Safe to Feel Deeply

How the Gospel Redeems Our Feelings

Every age builds a moral vision around the things it holds sacred. The Renaissance enthroned man and made him “the measure of all things.” Economic progress was the Industrial Revolution’s vision of the good. Post–World War II America built its morality around prosperity and growth.

Our age is defined by a kind of emotivism, which I have elsewhere called “feelism.” Feelism drives emotions to the center, distorting and amplifying them until “How does this make me feel?” becomes the measure of truth. When something causes me to feel bad, I judge it as “wrong for me.” We’ve all seen this logic play out in the lives of people around us and, at times, in our own hearts.

Feelism suggests that anything causing us anxiety, pain, or discomfort is wrong. But Jesus allowed himself to be wearied, slandered, mocked, beaten, and ultimately crucified for the sake of love. And, as he says in Matthew 10:24, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” What should we, as followers of Jesus, expect life to feel like? What does the gospel say to our emotions?

Jesus’s dying and rising offers sanity and stability to our emotions in at least three ways.

1. The gospel normalizes suffering.

In Philippians 3:10, the apostle Paul acknowledges something we’d rather gloss over: Jesus’s life takes a downward path into death before moving upward into resurrection. The path to resurrection power and victory involves “[sharing] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Visualize this pattern by tracing out the letter “J,” which takes us down into death, then up into resurrection. Paul describes this path as the normal Christian life — a reenacting of the death and resurrection of Jesus — but, under the influence of feelism, it doesn’t feel normal to most Christians.

If dying and rising with Christ is the normal rhythm of the Christian life, then when we encounter dying, we don’t have to collapse or withdraw into ourselves. We can be weak and sad, even depressed. This pattern frees us from our tendency to be depressed about our depression. It’s a relief to realize that dealing with hard things should influence our emotions. Jesus models how to walk through the deepest mental darkness as he felt the weight of his coming death (Matthew 26:36–46). Our modern obsession with creating a pain-free self lays a great burden on us. When we see that our life is shaped by Jesus’s narrative, dying no longer controls us.

2. The gospel helps us fight cynicism.

Living in Jesus’s path keeps us from becoming cynical. Many of us are fearful of good news because bad news awaits. We protect ourselves emotionally from being whipsawed back and forth between the two by shutting down on hope. Fear of hope disappointing us leads us to denigrate hope, which feeds a culture of cynicism — always doubting the good. But the story of Jesus has a distinct path — rising, not dying, has the last word. Easter follows Good Friday. If our lives take the shape of Jesus’s, our small deaths will always be followed by resurrections.

Plus, if God shaped the dying, then he controls the resurrection as well. Both are gifts. That enables us to enjoy joy! We don’t have to try to freeze the story in rising either; we can trust the Spirit to weave as he wills.

3. The gospel brings our emotions to life.

Jesus’s pattern of dying and rising not only balances our emotions but helps them come alive. Jesus does not deny emotions like sadness and grief, nor does he make joy absolute, as if the command to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) leaves no room for sorrow. It’s easy to gloss over this point, particularly in the West, where some segments of the church continue to be imprinted by the influence of Greek Stoicism and its distrust of the emotions. Jesus acknowledges his distress in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39), but his feelings are not the measure of truth. His Father is. He takes the cup of suffering.

In a similar way, the apostle Paul experiences anxiety on behalf of the churches he loves. Love feels. In the gospel culture, we’re eager to analyze our emotions, turning the microscope inside to find sin. I can imagine someone hearing about Paul’s anxiety in Philippians 2:28 and thinking he has made an idol out of his relationship with Epaphroditus and the Philippians. But Paul’s anxiety reflected his love for them. As C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken” (The Four Loves, 121).

Of course, Paul is attentive to the opposite danger: a life controlled by anxiety. Because of the resurrection, we can “not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). We do not have to heed the constant whispering to play it safe, which reflects the pseudo wisdom of this age, but misses the risk of love. We are free to sacrifice because of love. We are free to experience the full range of human emotions without being enslaved to them. When we suffer for the sake of love, we don’t have to be offended or confused. We can rejoice like “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

Anchored Emotions

We expect suffering, but we aren’t cynics. We are alive to our emotions, but willing to put them to death in order to love others. In these ways and more, the gospel anchors us. If moving back and forth between dying and rising is God’s normal, that gives a certain feel to the Christian life, a mixing of joy and sadness, even an enmeshing of the two. Otherwise, we chase joy and recoil from sadness, which always yields a fragile, jittery self.

Instead, with this “J” shape in view, we can revel in even fleeting joy, knowing this is a down payment on future joy, and embrace sadness, knowing that dying with Christ is the launching pad for joy. Knowing the shape of the path anchors our emotions.