Sermon: The Wisdom and Limits of Emotions

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Excerpts from Ephesians 4

Thank you Diego, for that reading. I wish we would had time to hear the entire chapter of Ephesians 4 because it’s chock full of wisdom for discipleship. Paul was writing to the Ephesians as a prisoner due to his association with Jesus’ revolutionary movement. He was writing to the Ephesians who were a largely Gentile community and therefore experiencing more social privilege than he was as a Jewish person in the Roman empire.

He was calling them to ethical living which was personal, communal and political. “The calling to which they had been called” as the church was to deep personal and political maturity. “To grow up” the text says “into Christ.” As a part of Jesus’ movement they were called to be, as Ched Myers puts it, “a social experiment in reconciliation between ethnically, politically and culturally alienated groups.”

This was not a letter to a group of people who were all the same, who lacked social awareness, and were merely being told to be nicer to each other.  No. The unity that Paul was writing about was something that this group had to fight for. The quest for unity was a key part of their discipleship.

Their society had formed them so they would stay divided ethnically, politically, religiously, and socio-economically. The words from Romans 12:2 come to mind, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Paul was well aware of the power of the dominant culture, “the world,” and its value system to tear the fledging Jesus-following community apart. And he also knew that power imbalances were a real thing within those communities. There were people of means and people who were totally dispossessed by the economic system. There were those who had grown up in very different religious traditions. There were those who were fleeing persecution and those who could still blend in with the dominant culture.

Ched Myers calls the book of Ephesians a “Manifesto of Christian Peacemaking,” both within the their community and in their relationship to the rest of society. From this vantage point the words of Ephesians 4 take on a much more profound meaning for me.

Across these lines of difference and power imbalance they are called to be humble and gentle with each other. They are called to maturity (beyond ignorance and hardness of heart). They are called to speak the truth in love which harkens back to the tradition of the prophets. In Zechariah 8:16-17 the prophets exhorts the people in this way, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath.”

The prophets also did not shy away from anger. They had every right to be angry about the injustices they spoke against. And Paul honors anger as well, saying “be angry but not sin.” There were clearly reasons for anger as that community was trying to figure out what it meant to walk in the way of Jesus. I’m guessing there was internal anger, at each other, and external anger, at the violence of empire and the way it threatened those who were vulnerable. Another observation that Ched Myers made in his study of Ephesians is that “the real peace church will be persecuted because of it’s embodied social solidarity.”

And this pressure from outside the community (due to their counter-cultural witness) made it all the more important for them to be humble, gentle and speaking the truth in love to each other.

In what ways does our community and our societal context sound similar to the community in Ephesus? We are a group of people coming together from a variety of ethnic and racial identities. We come from a number of religious traditions. We come from and are located in a few different economic classes. We have varying levels of education and varying levels of housing security.

All of these differences (and the societal power or lack thereof they afford us) carry in them the potential for conflict, misunderstanding and anger. As we continue this series, building on Sheri’s sermon “A Case of Conflict” last week, there needs to be space for this anger and conflict to be addressed among us when it arises.

As a community, like the Ephesians, are also trying to figure out how to follow Jesus in the midst of a cruelly unjust and morally bankrupt society. And when I say “morally bankrupt,” to be clear I’m talking about the immorality the prophets rail against: not welcoming the outsider, not taking care of the widows, the orphans and the most vulnerable. I’m talking about the thousands of people who are unhoused in the Bay Area and the millions of the people who are incarcerated and the countless children who lack a quality education. Those realities render our  society morally bankrupt.

What Paul is talking about in Ephesians 4 is a tall order, to be the kind of community that is mature and can speak the truth in love and can put away the falsehoods that are so rampant in our world. And I think our emotions have a lot to offer us in this regard. In situations of conflict or tension or intensity our emotions offer us wisdom. They are not the truth but they point us toward the truth.

If we are to come to maturity and grow up in every way as disciples of Jesus, we must learn to be present in the midst of strong emotions. I am not a person who has been very good at this throughout my life. Since I was in high school I was told I had a strong personality and was sometimes overwhelming to people. I remember in college some friends reflecting that my mood could turn on a dime, if someone did something I didn’t like or thought was inappropriate.

I also grew up in a family that welcomed emotions and that was a gift in a many ways. My dad was not afraid to share his emotions with us and in my teenage years and early twenties I would have long conversations with him about the emotional complexities in my life. The downside of all of this was that I was overly-attached to my emotions. If I was sad there always had to be a clear reason for it and I had to find someone to blame (myself or another person) until the sadness could be resolved. Sadness was a bad emotion and it needed to be fixed. This was exhausting. And even more exhaustingly I always to had to be feeling what I considered a good emotion in order to be okay in the world.

Although I got better at managing my emotions throughout my twenties and early thirties, the idea that I had to be feeling a good emotion or fixing a bad emotion in order to be okay lasted until about… a year ago.

The catalyst for my learning was a difficult conversation with Eric, my partner, when he gave me feedback in a “speaking the truth in love” kind of way. With thoughtful and careful words he articulated to me that he wasn’t sure if our relationship was emotionally sustainable for him. He shared a number of instances when my emotional intensity had been directed at him and how it lead to feelings of being trapped or blamed for things that were not his responsibility.

He pointed out that I seemed to have a need to feel a certain way about our relationship and when I didn’t feel that “good emotion” it was his fault. He articulated that I wasn’t taking responsibility for my emotions and working them out on my own before showering them all over him.

Unsurprisingly or not, that was a new thought for me. I figured freedom and safety in a committed relationship meant I could articulate whatever emotion I was feeling at any time. It was disconcerting to hear him say that my emotional intensity was not sustainable for him and I felt entirely at a loss about how to change that.

Thank God for my spiritual director and for Sheri (and many other supportive and wise friends). I also got turned on to the book The Language of Emotions around this time. Through much conversation, reflection and study I began to understand that my emotions weren’t the end of the story. It was no longer, “I’m angry about this and anger is a bad emotion so it needs to be fixed and you’re responsible to fix it because you did this or that.”

I also began to realize that emotions weren’t just things that happened to me, and were either good or bad. Rather I began to understand that they had important information to share with me.

The part that I like best about the Language of Emotions book is that is outlines the wisdom that each emotion offers us. Rather than over-valuing emotions or repressing them, it articulates how we can become aware of our emotions as a teacher. It totally debunks the good/bad binary for emotions and sees them all as truth-tellers and none of them as something that will or should last forever.

In the past when I might have blown up emotionally at someone, I started to develop the tools to ask questions of my emotions first, which then helped me to get clear on what I really needed. This is practice is what allows us to become more present in conflictual or tenuous situations.

In The Language of Emotions author Karla McLaren writes, “When I talk about honoring the emotions, I don’t mean for us to prostrate ourselves in front of their temple; we don’t want to swing from vilifying the emotions to glorifying them, because both positions are inappropriate. Both positions objectify the emotions as unconnected good or bad things that happen to us, rather than as tools for our greatest humanity and evolution.”

I recognize that some of us have been taught to repress our emotions and other have been taught to over-express. In our society, in general, we’re taught to repress “bad” emotions (like anger, depression, fear and guilt) and to over-express “good” emotions (like happiness, contentment and joy). This is what allows us to dismiss people who speak out against injustices as just too angry or keeps people isolated who are struggling with depression because we don’t know how to honor the wisdom depression brings.

This work, McLaren writes, “teaches us to find the middle ground between vilification and glorification of the emotions, and between expressing and repressing them. When we can see all of our emotions as vital tools, we can invite all of them into a conscious and supportive dialogue. When we can treat our emotions as essential aspects of ourselves—as our native language—we’ll begin to understand that there is a honorable way to work with our emotions, and an honorable way to think about them.”

So, let’s take anger for example. What can anger teach us? It’s gifts are honor, conviction, proper boundaries, protection of yourself and others and healthy detachment. When anger arises the questions to ask are: “What must be protected? What must be restored?” Anger indicates that our boundaries have been crossed or we (or those we love) have been violated.

It is appropriate to be angry about the treatment of refugees at our nation’s border. It is appropriate to be angry when someone says a mean thing to you. It’s appropriate to be angry when you’re not justly compensated or recognized for work you have done. It’s appropriate to be angry when your thoughts are dismissed in a conversation.

McLaren writes, “Anger sets your boundaries by walking the perimeter of your soul and keeping an eye on you, the people around you and your environment. If your boundaries are broken anger comes forward to restore your sense of strength and separateness.”

If I’m in a social context and begin to feel angry, rather than immediately expressing or repressing it, I can ask questions of the anger. What of my boundaries is being crossed? Do I need to speak up about it now? Is this space safe enough to bring up the concern? Can I address the concern later with the offending party? What do I need to restore and protect my boundary?

I have found that at those times when I feel the most justified in my anger to respond to someone who has done me wrong, it’s probably the least helpful time to address them. Because in those situations for me, it’s about being right (and the other person being wrong) and feeling vindicated. It doesn’t provide the other person the opportunity to self-reflect but rather produces defensiveness.

Perhaps there are some instances where this kind of push-back can be a wake up call for the other person, but I think in terms of “speaking the truth in love” pausing to reflect on the anger allows space for mutual transformation of the relationship, rather than for a fire fight.

Another emotion I’d like to look at briefly is sadness. The gifts of sadness are release, grounding, relaxation and revitalization. The questions sadness invites are: What must be released? What must be rejuvenated? Sadness allows us to release that which no longer serves us.

McLaren writes, “Sadness helps you slow down, feel your losses, and release that which needed to released—to soften into the flow of life instead of holding yourself rigidly and pushing ever onward. Sadness also helps you release yourself from relationships, behaviors or ideas that take you away from your authentic self. Furthermore it has an important biological healing component: tears cleanse your eyes and sinuses and release toxins (and excess tension) from your body.”

Sadness and anger together are a great pair which help us to vulnerably acknowledge losses and reset our boundaries. And the beauty of honoring the emotions is that we can also work through them in a way that is transformative. We can let go of things and create space for that which we really need while also creating healthier boundaries at the same time.

I find it liberating to have this new relationship to my emotions and the choice it allows me in how I share them with others. It’s been important to remember that this way of relating to emotions does not come naturally to me and also offer myself grace in this practice. Perhaps this is part of the humility that Paul is writing about in Ephesians.

Conflict will manifest. Anger will arise. Grief and sadness are a natural part of life. Our emotions are here to point us to the truth of our experience and invite us into transformation.

So let us bear with each other in love so that we can come to embody a mature unity. Let us put away falsehood and speak the truth to each other, even when it’s difficult to give and receive the feedback. Let us be angry when boundaries are transgressed and may our anger point us toward the transformation of relationships and situations.

For we are members of each other and it is our calling to grow up into the way of Jesus. May the transformation we seek in our world, be embodied here among us, in all it’s complexity and in all our complexity.