Recently I've been spending time reading psychology books, mainly about infant attachment and parenting styles, as research for my own book. I have been really struck about a particular aspect: how a secure self learns not to be threatened by negative feelings.
I've read how sensitive parenting allows a child to feel those negative emotions and also teaches him/her how to deal with them through both support (unconditional love and empathy) and challenge. The child is also reassured that the source of their security and love is not threatened by such negative emotions either.
I've looked at how behavioural patterns learned in childhood get transformed into our adult lives. They affect the way we respond to, and interpret, the actions and words of those around us.
I was challenged by one particular book that linked the way a child approaches negative feelings to the way we respond to God when we are experiencing negative emotions.
We are His children and yet has the parenting style we've experienced by our earthly parents affected the way we anticipate His responses? I'm sure it must do.
For example, if you are feeling angry, bitter or sad do you feel God will condemn you, pointing out all the reasons why you are feeling like that – and revealing that it is your fault?
Do you feel He expects you to sort yourself out before He'll spend time with you? Does that cause you to shrink away from Him whenever life is less than perfect?
When we allow warped views of God in our lives it causes us no end of pain. I've learned over the years, and believe the Bible teaches, that God longs to connect with us in our despair. Just like a loving parent wants to soothe their hurting child, so, in the first instance, God simply wants to be the source 'of all comfort' (2 Corinthians 1:3) for us.
Negative emotions, far from blocking us from God, can and should pave the way towards greater intimacy with Him.
Sometimes when we read scriptures like Romans 8:28-29 we can become angry that He has let things that hurt us happen ('And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.') And yet it is as we allow Him to be with us within those difficult situations that we learn more about Him – and ourselves. At that point we have a choice: to allow God to minister to us in our pain and allow Him to change us to be more like Jesus or shut ourselves off from Him.
If we look at the response of Jesus in Gethsemane He wasn't afraid of showing His father His real, raw emotion (see Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46). He sweat drops of blood at the very thought of what He was about to experience. We, too, mustn't be afraid of letting God see our anguish. He can already look into our souls so the open sharing of what we are feeling is for our benefit – not His.
Look at the psalms – they are full of people pouring out their deepest feelings to God. I love spending time with the psalmists in my own devotions, as they are honest, real and even raw in some instances. Here's an example:
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart
and free me from my anguish.
Look on my affliction and my distress
and take away all my sins.
See how numerous are my enemies
and how fiercely they hate me!
Guard my life and rescue me;
do not let me be put to shame,
for I take refuge in you.
May integrity and uprightness protect me,
because my hope, Lord, is in you. (Psalm 25:16-21)
I am so glad to know that God welcomes my rush of negative emotions as well as my praise. My journal is littered with 'anguish prose' – it sits alongside words and scriptures that have really spoken to me and I believe they make my communication with God complete.
If you've always felt like it isn't right to share your negativity with God, or have never tried writing your own psalm, why not try to do so this week? When you are struggling with something try putting pen to paper and expressing those more difficult emotions – or simply cry out to God in prayer. God isn't put off by your negative emotions. He longs to be with you, however you are feeling.