Jesus and Emotions - engaging as families
Our youngest child is still in primary school, and as I write this he has had four days back after nearly six months of safe, but dull, confinement at home. We chat on the way back home in the afternoon about his day. ‘Does it feel strange?’ I ask, and he answers ‘Nah…’ and then goes on to tell me about some Pokémon based game he and his friend played, as if there is nothing odd about this bizarre, new world of face masks and fenced-up playgrounds.
But we’ve had tears every evening from our big year-6 boy. Just before bedtime, someone wins unfairly over him in a game, or he trips and gets an invisible, but apparently painful, scratch, and the tears just won’t stop flowing. I’m not trained in psychology, but you don’t have to be to realise that there’s something else behind those tears - something that has to do with these strange times of anxious adults, broken routines and of constantly being told to back away from friends and grandparents, as well as strangers passing on the pavement.
My guess is that our situation is not unique, but rather is being played out in a variety of settings and scenarios across the country. As adults, it can seem overwhelming to help our children deal with their emotional response to the coronavirus crisis, when we may not even know how to handle it for ourselves. And as Christians, short of searching for ‘pandemic’ on biblegateway.com (‘Sorry, we didn’t find any results for your search…’), we can struggle to know how to process what’s going on with the world in the light of our faith.
Let me ask you a question: how many Christians do you think look to Jesus for input on emotional health? Have you ever heard a sermon on Jesus’ emotions?
You might have, but I know that I didn’t. Despite being immersed in church since birth, I have never really considered what Jesus felt, or at least not how his emotions inform me on how to be human. How to be me.
During a retreat back in November 2019 I felt prodded by God to create a resource for families around Jesus’ and our emotions. It felt reasonably important, but also slightly irrelevant at the time. So I noted my ideas and tried to forget about it.
The ‘Baader-Meinhof phenomenon’ refers to the frequency illusion that your brain plays on you when you, for example, learn a new word and it seems like you suddenly encounter that word everywhere. It was like that for me after that retreat: all of a sudden, every book, every podcast and every conversation seemed to centre on emotional health.
An old school friend, now an accomplished psychologist, asked me to proofread her book ‘Own Your Emotions’ (Frida Kristina Nilsson, 2020, www.ownyouremotions.com); John Mark Comer blew me away with his two sermons on ‘Joy’ in December 2019 where he stated that ‘Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived’ (https://bridgetown.church/teaching/); and I realised simultaneously how little I know, how much I wanted to know and - especially - how important it would be for my children to know these things.
I learned that as adults, we teach our children about emotions from day one. What we say to the children and to our spouses, how we react to others’ emotional outbursts and a million other tiny signs speaks volumes. Our actions show our children what is, and isn’t, acceptable when it comes to emotions and how to express them. Many of us learn to bury our emotions or else risk being called ‘a baby’ or ‘a girl’ for crying, or perhaps we get told to ‘take it down a notch’ when we express our elation at something. Many of us have been taught that expressing any emotion is shameful, and so later on in life, when something happens to trigger an emotion, rather than expressing it, we feel a deep sense of shame.
As I dug into the gospels, searching for clues about how Jesus expressed his emotions, I was overwhelmed by, firstly; how he expressed, rather than buried, the full range of emotions, and secondly; how Jesus seemed to be the most emotionally healthy person I’d met. I’d known him as a fantastic teacher, compassionate healer and conquering Saviour, all while missing that in his full humanity, he lived out an emotionally healthy life. Christians hold on to the doctrine that Jesus lived a life without sin, and yet we see him angry, sad, excited and fearful. Could it be true that the emotions themselves are not sinful? Could Jesus show me a healthy way of expressing the full range of emotions?
I had managed to avoid the prod to create a resource around this for many months, until in March 2020 when national lockdown hit us. Suddenly, our diary that had been filled with training days and retreats to lead was emptied overnight. Lack of time was no longer a valid excuse. And very early on in lockdown, experts started talking about the effect all this would have on our children. What would being stuck indoors, being separated from friends and school, do to them? At that point we didn’t know, of course, quite how long it would go on for, but whether a week or six months, we knew that it would affect the kids.
Perhaps this seed of an idea from several months before - a time when retreats, birthday parties and church services were still going ahead - was precisely for this season?
In almost everything we do at engageworship, we try to engage with whole families. It makes little sense to us when churches are made up of families and people of all ages to direct what we do to just the children or just the adults. And I believe that engaging with Jesus and our emotions will be more powerfully done together as family groups than as individuals. The family is, after all, the arena in which our emotions play out. I can assure you that I am a serene and joyful person every day when I wake up, but unfortunately that only lasts until I bump into a kid or my husband getting in the way of my morning coffee! Managing our emotions is something we need to learn to do as families.
In our new resource ‘Jesus & Emotions - A Creative Journal for Families’, we’ve given each emotion a shape, colour and face. We show how they help us, how they make us feel physically and how they interact with one another. We’ve added concepts and exercises that I’ve picked up from various experts, and of course, there are the stories about Jesus and how he expressed his emotions.
We commissioned some illustrations for these Jesus-stories because visual images of Jesus affect us more than we perhaps think. I can still envisage very clearly in my mind every brushstroke from the painting of the serene blue-eyed Jesus hanging at the front of the chapel where I grew up. My hope is that the next generation gets to grow up internalising images of Jesus laughing, crying and scolding. Then perhaps the goal of ‘becoming more like Jesus’ would feel less like the impossible task of becoming Superman, and more like become more fully human.
We’ve included ways to pray throughout the journal. The psychologists I’ve spoken to have all underlined how important acknowledging our emotions are, and as Christians we have this amazing privilege of a God that promises to always listen. Showing our children that praying can involve all our emotions and take however many different forms, will give them the most important tool for emotional health in the future.
Meanwhile, we will sit with our big, weeping boy, tell him it’s OK to cry, help him give language to what he’s feeling and together, bring all our tears, complaints and confusion to Jesus in prayer. Because Jesus knows what it’s like.
Check out the brilliant new resource from engage worship "Jesus & Emotions": https://engageworship.org/store/product/jesus-emotions-a-creative-journal-for-families