Nerves twisted through my body as I raised my arms over my head and matched my feet on top of the yellow footprints underneath the airport security scanner.
It was my first time traveling on an airplane by myself.
I felt like a criminal, surrendering a lifetime of fear I allowed to control my life. Giving in to a sea of uncertainty, all I could do was trust God to teach me how to survive as I jumped into the ferocious waves of my greatest fears.
I wondered why I couldn’t stuff anxiety down—why facing it didn’t take it away as I hoped. I was doing what I knew God wanted me to do. I was facing fear. But I have never been so terrified.
What is wrong with me? Why am I so afraid? I couldn’t control my shaking fingers, my racing heartbeat, my clumsy hands trying to gather my belongings, and my foggy brain confusing departures with arrivals.
I was angry at myself because no matter how hard I tried, my faith was still filled with fear. Why couldn’t I walk through the airport with my rolling carry-on with the same confidence and assurance everyone else had? They all seemed to know exactly where they were headed and how to get there. But I always felt lost and confused.
It’s been over five years since I took my first flight by myself, and my journey to understand fear continues. I’ve discovered that learning to have faith over fear is a life-long process. It’s filled with ups and downs and slow transformations that are so subtle you may not even recognize progress.
What I didn’t understand when I began this journey to face my fears, was that I didn’t have to shame myself for the way I felt.
One of the most freeing ways I’ve grown in my Christian walk has been learning to accept my emotions as God-given tools meant to help me grow stronger.
When it comes to how I view life and the expectations I put on myself, I tend to think in “all or nothing” terms. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, this is referred to as one of several types of cognitive distortions.
I categorize my emotions and every decision I make as good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, sinful, or not. But when it comes to my emotions and decision making, not everything is cut and dry.
I’ve been a Christian since I was seven years old and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard phrases like, “God cares more about your holiness than your happiness” “feelings lie to you” and “don’t follow your feelings.”
And while I agree with the underlying theology that inspired these phrases, because God has called us to a holy life (2 Timothy 1:9), I realized that what I have done for most of my Christian walk is allow these phrases to categorize my difficult emotions as bad. I thought, if God cares more about my holiness, then maybe he doesn’t care about my happiness at all or any of my emotions for that matter?
It’s dangerous to let our emotions rule us and allow our feelings to interpret our circumstances, control our behavior, and form our thoughts about God. But the other dangerous side of the spectrum is not seeing their God-given purpose.
If God created us with emotions, then they must be inherently good since we were created in the image of God.
Before sin entered the world, our emotions were not influenced by any negative thought patterns. And before the fall, our emotions didn’t influence our behavior in a negative way.
Ever since I was in elementary school I learned that sin entered the world when Eve ate the apple. But before she ate the apple she gave into Satan’s deceit by believing lies about God’s goodness. She ate the apple because she believed Satan over God. She was convinced God was withholding good things from her—the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:1-7).
The Bible says God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus all experience emotion.
Since Jesus never sinned, we know his emotions were always appropriate for the situation and his thoughts and actions were never sinful.
Jesus was kind and gentle, he got angry at injustice, he was sad when Lazarus died, and he expressed common signs of stress and anxiety the night before his death. Jesus felt emotions fully and also fully trusted God.
If God created us with emotion, we have to see the value in having them.
I believe God gave us emotions as tools to help inform us about what is going on in our minds. Our emotions are affected by how we perceive the world around us and how we perceive our own reality.
It’s very difficult to see life clearly as I sort through my sinful nature and weed through the root causes of my own anger, fear, sadness, and frustration. But if I’m angry at myself for feeling these emotions, then I’m missing out on their God-given purpose.
I’m learning to use my emotions to evaluate what kind of thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and responses I have and how I can regulate those thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, and responses in ways that are helpful instead of harmful.
The more I study scripture and research the science behind the formation of our emotions, the more I see how both work together.
“Feelings do not come out of the blue but are influenced by your thoughts and perceptions. They arise from the way you perceive or interpret outer events and/or the way you react to your own inner thought processes or “self-talk”, imagery, or memories (Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, p. 272).”
“Feelings are not right or wrong. Fear, joy, guilt, and anger are not in and of themselves valid or invalid—you just happen to have these feelings. The perceptions or judgments you made that led to your feelings, however, may be right or wrong, valid or invalid. Be careful not to judge yourself or anyone else as wrong for simply having a feeling (Anxiety and Phobia workbook p. 174).”
In Switch on Your Brain, Dr. Caroline Leaf writes about how we can change the brain’s physical nature by consciously replacing toxic patterns of thinking with healthy thoughts. This is where we find the help we need to face fear. Instead of being mad at ourselves for the feelings we have, we can take charge by getting to the source of what’s influencing them.
Understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and what it means to fear the Lord will help transform your thoughts about God so you can walk in obedience. Walking in obedience to the Lord helps us learn to trust in Him.
“Action on both a spiritual level and scientific level is required for change to take place. The world may tell us that the mind is what the brain does, but God tells us that the brain will do what the mind tells it to do. And when your spirit, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, controls your soul, then the gold standard of thinking is achieved (p. 66).”
I love how the science of how our emotions are created, align with what the Bible says about taking our thoughts captive. God gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us respond to our emotions in ways that are healthy and pleasing to God.
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV).
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 ESV).
Reframing my beliefs about emotions has helped me in many areas of my life.
When I struggle with difficult emotions, instead of stuffing, retreating, avoiding, isolating, and ignoring them, I remember some important truths about emotions and try and learn from them.
- God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have emotions. I don’t have to shame myself for having feelings.
- Next, I examine my thoughts that are influencing my emotions. Do I need to take them captive? Are they focused on truth, hope, and the promises found in God’s word? Am I dwelling on negative things?
- What can I do to reframe my thoughts to help me grow closer to God and experience positive emotions?
- What am I really upset about? What can I do to grow as a person instead of blame others and become bitter?
- How are my feelings affecting my behavior? Am I sinning in my fear, anger, sadness, frustration, or loneliness?
- Is there anything I can do about the root causes of my emotions?
- Am I naming my feelings and taking them to God?
- Am I praying about my feelings and asking God to help reframe my thought life? Do I seek to please the Lord in my responses to my feelings?
- Is there an area of my life God is calling me into obedience?
- How can I use my emotions to help instead of hinder?
When I’m Mad
Sometimes my anger helps me see injustice. And when I dig into the root cause of my anger, I’ve recognized unmet needs in my life.
I’m learning how to take control of my own decisions and how to respect others who may disagree with me.
“If you tend to withhold your anger, even when you are being taken advantage of or abused, then learning to be more in touch with your angry feelings can be empowering. If you have difficulty standing up for yourself in the face of manipulation or when your boundaries are violated, then appropriate, assertive (not aggressive) communication of your anger is something that you will certainly want to learn (p. 284).”
I can’t control others but I can make healthy choices and changes for myself and learn to set healthy boundaries in relationships.
“A proneness to phobias and obsessive-compulsive behavior is often associated with withheld anger. Your preoccupation with phobias, obsessions, and compulsions increases during these times when you’re feeling most frustrated, thwarted, and otherwise angry with your situation in life” (Anxiety and Phobia Workbook p. 282).
“Generalized anxiety can be a sign of suppressed anger. So can depression or psychosomatic symptoms such as ulcers, neck and upper back tension, or tension headaches” (p. 282).
Some additional signs of suppressed anger are, “self-defeating behaviors, such as excessive self-criticism, maximizing what’s wrong with your life while discounting the good, complaining about problems without taking any action, passive-aggressive behavior such as procrastination or always being late, blaming others, and worrying about the future instead of enjoying the present” (Anxiety and Phobia Workbook p. 282).
When I recognize the signs of suppressed anger in my life, I learn to see the need behind my feelings. Once I gain insight into my needs, I can address how to go about meeting them. Maybe that means setting a healthy boundary or learning how to break free from codependent behaviors. It means finding my significance and worth in Christ by aligning my thoughts with the truth, hope, and promises found in the Bible.
It’s easier for me to sin in my anger when I let negative feelings build up without learning how to manage and sort through them.
“In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26 NIV).
Last week, my children told me I have “angry outbursts.” And I realized that I had been sinning in my anger. When they don’t listen and after having to repeat myself, I resort to yelling in order to get them to follow through with chores. My response to my frustration is often sinful. I also tend to sin in my anger towards my kids when I’m holding hurt or anger about other things. I have to reevaluate my feelings when my kids don’t listen and find healthy ways to communicate without yelling.
When I evaluate anger as a tool to grow, I learn to manage my temper and react in ways that express myself appropriately without losing control. I learn to express my anger in a way that respects the dignity of the other person—in a way that doesn’t blame or put them down, using “I” statements instead of “you” statements.
When I’m Afraid
When I’m afraid I can evaluate the situation to see if the fear is helping me or hindering me.
The fight or flight response is meant to protect us from danger. But if we’re not careful, we train our minds by our thoughts and behavior to perceive low-threat situations as high risk.
I’ve spent the last five years learning what it means to trust God when I’m afraid. I learned trusting God isn’t the opposite of being afraid. Trusting God is the process of learning to fear God more than our fears and discovering God’s provision when we feel weak. It’s letting go of our own control and trusting in His.
Obedience is evidence of trusting in God.
“When I am afraid I put my trust in You” (Psalm 56:3).
When I obeyed God’s prompting and faced my fear of traveling by myself, I was trusting in God even though I was afraid. God was faithful to guide and comfort me every minute of my trip. I came home a changed person because I experienced first-hand God’s loving guidance and care for me.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Am I trusting in God when I’m afraid? If I’m avoiding something I know God wants me to do, then maybe I need to change the way I’m thinking. If I’m being brave I can continue to think about God’s faithfulness and his promise to help me and use the fear to fuel my nervous energy for God.
“It’s entirely normal to experience feelings more intensely when you begin to face situations you’ve been avoiding for a long time. If this is happening to you, you’re on the right track. Many people who are phobic and prone to anxiety tend to have difficulty with feelings. You may have a problem just knowing what you’re feeling. Or you may be able to identify your feelings but are unable to express them. When feelings begin to come up in the course of facing phobias or dealing with panic, there is often a tendency to withhold them, which only aggravates your stress and anxiety (Anxiety and Phobia Workbook p. 272).”
In facing my own fear of driving and flying (traveling) by myself through exposure therapy, I’ve discovered that allowing myself to feel afraid by exposing myself to my fears has been a vital part of my recovery process.
I’ve learned to fear less as I’ve discovered God’s presence and provision for me while I face fear. As I walk through scary situations one step at a time with God, I learn how to trust and fear God more than my fears.
When I’m Sad
If I am grieving a loss, I can voice my sadness to God and let Him comfort me. I don’t have to feel bad for feeling bad.
If I’m sad and lonely I can evaluate whether my response is furthering isolation. Is negative self-talk influencing my sadness? Do I need to see people and get outside? What can I do in order to think about God’s presence and his love for me?
When we embrace emotion as a gift, we begin to understand that God cares about how we feel. We all want our loved ones to empathize with how we feel. And when they do, we feel loved and cared for.
God cares and understands how you feel. In fact, the Bible says God’s kindness leads us to turn away from sin. When we turn away from sin, we’ll discover the freedom and joy found in living our lives according to God’s plan for us. The more we walk in our purpose, the more we will find peace in difficult circumstances.
“Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin” (Romans 2:4)?
God wants to help us learn how to regulate our thoughts and responses through the power of the Holy Spirit. Meditation and obedience to his Word will help train our minds to think upon things that are “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).”
So how do we train our minds in order to influence our emotions positively? How do we respond and react to emotions without sinning?
The Holy Spirit helps us discern when our thoughts and responses are sinful. When The Holy Spirit convicts me, I see my sinful reactions and become sorrowful. When I’m sorry for my sins, I make efforts to change my behavior. And many times that leads directly back to learning to change negative thinking patterns. The Holy Spirit helps turn my thoughts to the truth, convicts me of sin, and empowers me to live for him.
“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
I’d love to hear your thoughts. How has your belief about emotions affected your faith? Do you see how learning to evaluate your emotions instead of judging them can help you grow closer to God and others?
I’ve written an e-book to help Christians understand the power we have been given by the Holy Spirit to help us train our thoughts and live for God. You can get Empowered: How the Holy Spirit Helps You Face Fear, Live With Purpose, and Grow in Holiness by subscribing to my email list using the optin below.