Finding Value in Emotional Pain

Finding Value in Emotional Pain

For as often as they happen, we don’t talk much about negative emotions.

They are like an invisible force, an undercurrent below the surface. We go about our day, and when one comes we brace ourselves until it passes. Occasionally one of us is pulled under, overcome by the power of emotional pain. Some of us suffer silently, while others grasp for the limbs of anyone in our proximity, often taking them down with us.

Generally there are two basic dysfunctions in how we handle our negative emotions: 

1) We devalue them.

We stuff them as deep as we can, trying to limit their toxic effect on our lives. The problem of course is that the toxins are still present. We can bottle them up as best as we can, but they still seep their way through our thoughts, words and actions. The tighter we hold them, the more the pressure builds. 

2) We overvalue them.

We give ourselves permission to express our emotions without any thought of the consequences to themselves or to others. We might justify a harsh comment with something like, “that’s just how I feel.” Painful emotions can become a venom that we blast upon those who are closest to us.

Which dysfunction do you tend to lean towards?

Negative emotions are a force to be reckoned with. If left unchecked, they destroy relationships, they drag people into deep pits of despair and depression. Even on a small scale if we're not thoughtful about them, our emotions can cause us to make poor decisions that quickly lead us in the wrong direction. How often do we hear stories of abuse and violence, that could have been prevented if someone knew how to navigate emotional pain in a healthier way?

We talk about gun control, if only we could have a process to permit people to carry their emotions!

As someone who frequently deals with negative emotions, I’ve discovered that they are not simply a weakness that we have to live with. In fact, they have significant value. Here are two ways your negative emotions can become assets:

  1. Negative emotions are a gateway to God’s presence.
  2. Negative emotions can become keys to breakthrough. (I’ll address this one in another article)

A Gateway to God’s Presence

Have you ever watched someone approach an injured animal? The animal bares their teeth and extends their claws.

We're not so different.

Our self-preservation instincts cause us to protect our vulnerabilities, to hold them back so that others don’t take advantage. That’s why they say, anger is a secondary emotion. There are often other more vulnerable emotions happening beneath the anger. We're just baring our teeth to cover over our vulnerabilities.

When however, we learn to trust that someone is safe, we’re able to let down our guard and experience the care and compassion we need from that person. Have you ever been in a public place and some compassionate person sees that you are in pain? They begin to respond to you with a gentleness that causes the tears to begin to roll. You want to keep it in but it begins to come out. How uncomfortable!

That sense of safety that draws out emotional pain is something we were designed for. We were meant to experience the safety of someone who can witness our pain with love and compassion. An empathic witness provides for us a safe space to pull out our burdens, because they can’t be addressed when they’re in hiding.

Often much of the healing occurs in the process of being seen. Hagar understood this well. She had been pulled into a toxic dynamic by Abram and Sarai that led to Hagar becoming the object of deep resentment and abuse. It became so intense that she ran for the hills. God intercepts her in the wilderness and asks her, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8) 

God’s questioning is a pattern we see throughout scripture. When He engages with someone, He asks questions that elicit vulnerability. He wants Hagar to tell Him what happened as she experienced it. In the midst of failure in the garden He asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) When Elijah is in intense agony, hiding in a cave, God asks, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:9) Each incident the person is being given the opportunity to be seen.

When the woman with the bleeding issue is healed in the midst of a crowd, Jesus stops and asks, “Who touched me?” (Luke 8:42-48) Why does He do this? He’s not satisfied with the physical healing that has taken place. He wants to see her. Our most vulnerable moments provide a unique opportunity to experience God as Hagar experienced Him; the God who sees me (Genesis 16:13).

Psalm 100 identifies praise and thanksgiving as gateways to God’s presence. It’s so true isn’t it? When we sing of God’s goodness and our adoration for Him we are swept up in a heightened awareness of His presence. But there is a different dynamic happening when we choose to open up our emotional pain to God. 

If praise and thanksgiving are a way we open the gates to God’s heart, vulnerability is a way that we open the gates to our hearts. God has gates that we can enter, and we have gates that He can enter. Our emotional pain can become an opportunity to invite God further in. 

Lift up your heads, O gates! 
And be lifted up, O ancient doors, 
that the King of glory may enter in.
-Psalm 24:7

A majority of the Psalms are an expression of emotional pain. The psalmist experiences betrayal, rejection, loss, despair, even rage. They feel the intensity of their emotions and they don’t hide them from God. Instead they allow themselves to feel all of the intensity in God’s presence. They make demands of God, sometimes even accuse God. The primary agenda of the psalmist is not to be theologically accurate, but to be known.

The primary agenda of the psalmist is not to be theologically accurate, but to be known.

The Psalms give me a sense of permission to be so real and raw with God. David said some pretty nasty things, and yet God considers him a “man after his heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). If David has permission to be so real with God, so do we. In fact in light of Jesus, we have even more access to the Father than David did. It seems as though no matter how ugly it gets, God considers the pouring out of our hearts as an act of worship.

When someone tells me that they don’t have a great relationship with God, I’ll often ask, “How open are you with God?” It’s true of all relationships isn’t it? It’s hard to get close to someone who holds all their cards back. Vulnerability gives space for intimacy. Intimacy can only happen when 1) both parties are vulnerable, and 2) when vulnerability is honored with safety. When we experience safety, it leads to more vulnerability, which deepens the intimacy. 

If you want to become more connected to God, take a risk in vulnerability with Him. Tell Him something about yourself. Tell Him how you’re experiencing a challenging situation. Tell Him what you’re afraid of, or what you’re angry about. Don’t filter yourself with statements like, “I know I shouldn’t feel this,” or “I don’t have a right to complain about that.” God will honor your risk of vulnerability. He will draw near to you as you draw near to Him (James 4:8).

You have a unique opportunity hidden within your emotional pain. Every negative emotion carries within it the potential to encounter God. Don’t waste a drop of it. 

God, I’m willing to let you come closer. Would you bring to my attention a space in my heart that you’d like for me to give you permission to enter? Show me where I’m hiding and withholding, and give me the courage to take a deeper risk with you today.

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