My kids are one belt away from earning their black belt in martial arts. One of the tasks they have to accomplish to before receiving the belt is to break a stack of four wooden boards with their hand. In a recent attempt, my youngest hit the boards over and over without success until the instructor said, “Why don’t you stop and try with three boards instead?”
“I want to keep trying,” my son responded.
He kept at it and finally broke the stack of four. The instructor then turned it into a lesson on perseverance for the rest of the class.
In my own life, I lack such perseverance in the face of hard and difficult things. When something becomes too painful or challenging, I give up. I resist pain and heartache and difficulty. If I see a trial looming ahead, I turn and go the other way. When it comes to painful emotions, I do all that I can to control, ignore, cover up, hide from, or resist those emotions. Anything but actually face them and work through them.
But it is in working through them that I learn more about God, who he is, and what he is doing in me.
Painful emotions, such as fear, worry, despair, loneliness, and rejection are emotions that weigh heavy on our heart. They pull us down and threaten to drown us. Some days, we can barely put one foot forward for the weight of them.
Though hard and painful emotions are often distorted and exaggerate reality, they do tell us something, they tell us that something is wrong. They indicate that something is going on in our heart. They reflect our internal struggle with God. When we ignore them, try to control them, attempt to cover them up, or pretend they don’t exist; we miss the opportunities they provide— opportunities to learn more about God; opportunities for God to change and transform us; opportunities to grow in faith. When we give up the fight and don’t push through them, work through, learn from them, and grow through them, we miss out on what God is doing in the midst of them. And not engaging our emotions allows them to take over and rule our lives.
The Psalms and the Battle with Emotions
No other book of the Bible speaks more to our emotions than the book of Psalms. These 150 poems give voice to the full spectrum of emotions we all feel in life. They reflect the joys and heartaches; the wonders and terrors; the safety and fear; the triumphs and failures; the love and rejection we all experience in this fallen world. Many of the Psalms speak specifically of the dark and painful emotions we encounter. They describe them in explicit detail, almost as though the psalmist can hear what is going in in our own heart. These are poems we often find ourselves turning to when life is hard and painful.
The Psalms show us that emotions are not meant to be avoided, controlled, or denied. They are meant to be faced. They are meant to be named and identified. And not just for catharsis or emotional release, but because God is our refuge and strength, our help in trouble. “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8).
The psalmist faces his fears, his deepest despair, his unmet longings, his losses, and injustice, but never alone. He brings all to the throne of grace and lays his burdens before his Redeemer and Savior. He cries out to God with expectation, calling on God to act and move in his life. He asks for help, rescue, and salvation. “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!” (Psalm 31:2).
The psalmist works through his emotions and struggles with them. A battle ensues in his heart. In the midst of this battle, he reminds himself of who God is and what he has done. “You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph” (Psalm 77:15). He remembers the past and God’s faithful grace and mercy toward him. He dwells on God’s character and his covenant love for his people. Though there is darkness all around him, he remembers that the sun is always shining above the clouds. He waits on the Lord, trusting that because God has acted in the past, he will do so again in the present.
As he works through his dark emotions, they are reshaped and conformed to the truth. He trusts and believes and worships. He knows God will intervene. He believes God is good and will not leave him where he is. He clings to the truth. “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5-6).
Friends, like the psalmist, we all need to stay in the battle. We can’t turn away from the struggle with our emotions. We can’t give up. We need to seek the Lord and wrestle with our doubts, fears, worries, sorrows, and losses. We need to cry out to our Rock and ask for help and deliverance. We need to dwell on who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.
We can’t afford to give up or give in; so much is at stake.
As we do so, we must remember that we are never alone in the battle. The One who walked before us— the One to whom all the Psalms point— wept, grieved, and lamented for us. He cried out the psalmist’s own words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” And he did so that we would never be forsaken.
Friends, don’t give up the battle.