“Step 3 - Emotional Wisdom” on James 3:13-18 by Michelle Ellis - Jan. 28, 2024
Today we’re looking at this text in James alongside the third part of the prayer of Examen. Examen prayer is a way of praying that has 5 parts to it. The heart of this prayer is to grow our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. The first part of the prayer asks God for wisdom and guidance, the second part is about bringing thanks to God and we explored that movement as a church last week. The third part of the Examen prayer is to notice what’s been happening in your head and heart over the previous day. It’s a time to take notice of your feelings, desires, attractions, repulsions and moods and to bring these to God. This is the part of Examen prayer that we are going to explore together today in conversation with the part in James’ letter we just read.
I’d like to explore two things together with you today. The first is that growing in emotional awareness and maturity is a significant part of growing as a follower of Jesus, and second that our emotions are a significant place where we can notice the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s start by looking at how growing in emotional awareness and maturity is part of growing as a follower of Jesus. When I say, "growing in emotional awareness and maturity,” I’m talking about being aware of what we’ve been feeling. Noticing our desires. This may sound kind of basic, but it actually takes a bit of doing, and it can be hard to do. Some of us have gotten the impression that our feelings are suspect and not to be trusted, that they deceive us. Or that maybe our feelings are secondary, a part of us that doesn’t matter as much as reason or our actions, so we ignore them and push them aside. Some of us may have a strong discomfort with emotions that are difficult, like anger or grief. For some our emotions are something to overpower or overcome. For others, emotions are a strange phenomena better left ignored. But ignoring our emotions comes at great risk of missing what they reveal to us about ourselves, about God, and about our experience of Him in this world.
For all these reasons and more, some of us may not be very clear about what we are experiencing emotionally. Some of us may be angry and not know it; discouraged and not know it; fearful and not know it. Or we may know that we’re angry, discourage or feaful, but not know why. Do you think that’s possible? Could that be you? It can be difficult to know if we’ve had long practice at silencing or dismissing our emotions. We can’t live into the truth of what we are experiencing emotionally when we are disconnected from our own emotions.
In truth, our feelings and desires are neither right not wrong. In truth, they are really helpful information! They reveal something to us of who we are, what’s deeply important to us, what’s happening and even what is happening spiritually. Certainly sometimes our feelings don’t fit the situation, and that can be part of the work of our discernment and part of our discipleship. It could be hard to surrender our feelings of irritation or anxiety to God when what is at the heart of that is a lack of trust. But other times our powerful, painful emotions are a fitting response to living in a broken world and a reflection of God’s own heart. Anger at injustice, grief at loss, these emotions can reflect the heart of God and are to be honoured.
Whether pleasant or unpleasant, our feelings are always significant! Being more in touch with our emotions means being more in touch with God. After all, God speaks to us through the ebb and flow of our emotional lives. As disciples of Jesus, part of the call is to learn to be emotionally wise people who know how to be angry without being consumed by anger because we have learned how to let our anger burn like the sun, and then go down like the sun. We must be honest with our fears and anxieties, but also learn how to cast our worries on God. We must be attentive to the subtle ways in which discouragement can infiltrate our hearts and foster a cynicism which is deadly.
This third movement of the prayer of Examen which invites us to notice our emotions and God’s invitation to us is in the midst of them is part of the work of discipleship. Doing this part of the prayer of Examen reminds me of the parable of the good Samaritan. You know the story in Luke where a man is beat up and left on the side of the road needing care and attention to get well? He lies on the road obviously needing help, but he is ignored by many religious people who don’t want to compromise their image by attending to him, or who can’t be bothered because they’re on their way to tend to more ‘important’ tasks.
Our emotional lives can be like this, too. We can have strong emotions that come from places of hurt, that are calling out to be noticed and be tended to so that they can be healed, but we often ignore those parts of ourselves, walking by, dismissing them because we really don’t want to be bothered. Sometimes we’re on our way to do something we deem more important, or we don’t want our good Christian image to be tarnished by association with our own anger or our own grief, or our own fear or discouragement. Attending to our strong emotions by noticing them, paying attention to what they tell us and then bringing them to God, asking God how to respond to them in the light of them being there is good and faithful work, and it is the road to healing.
I wonder if in the passage we read in James today, this kind of work simply wasn’t happening. This picture of what we read about is disturbing to me partly because it rings so true. If you’ve taken on the task of reading through the whole letter of James in one sitting, you’ll notice that integrity and consistency are big things for James. Consistency, having your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, desires and actions all line up is big for James in how to be a follower of Jesus.
In 3:17 James describes God’s wisdom. He describes it as loving peace, being gentle, being willing to yield to others, being full of mercy and always sincere. Maybe the thing that gets to James the most is being hypocritical, or two-faced — saying one thing and doing another. In James we get a picture of some leaders in the community really being bitterly jealous, and selfish but covering up the truth with lying and boasting instead.
We have likely all seen this in one way or another. People who give, but give begrudgingly, or those whose mouths smile, but their eyes don’t. Or maybe you have noticed this discrepancy in yourself. I have certainly noticed this in myself. What becomes really dangerous is when we no longer notice or feel that tension between what we really feel and what we project to ourselves and others, because it has become so much a part of what we do.
The danger when we are not aware of what we are feeling or when we push down or sidestep our more painful emotions for too long, when we don’t examine them, explore what they reveal to us about who we are and bring them before God, is that we can become two-faced like this, where our true hearts don’t line up with what we say and what we do.
Furthermore, what we really feel sometimes ends up coming out in unexpected and unintended ways. Our emotions can come out in ways that we no longer really have a hold on, ways that often hurt ourselves and others. Notice again what James says in the text is the root of this chaos and every evil practice that the community is experiencing—it’s the bitter envy and selfish ambition that are harboured in the heart.
If we don’t recognize and account for our anger and in time let it go down like the burning sun finally setting in the sky, we may continue to accumulate a bunch of unresolved anger and emotions, so that we are no longer just angry at what has happened, but we have somehow become just angry people, flaring up at the smallest provocation on unsuspecting victims. We may not even notice the simmering anger until somehow we are yelling at our child for simply dropping something on the ground, or seething when a housemate leaves their dishes on the sink.
Similarly when we don’t bring our discouragement or loneliness to God, when we don’t face the reality that we are experiencing discouragement or deep sadness and invite God into that place but continue to push it down, sidestep it and ignore it, this discouragement can so infiltrate our hearts that deep and deadly cynicism is fostered that can also comes out in unexpected and uncontrolled ways on unsuspecting people. I was watching an interview with a church leader who when asked a question laughed, but his laugh was so bitter and revealed such cynicism that it haunts me when I think about it. I’m not sure he himself knew what was so obvious to the others around him — that he was deeply discouraged, deeply cynical and likely deeply hurting. When left unattended, these things can do real damage to ourselves, others, and to the community of which we are a part.
But perhaps most grievous, when we push down or sidestep our strong emotions is the missed opportunity for healing. Among many other things, our emotions can reveal to us where we are hurt, where we are afraid, or where we are grieving. When we finally see the buried emotions and bring them to God, we can begin to find healing. We can begin to heal when we can say, ‘God, I am so angry. Show me the root of my anger. Show me what my anger reveals about me and about you. Show me how to live in light of my anger—if there is an injustice that needs to be made right, if there is something I feel entitled to you are asking me to surrender, if there is some vengeance I desire that I need to entrust to you or lay at your feet. Help me by your Holy Spirit to do that.’ Or ‘Lord, I have such deep envy and it is so painful. I don’t want to feel this, but I do. I confess to you what it is that I so deeply desire. Show me how to live with this lack of what I deeply want. Meet me here.’
It can feel counterintuitive, but slowing down and giving space to some of our more unpleasant emotions, noticing them, asking what they reveal about our hearts, our world, and asking God to meet us in them, asking God to heal what needs to be healed and asking God to help us surrender what needs to be surrendered. This can be the way for these stronger feelings to have less power and less of a hold on us. It can be the way to growing wise with God’s wisdom, the kind of wisdom that James describes in verse 17, wisdom that is pure, peace loving, gentle at all times, willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favouritism and is always sincere. God’s wisdom always brings integrity in our hearts and in our minds.