It was every pastor’s nightmare.
Pastor Jay was watching a marriage disintegrate before his very eyes in his office, like a slow-motion train wreck. He just stared at this couple he’d known for years and couldn’t believe his ears. Bob and Joan were both saying the same thing, “I just don’t love him/her anymore, Pastor. I can’t help how I feel. I’m just being honest.”
And there is it. One of the biggest lies in our culture. Did you catch it? “I can’t help how I feel.” That is a lie from the pit! The truth is, yes, we totally can change how we feel. We totally have control over our emotions. The sticky wicket is, we can’t control our emotions by trying to control our emotions. Dude, start making sense!
Ok, here’s the deal. If we try to control our emotions by willing them, that won’t work. We can’t force ourselves to feel or not feel something. At best, all we can do is deny and suppress them, but then we’re only fooling ourselves. At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as an unexpressed emotion. It may come out 20 years later, and it may come out sideways, but it’s coming out.
Yet we can totally control what we feel. But before we talk about how, we need to understand some key concepts about emotions.
Acknowledge the Negative Emotion
Emotions are the idiot lights on the dashboard of our lives. They tell us when something’s wrong, and we’d do well to pay attention to them.
Say the oil light comes on in your car. You have a choice. You can deal with the cause, or you can deal with the light. “Hey, I fixed it! I put a piece of electrical tape over that nasty little light. Now the dashboard looks all black. Problem solved!”
Um, really? How’s that going to work out for this person? I have a nagging feeling they’re going to find out the hard way their problem’s not solved. I just hope it’s not in the pouring rain, in the middle of the freeway, in rush hour! That’s a bad place to find out you’ve turned your engine into a boulder. That’s a bad place to find out saving that $30 on an oil change just cost you thousands of dollars in engine repair. And then we blame the car. Doh!
That’s what happens when we don’t pay attention to what we’re feeling. Except instead of days or weeks later like the oil light on a car, we often don’t find out we’ve turned our life into a boulder (or our marriage, or whatever other relationships) until years, if not decades, later. And then we blame the relationship. Doh!
We need to acknowledge the negative emotion we’re feeling, preferably (1) between us and God, and (2) with a trusted friend.
Don’t Serve the Emotion
The idiot lights on your dashboard, although very important, are not the steering wheel. Imagine if you only turned left when the oil light went on, and only turned right when the check engine light came on. Crash! Although the idiot lights shouldn’t be ignored, they can’t drive the car.
If you let your emotions drive the car of your life, you’ll crash, usually rather spectacularly. We all know people who live with no thought for future consequences, driven into doing whatever self-destructive behavior will mask the pain for just one more precious moment. It’s God’s grace in their lives when such a lifestyle can’t be sustained for long.
You can’t change a negative emotion by focusing on it. We become what we behold, so all that’ll do is make the negative emotion stronger. So although we need to acknowledge it and admit it, we don’t want to dwell on it. We need to change it.
“I know, I know! That’s why I’m reading your post! How do I change my negative emotions?”
I’m glad you asked.
How to Change the Emotion –This Is the Key
Pastor Jay had a revelation for Bob and Joan. He said, “You know, when you called me about needing to meet, I’d had a really tough morning. My computer crashed, losing all my sermon notes for Sunday. My secretary’s out sick, the oil light’s on in my wife’s car, and I’ve got a really full schedule this week. I did not want to meet with you guys today. I felt no compassion for either of you. Just saying. I can’t help how I feel. I’m just being honest.”
Bob and Joan just stared at each other. They couldn’t believe their ears.After all, as their pastor, they paid him to be at their beck and call, didn’t they? They each threw $20 in the plate every Sunday, so they knew he had money. “A pastor isn’t supposed to say things like that!” they finally both yelled at him in unison.
“Neither is a husband. Neither is a wife,” Pastor Jay quietly answered them back. “Hmm. Didn’t my honesty comfort you?” he asked them in mock surprise. “Weren’t you impressed by my ‘integrity’,” he made figure quotes, “by being so honest?”
“No,” they both said. “It really hurts that you would say something like that!”
“That’s the hurt your ‘honestly’,” more figure quotes, “just caused each other.” And for the first time, Bob and Joan began to think about how the other person was feeling.
Then Pastor Jay began to unwrap the onion and teach them how to feel the love again. They had a lot of problems in their relationship, mostly stemming from their own unaddressed personal wounding, and Pastor Jay helped them unpack all of that over the coming year. But today, he gave them a good start. He taught them how to control and change, not suppress nor serve, their emotions.
“Had I not told you, would you have known I’d felt negative about you earlier?” Pastor Jay asked.
“No, we felt the warmth of your compassion for us as soon as we walked in the room!” they both answered, still shell-socked by his admission.
“I started getting God’s heart for you both after I agreed to meet with you,” Pastor Jay explained. “I realized this was serious, and I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to clear my schedule and make room for this meeting. I spent some serious time praying and interceding for you. As I did those things, I started to feel compassion for you. I started to get God’s heart for you. I changed my negative emotions toward you into positive ones by serving you.”
When you serve another person, the byproduct for you is good emotions toward that person.
“But they’ll take advantage of me!” they both objected simultaneously.
Pastor Jay knew neither of these two were narcissists. (When dealing with narcissists, Pastor Jay taught the other spouse how to set and keep healthy boundaries. He had to work with the other spouse because the narcissist usually stormed out of his office never to return when they realized he wanted to deal with their behavior instead of “fixing” their spouse.) But Pastor Jay correctly discerned that these two were each good-willed people, who each were still willing to change, if they believed it would matter.
So Pastor Jay just put it out there and asked them straight, “Do you want this marriage to work? Are you still in? Yes or no.”
Bob and Joan, one after the other, with tears in their eyes, said yes.
“Ok then,” Pastor Jay said. “Die to yourself and ask the Holy Spirit how to serve the other person. For this week, the other person gets a bye on their behavior. You just serve them. We’ll meet this time next week and you tell me how it’s going.”
This was not some quippy, magic-formula-fix for their marriage; that took a lot of hard work on both sides to bring healing to areas of personal wounding that had been festering a long time. But this was a good start. It at least took the gasoline away from the fire.
Bob and Joan began to have good feelings for each other again. Not because they were being served, but because they were serving the other person. It gave them a little more patience and grace for the other person, instead of just reacting. The Holy Spirit used their selfless service to convict the other person’s heart, much more effectively than any nagging, arguing, or “being right” could have done. And that made it easier for the other person to serve them, which made it easier to serve the other person. And around it went, the cycle spinning in their favor for a change.
This post isn’t about marriage. Kingdom of God principles work in all relationships — marriage, work, school, family, and friends, and even in church relationships. Imagine that! J
While we cannot directly control our emotions by willing them, we can totally control them, indirectly, by serving the other person. The byproduct is good emotions toward them for us. This is a Kingdom of God principle that God wove into the fabric of the universe.
Love is Not an Emotion
Love is a choice. When we choose to serve, we choose to love. And we are setting ourselves up to be great in the Kingdom of God. That why Jesus said,
The greatest among you will be your servant. (Matthew 23:11)
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:38)
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
When we die to ourselves and serve, we partner with Jesus. So will you ask the Holy Spirit how you can serve that person who’s bugging the tar out of you today? In a way that’s meaningful to them? Ask the Holy Spirit. That’s a prayer he’ll answer quickly.
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