Feel It So Real
Growing up, church culture taught me to orient nearly all of life Godward. The curve of my words, the weight of my obedience, every dream of a hope and a future. All for Jesus. Well, nearly all for Jesus. Every writ of holy subtext told me my emotions needed taming, not directing. Reckless, our emotions waited to wreck us.
So I quieted them, not with prayers but with myths. I reassured myself of how romantic I was, how sensitive, how inspired. I made myself from the inside out.
When I entered a Christian college, I felt the gravitational pull of like souls, especially with one close friend. Diamonds in the rough waiting for the chance to prove themselves. Mistaken for boys, great men surely lived inside of us.
We all went on convincing ourselves we felt more than everyone else. We reveled in our ability to bleed. Bands with loud guitars and louder feelings ushered us down two-lane Missouri highways. We used up our breath singing along with every word. In summer, windows down; in winter, bodies hunched toward heater vents unequal to their task.
Pooling our feelings, we turned up the music and hurtled down the highway toward every next big thing. Worshipping possibility, we believed the words of a Dawes song yet to be written: “I thought that one quick moment that was noble or brave would be worth the most of my life.”
We took matters into our impatient hands, starting with our romantic chances. Someday the girls we orbited would surrender to us. Then, finally justified, God himself would smile and nod, like he always knew we had it in us.
In the midst of each moment, our actions seemed justified, noble even. But a decade or so later, rewinding and pressing play on memories, the sirens of hindsight would sound in my head.
What I thought to be romantic gestures invaded space and solitude. I expected validation from girls who owed me nothing. I confessed feelings I technically had, but with scattershot aim. I laid the weight of every love song, every poem, every big-screen revelation, on sisters I barely knew. The volume of my feelings drowned out my regard for theirs.
Years later, strong women in my life graciously granted me chances to see through their eyes. As they showed me unsafe versions of manhood, I closed my eyes, pictured myself in college and shuddered at what I talked myself into. I didn’t feel more than anyone else. I just expressed my feelings with more carelessness. “I can’t help it baby, this is who I am / Sorry, but I can’t just go turn off how I feel” makes a great sing-along, but a terrible alibi. Jimmy Eat World wrote the words knowing that, but I missed the nuance.
The warning signs I missed and the people I misled still visit me like spirits.
What do I know now that I wish I knew then? Feelings find safe and full expression within the contours of covenant.
Steering our emotions Godward never means swallowing them. Once I thought my emotions repelled God; time and trials keep teaching me otherwise. He welcomes my feelings, welling up from places he knit deep within me. He wants to walk me through them.
Some friends offered warnings and wisdom, but rather than wrestle with their questions, I followed those who turned up the dial on my worst impulses. All these years and all this scar tissue later, I see a different way: bind yourself to those who handle feelings with genuine care. Seek out beloved counselors who cultivate your emotions rather than merely amplifying them.
Fourteen years into marriage, my wife knows every tell. She sees each emotion bubble below before it erupts. She treats me not as some superhuman specimen—the opposite of every action-movie automaton who learns to feel just before the closing credits—but as someone worth hearing out.
Rather than dull my emotions, the rites and routines of our covenant round them into shape. Living as a husband and best friend, my joy, anger, desire, fear, and pleasure regularly give way to new, improved versions. Seeing and experiencing more, perhaps I feel more. Perhaps I just feel in a better way. However you do the math, my emotions find sharpness and strength a younger, more impetuous version of me never could access.
Thirty-eight years into existence, my feelings have finally found a resting place. As I read along with the psalmists and prophets, I recognize full-throated, red-blooded expressions of every feeling under the sun. The biblical authors peered over the edge at doubt, death, disappointment, rejection, and loneliness—and knew every attendant emotion.
Never diminishing the stuff of earth, they let these emotions go like balloons floating heavenward. They committed their souls into the hands of a God big enough to bear every emotion, passionate enough to invent every feeling that matters from no matter at all.
These saints learned how to situate their emotions within a world bigger than themselves. They expressed their feelings, then set those feelings on a scale next to the needs of others and the arc of what God set out to accomplish.
Feelings that begin and end with me mean something. Channeling them in ways which preserve and elevate the feelings of others means even more. Treating people as people, not potential focal points for everything burning in me, I see greater shades of emotion than ever before and sin less against brothers and sisters.
Later than I’d like, but never too late, I see the beauty of a God who designed our lives for abundance. As songwriter Audrey Assad once testified, this not only means an abundance of the good stuff, but all the darkness and depth as well. I feel increasingly comfortable trusting a redeemer who not only experienced every one of my emotions, but bore the weight of every misdirected, disordered, ill-timed fit and feeling.
Because he felt more than I imagine, I enjoy the freedom to feel like myself. Placing my emotions under his good and sovereign rule, I believe they will accomplish what he designed them to do. In him, redemption for feelings past, sympathy for feelings present, perfection of feelings future.
Now there is no fear or shame in feeling. Give me the real, undiluted stuff. I know where to cast my every care.
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