachers, preachers, and missionaries, so He gifts some believers to minister to emotional needs. Ideally, a believer would look first within the church for help. Sadly, that help is not always present or the person needing it doesn’t know where to find it. However, even non-believing counselors can be used by God to accomplish His purposes in the lives of His children.
We need to develop relational health.
Developing emotional health rightly precedes a discussion of developing relational health, because relational health is impossible for a person who has not achieved at least some measure of emotional health. In order to be able to relate to another person in a mature, healthy way, you must first understand and be able to manage your own emotions. Or, to put it another way, until you are comfortable in your own skin, you are unlikely to feel comfortable around other people or to make them feel comfortable around you.
Skills necessary for relational health include the following:
• Developing intimacy. Intimacy is the ability to connect with another person at a deep level. This involves sharing thoughts and feelings about you.
• Setting boundaries. Boundaries are limits, or markers, that define a person as separate from others and what is unique about that person. Boundaries define what a person is, what he chooses, what he feels, what he likes, what he wants, and so on. A person needs to set his own boundaries and not allow others to set them for him.
• Developing good communication skills. These skills include speaking clearly, listening carefully, and giving constructive feedback.
Just as Jesus is a model for spiritual growth, He is a model for emotional and relational health. He developed intimate relationships, even at the cost of breaking social barriers of His day. He set appropriate boundaries. Although He made Himself available to people and their needs, He had a strong sense of “who He was” and did not allow others to deter Him from His mission. Also, Jesus communicated effectively, both with individuals and in group settings. Because He was emotionally healthy, He was able to develop strong, healthy relationships with others.
It is critical to a person’s spiritual growth that he develop emotional and relational health. Just as spiritual growth is a life-long process, so developing emotional and relational health are life-long processes. The important thing is to stay on the path and continue the journey. The good news is that these various dimensions of our being have a positive relationship to one another. As we grow spiritually, it will help us to grow emotionally and relationally. As we grow emotionally and relationally, it will help us to grow spiritually. When discouragement comes, recognize and process that emotion in the moment and practice right thinking by remembering this truth⎜”He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” (Philippians 1:6)
• Read Psalm 73
List the emotions described by the Psalmist. Describe how the Psalmist dealt with his emotions in this Psalm.
• Read Matthew 12:9-15. How is Jesus’ ability to set boundaries tested in this situation?