People often experience having their emotions marginalized in spiritual settings. In far too many church spaces, we are cautioned that our emotions will lead us astray, and that we must use logic and Scripture alone to make sound and faithful decisions for our lives that please God.
Over and over, my own emotions were ignored because they were seen as a liability to living a godly life. Across the theological spectrum I have discovered that being emotional was problematic: a sign of immaturity in some church spaces, while in others, emotions were largely ostracized, only expressed in experiences of musical worship, leaving the rest of life for sober obedience.
I still encounter congregants who wonder if their happiness is a sign that they are not making the right choice. After all, how can you live a sacrificial life and still fully enjoy it? If we aren’t a little unhappy, are we really giving ourselves to the Christian life with full surrender?
I have also been in faith environments where feelings are spiritualized away, given the surface treatment with platitudes so that people are quickly redirected toward a happy spiritual truth. In all honesty, this is disrespectful to the range and beauty of the feelings God created for us to experience. In many ways, this approach bears identical fruit to fully cutting off our emotions. I am not sure we have been honest about the cost of cutting off our emotions. Connecting with what we feel can let us know what kind of support we need to remain in Christ during seasons of suffering or temptation. Click To Tweet
EMOTIONS ARE CENTRAL TO THE HUMAN CONDITION
Emotions are a powerful part of our human condition. Yet, it would be easy for many Christians to conclude that feelings are the real sin of the garden, the gateway into the fall of humanity. After all, the serpent appeals to the humans’ desires and longing for significance and power. And yet, there is no indication that emotions came as a result of the fall of humanity, and in fact we see the first man and woman express deeply emotional affect to one another prior to the fruit. In fact, throughout Scripture we find the opposite is true – the Psalmists, for example, express a wide range of emotions, both healthy and harmful, quite openly. If our emotions are a part of our original, untainted design, then they are a core part of how we reflect God’s image, and not something we should simply erase nor suppress.
However, we may still fear the strength of our emotions, and thus we try to control and restrict them, even demonizing them, because we fear they will draw us away from Jesus. Many of us have done the math, and we have concluded that the upside to integrating our emotions with our faith is too small to be worthy of the risk.
But I am not sure we have been honest about the cost of cutting off our emotions. Many times it is our feelings that give us the first clue that something is wrong in our lives that requires discernment or prayer. Connecting with what we feel can let us know what kind of support we need to remain in Christ during seasons of suffering or temptation.
In my time pastoring people, I have found it important to think of emotions as helpful information. They should neither be excluded nor become the only information we use. They are one a critical piece of the puzzle that can point us to an area of our life that needs attention. We want to avoid both extremes: ignoring our feelings, which often means dismissing important information that God designed us to access, or exclusively relying on our feelings alone to guide us, therefore ignoring insight from experts, our community, and even Scripture itself.
This is not necessarily a modern view. Over the years, I have found the Ignatian Prayer of Examen to be particularly helpful with this. This practice provides a way to integrate these disparate parts of ourselves, giving us a way to pray through challenging events filled with unsettling emotions, ultimately seeing patterns emerge over time. Emotions are helpful information; a critical piece of the puzzle that can point us to an area of our life that needs attention. We want to avoid both extremes: ignoring our feelings, or exclusively relying on them alone to guide us. Click To Tweet
THE IGNATIAN PRAYER OF EXAMEN REVEALS OUR EMOTIONAL PATTERNS
There are four movements to the Prayer of Examen. The word examen is Latin for review, similar to how when we were tested in school, an exam was meant to review of all we learned (or not, as the case may be!). Similarly, this prayer is a review of our experiences over a specific period of time to help us gain clarity on who we are or are not in our relationship with Jesus. Ignatius made this a daily habit, and so this prayer is also referred to as the Daily Examen.
- The first movement is simply to invite God into your time of examination. I often do this with a time of silence, which centers us on the presence of God and reminds us that we are accepted by God regardless of what this reflection reveals.
- The second movement is to review our day for consolation. Starting from when we woke up and moving toward the present moment, we are looking for moments of joy, peace, and integration. I recommend writing these consolations down, even in simple bullet points, to help you take it all in. Look over your list and see if there is one moment that stands out as significant. Take some time to be more specific about what you were feeling – was it satisfaction, a sense of calm, or happiness? What birthed that feeling? Where were you, who were you with, and what were you doing when that was happening? This deeper look at a moment of goodness can help you grow in knowing the people and places that are nourishing your life.
- The third movement focuses on desolation. If desolation sounds like the opposite of consolation, for Ignatius of Loyola, it is because it is – this movement is seeking to become aware of moments of sadness, anger, disconnection, or indifference. It can be hard to look at these moments more deeply, but they are a necessary part of our discernment. After making a list of these moments, take some time to consider one that stands out. Explore around that moment as you did with consolation, getting more specific about what you were feeling and what stirred this response on you.
One of the important aspects to this type of review is that we approach both consolation and desolation with the same curiosity, because both occasions where we experience meaningful emotional awareness reveal important information as we discern God at work in our lives. This process yields new perspectives so that our emotions do not exclusively drive our discernment. This structure also ensures that our mood is not undervalued. Strong emotions, including difficult ones, often point us to areas of our lives that need our attention and prayerful consideration.
- Our fourth and final movement is toward response. Ignatius framed this movement primarily as confession, but I like to see it more broadly. Certainly confession is a key response we should consider and often underestimate. However, since we are not only looking for sin in our lives, I have found that sometimes the response can also include gratitude, commitment to act on something confirmed in your time of review, or simply allowing God’s truth to be more deeply rooted in our hearts. This is a chance to lift any response or petition that is stirring within you to God directly in a closing prayer.
With a consistent rhythm of prayer over time, patterns begin to emerge. We see where we are routinely facing environments that don’t allow you to fully use your skills, or relationships that are not life-giving and are in need of additional support. Not only negative patterns are revealed – consolation yields important insights about our gifting, the best ways we can serve, and which relationships push us to be more like Jesus.
We grow in discernment as we move toward confession/response, not only hearing the invitation of the Holy Spirit with more clarity, but obeying the Spirit’s leading more deeply as we continue this practice. Each time we struggle to follow through, we revisit it in our next examen, and we can see what prevented us from living in a new way, asking for the power to live differently. I found that each time I had to review the same type of mistake, I repeatedly encountered God’s grace, and each time I was a bit quicker at obeying in the moment. My feelings pointed to the spaces in my life that desperately need attention as a disciple of Jesus. In other seasons of my walk with Jesus, my emotions directed me to gifts, passions, and skills that God was using for his Kingdom. Click To Tweet
HOW THE PRAYER OF EXAMEN HAS TRANSFORMED MY LYING
For example, when I first became a Christian I struggled deeply with lying. Lying had been a means of survival prior to my walk with Jesus, but I knew it wasn’t the way to walk with Christ going forward. Changing something that had provided safety for me was a real challenge. Lying had become a natural instinct from that place deep within me that associated it with the most basic desire to remain alive. I know that sounds extreme, but as someone who experienced trauma and abuse, it had become an ingrained connection in my mind and body.
Breaking this pattern would require more than sheer discipline or love for Jesus. While I wasn’t aware of the Prayer of Examen back then, I followed a similar pattern in regularly journaling my prayers. The more I reflected in this way, the more progress I made in living differently. Initially, my time in prayer was mainly in confession, admitting after the fact that I had turned to lying, usually without even intending to. Eventually, in the course of regular confession I could see my sin soon afterwards instead of much later on.
By reflecting more on what I was feeling when those moments of temptation arose, I began to recognize the feelings as they were happening, and that insight gave me the power to resist them as I was reaching for that lie. My confession shifted from naming a bad behavior to a recognition that I didn’t really trust deep in my heart that Jesus would be with me in times of vulnerability, and was actually all the security I needed.
My times of confession had moved from external behaviors to my heart. Soon, I began to anticipate the times and circumstances when I would be most prone to use a lie to feel secure. This minimized the temptation I felt and gave me an opportunity to develop other ways to cope with my anxiety and fear: through prayer, community, and therapy. I am far from the person I was, but it was my emotions that led me to times of regular and thoughtful prayer.
My feelings also pointed to the spaces in my life that desperately need attention as a disciple of Jesus. When it came to lying, my feelings revealed an area of my life that needed deep transformation and rewiring. In other seasons of my walk with Jesus, my emotions directed me to gifts, passions, and skills that God was using for his Kingdom, allowing me to invite mentors to help me grow in those particular ways. Ultimately, by considering my feelings, I have been able to discern the voice of God in my life, moving toward a wholeness that seemed unattainable earlier in life.
As a traumatized person coming to faith, I was often told I was too emotional and messy. I was encouraged to be “more rational.” While reigning in my emotions was important in certain moments, ignoring them completely was not a healing path forward, and it certainly is not one found in Scripture. It actually undermines the Imago Dei (See Genesis 1:26-27) to suggest the spiritual life is one that should render us unfeeling robots. By listening to my emotions and expressing them, I moved toward greater wholeness, integration, and healing. I was closer to who God had designed me to be, better able to use my gifts to serve others.
The church should be a place where people can come and be fully human, experiencing the full range of feelings that God intended for us. Like the psalmists, I think we will find that even the most difficult feelings can be a point of deeper engagement with God. By creating appropriate spaces for the full range of our emotions to be expressed in a healthy manner within our faith communities, we will see deep transformation that radiates from our innermost being. This transformation will in turn show the world a glimpse of what it really means to be truly human. It actually undermines the Imago Dei to suggest the spiritual life is one that should render us unfeeling robots. By listening to my emotions and expressing them, I moved toward greater wholeness, integration, and healing. Click To Tweet
*Editorial Note: There are myriad versions of the Ignatian Prayer of Examen, or its various offshoots, that are available online. Two versions that we recommend as Missio Alliance are found below. ~CK
Sherin Mathew Swift is the Connections and Equipping Pastor at New Life Fellowship, a multiethnic church in Queens, NYC. With a unique perspective as a former atheist and abuse survivor, she has a particular concern for those who have their faith disrupted by trauma and suffering as well as for those who have stagnated in their faith journey. She shares that passion through preaching, teaching, and writing. A lifelong New Yorker, she completed her M.Div at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, and was ordained by the Evangelical Covenant Church in 2021.