What does an emotionally unhealthy person look like? How would you characterize this person?
Here are a few examples from people in my own life:
- A twenty-something girl who does not know where she ends and another person begins and who cannot identify what she is responsible for versus what the other person is responsible for. She has allowed her emotions to become dependent on how that other person is doing or feeling.
- A person who stuffs how she feels - tries to sweep it under the rug - until she can no longer hold it in. Then, she erupts likes a volcano, spewing all of her past emotional hurts onto the unlucky person in front of her.
- A person who tries to control parts of her life (like her weight) or who tries to control the people around them (like her spouse or children) in order to compensate for her own insecurity and lack of trust in God.
- A person who copes with anxiety or loneliness by shopping therapy, eating a gallon of ice cream, viewing porn, masturbating, indulging in alcohol or drugs, hooking up with someone, etc.
If I were to put all of this in a list form, it would include a lack of self-control, stuffing or ignoring how you feel instead of dealing with your emotions, relying on others to meet your emotional needs instead of turning to God, being ruled by how you feel, thinking the world revolves around you, or maybe being numb and not feeling anything. This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully, it helps paint a picture of what an emotionally unhealthy person looks like.
You might have read these descriptions and thought, “Oh no! That’s me!” (or identified a family member, friend, co-worker, etc.). And if that’s the case, I want to offer hope. We can change, by the grace of God. We don’t have to stay where we are emotionally and spiritually. It will take time, and it won’t be easy. But we serve a God who is all about taking what is broken and making it whole.
So how do we grow emotionally and spiritually? If we are emotionally unhealthy in any way, what steps can we take to begin to change?
Go to God with your emotion.
If you feel a certain way, tell Him. Be honest with Him about it. He can take your anger, confusion, frustration, sorrow, etc. God already knows anyway. The psalmist had no problems doing this and was brutally honest about how he felt. Take a cue from the psalmist. If you’re going to change an emotion, you must first have some sort of embrace of it. You have to arrive at it and identify it in order to submit it to God.
Understand your emotion.
Your emotions are the tip of the iceberg, and you must understand what’s below the water line. For more on how to do this, read this previous blog post on the subject.
Mortify ungodly emotions.
To mortify means to kill or put to death. Colossians 3:5 tells us, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” As discussed earlier, the Bible contains plenty of commands regarding what we are to stop feeling and desiring. Even last night as I was studying Isaiah 44, God tells His people not to fear (v. 2). This was an emotion that God’s people were not to give into. Why? Because He “who formed you from the womb...will help you” (v. 2).
How do we mortify ungodly emotions? We confess our sinful emotion and thoughts, and we’re specific about our confession. We bring our sin to light instead of letting it remain. But mortification is more than confession. We must also take steps to eliminate that sin from our lives. This will look different depending on the particular emotion and sin, but it will likely involve immersing ourselves in Scripture and cutting things out of our life (people, places, music, books, movies, social media, etc.). There’s a cost to giving into sin, and there’s a cost to getting rid of it. It will take sacrifice, but we make those sacrifices because we know that Christ is worth it.
Cultivate godly emotions.
Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 both advocate a replacement principle when it comes to sin. In these letters, Paul tells believers to “put off” what is sinful and to “put on” what is righteous. I think about it in terms of clothing. We don’t take off old clothing and walk around naked. We put on other clothes, clean clothes.
We also need to put off and put on with our emotions, which takes God working in us. I have found that spending time reading and studying God’s Word is a huge part of this because God uses His Word to change me thinking, my emotions, my desires, and my actions. Emotional health requires knowing and growing closer to the One who made us.
Cultivating godly emotions also involves renewing my mind. I must set my mind on things above (Col. 3:2; Rom. 8:5-6). I have a choice in what I think about. My mind is not a runaway horse. I can take the reins and focus my mind on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). Again, right thinking leads to right feelings.
However, it takes an act of the will to change. Colossians 3:12-14 states, “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and love is something I have to actively choose to do. It doesn’t just happen because these are not my natural tendencies. So obedience with my emotions, thoughts, and will requires me to be proactive.
Take heart, our emotions can be trained, educated, overcome, and improved – because our thinking can be. And one day, it will all be set right when we stand in His presence. All of our emotions will be perfectly ordered, just right. As Dr. Sam Williams states, “Our emotional states are windows into our souls, revealing the allegiance of our hearts. Let us endeavor to think God’s thoughts after Him, conform our actions to His Word, and experience emotions that reflect and honor Him.”