Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Inner Language of Sorrow

Chronic and acute illness may call forth a bevy of emotions--or, perhaps, a paucity of emotions. Some of us are emotionally undernourished, ill-equipped to "weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh." Our affective vocabulary is attenuated; our passional repertoire is minuscule. We are stunted.

The palate of the soul should be multicolored, with the proper colors brought to bear on a whole range of situations associated with illness and recovery and healing. For many men, anger and impatience may nearly exhaust the range of response. Every since high school, I have relished words, learning as many English words--and some foreign phrases to throw around--as possible. In college, I began to note and define all the new words I was learning. This stared in 1976 and my last entry was in 1994, covering well over 100 pages. I mastered quite a few sesquipedalians, in fact. (This blog's spell check does not even recognize this word.)

When it comes to emotional vocabulary, I sit at a much lower level. Yet just as higher education evoked a mastery of words, health crises evoke--or should evoke--a mastery of emotions: learning to find and experience the proper emotion to the proper degree. For some of us, this meaning learning how to weep. Consider all the weeping of godly people--not just women--in the Holy Bible. Jeremiah was "the weeping prophet." Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. One could go on. The Hebrew people knew how to mourn, lament, and to do so before God and with each other. Consider all the emotional range of the Psalms, I have much to learn from them and through the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5) concerns healthy and apt emotions, not just actions.

Lord, teach us to feel the gamut of feelings that fit the facts at hand.


  1. Thanks for this honest confession. Emotional maturity can be much harder to come by than intellectual maturity. Some of the wisest pastoral council I received years ago was along the same lines. At the time, I was exploding regularly when our kids were out of control. Of course, my emissions did nothing to help and only made things worse. The pastor told me that each time I do lose it that I am cheating myself out of the range of emotions available. Rather than jumping from annoyance straight into rage, I should be experiencing something like annoyance > irritation > frustration > distress > anger > rage > fury. He went on to say that the emotionally mature believer will identify where they are along the spectrum and deal with it by biblical means (prayer, Spirit-led confrontation, time out, Scripture memory, etc.). I'm still learning to grow up emotionally and I truly admire those who can follow the advise of this wise counsel.

  2. There is much wisdom there Paul. Also rage is an act of the flesh, according to Paul in Galatians 5. Yet wasn't Jesus outraged while cleansing the temple? But, being righteous, he was not out of control in rage. Any thoughts?

  3. As for rage in Jesus versus rage in the flesh, it seems to me that all of God's wrath is inextricably tied to and motivated by his love. Christ's love for us is so deep, so jealous that anything vying for the Lover's place is out of place and warrants only the severest of reactions. Placing any material thing ahead of God, especially in the name of God who alone is worthy of our full devotion, justifies Jesus' rage. This is how I read the temple cleansings. Human rage, by contrast, is tied only to our fleshly (read "sinful") desires (James 4:1-3 annotates this precisely). When our desires are not fulfilled, we act like spoiled children and spew our emotions only to find, ironically, that we still don't have what we desire and our rage remains unsatisfied.
    On a Christological note: I'm not sure we have parity between Jesus' emotional life and ours. While Jesus is fully human and fully God, we are merely human and merely made in God's image. That ontological distance will always remain; there will always be a distinction between the God-Man and the rest of us inklings. This, for example, could explain how God can both love the world and sustain his wrath against it (John 3:16, 36), how "we were by nature deserving of wrath" but were "made alive in Christ" because of God's mercy (Ephesians 2:3-4), how we were God's enemies yet reconciled to him (Romans 5:10-11). The apex of this emotional paradox is the cross, where God's love and God's anger were simultaneously poured out on Jesus.
    While we can experience contrasting emotions, as when an abused wife hates who her husband has become yet weeps for his restoration (thanks to Christopher Wright's The God I Don't Understand for this analogy, p. 132), the emotional disparity is not as acute for us as it is for God, since God's love is so deep, so complete, so perfect. Our love (whether for our desires or for another) will always run shallow this side of eternity. Knowing that God’s perfect love and consummate wrath was displayed at Calvary for me and against Christ is a huge incentive to deepen my love for God and for others. That, I suppose, is why love is the fulfillment of God’s law, as well as the beginning of a healthy emotional life.