Is it possible for a Christian to claim to be spiritually mature, but at the same time be emotionally immature? Surely this dichotomous thinking must be problematic on many different levels. This is the major premise advanced by author and pastor Peter Scazzero in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and built upon in Marc Alan Schelske’s new book The Wisdom of Your Heart: Discovering the God-Given Purpose and Power of Your Emotions (David C. Cook, September 2017).
I was fortunate enough to interview Marc for our podcast episode (released on the 15th of September, 2017). Marc and I have a long-standing relationship, over more than a decade, back to when we both served as pastors of two churches in the Portland, OR, area. Our churches shared the same building, which was a novel approach, but it proved to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
To return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article, the sad truth is that so many churches today are filled with people who say they are in fact spiritually mature, but are at the same time emotionally immature. But surely this makes little sense. How in the world can someone claim to be spiritually mature, but at the same time overlook their emotional maturity? Such a condition may come about for the following reason: it turns out, in so many cases, that the basis of the claim for spiritual maturity may stem from their large amount of biblical and theological head knowledge alone.
In many churches, such achievements are typically equated with spiritual maturity. But in terms of emotional and relational maturity, many knowledgeable believers are at the same time sadly lacking in terms of emotional and developmental growth. Proof positive of this situation is oftentimes revealed by the ways in which so many Christians treat others so terribly. For example, a person may seek to guard their identity as a Christian by stubbornly clinging to theological certitudes, or by stating a string of biblical proof-texts that apparently back up their unassailable position.
Unfortunately, however, although far too many Christians claim to be “right” both biblically and theologically, there are lots who are all too willing to sacrifice relationships with others over doctrinal or biblical interpretational issues. Oftentimes these even extend to what many might consider peripheral beliefs. Such toxic and emotionally immature believers do incredible emotional and relational damage to others, but somehow can walk away with a clean conscience. It’s often justified on this basis: “I told the truth (with a capital ‘T’), after all; I was right. Whatever hurt the other person may have experienced is their problem, not mine.”
How did this situation come to be?
God Doesn’t Have Emotions!
Schelske shines a light on a sobering truth: the reality is that in so many churches, there is an implicit—and potentially damaging—message being regularly conveyed. This may be delivered via sermons, Sunday School lessons, or in Bible studies. It’s often heard (or rather picked up via osmosis) from a very early age, and takes root in our thinking and theological worldviews. That message sounds something like this: “God doesn’t have emotions; and as a spiritually mature Christian, neither should you.”
This is, however, little more than toxic and destructive theology that seriously affects people’s mental health, as well as their emotional development and maturity. Where did this type of thinking originate in the first place?
Due to our theological systems that have been filtered through the lens of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on human reason, much of Christianity has tended to emphasize the primacy of rationalism over emotions. Both in our theology and biblical studies, and on into our practical theology, reason has become exalted over emotions as the benchmark of “true spirituality.”
Much of this thinking stems from the ways in which we have come to view God, via inherited systems of thought. We’re told that God is the “uncaused cause”; he’s the “unmoved mover,” the unchanging, emotionless, immutable being who dispassionately governs over the universe. Whenever the Scriptures speak of God displaying emotions, all too often these are explained away as anthropomorphism (assigning human attributes to something not human).
Human writers of Scripture, some theologians and biblical scholars maintain, used the “principle of accommodation” to express God’s nature in human terms; but we are informed that God isn’t really like that, of course. Oftentimes in Scripture, when God seems to display emotions, these are assigned to the category of an attribute.
It’s argued that they’re clearly not an actual, real emotion–like hate, anger or love. The idea of “God’s love” isn’t like the love we humans feel; it’s more of a “state of beneficence” or goodwill in which he exists all the time. And while it is true that we would hope that God isn’t capricious, ruled by his emotions, at the same time, Scripture clearly attests to the fact that he does display real emotions.
But the truth is, Schelske points out, is that humans have emotions because God does too—and that’s how he created us, in his image and likeness. Emotions are actually a gift given to us by God. Therefore, emotions can’t be a bad thing, surely, if God has them; they are not somehow a result of the fall of humanity into sin.
And what about Jesus? Didn’t he demonstrate real, human emotions in the Gospels? Unfortunately, the various emotions exhibited by Jesus comes under the same assault, too. In popular art and depictions of him, the picture of Jesus that we’re left with is this calm—almost detached, in fact—religious guru or wise teacher who never allowed himself to be ruled or swayed by his vacillating emotions.
The fact is, however, Jesus was truly human—and he displayed real, human emotions, as we all do. Yet, the Scripture says, he was without sin—and so emotions can’t be all bad, surely?
Don’t Trust Your Emotions
Because of such skewed theology and biblical scholarship, is it any wonder that there are so many Christians out there who are emotionally immature? Why would you want to be in touch with your emotions if you are taught, from a very early age, that you shouldn’t trust your emotions? “Spiritually mature Christians must rise above such superficialities,” it is stated. “You can’t truly serve God by allowing your emotions to be in control.”
It’s almost as if the ideal Christian should become like Mr Spock from Star Trek—a human computer who makes every decision correctly, weighing up the facts dispassionately, because he was never swayed by his capricious emotions. Captain Kirk, after all, got into trouble time and time again because he relied on his emotions in the heat of the moment.
But why exactly is it that we shouldn’t we trust our emotions? People are informed that our emotions are somehow rooted in our “sinful human nature side” and therefore are suspect at best. Emotions are fickle, and shouldn’t be trusted, we are told; moreover, we shouldn’t make major life-decisions on the basis of emotions, either.
The Emotional “Check-Engine Light”
While there is certainly a grain of truth to those statements—we all know someone whose life has been severely damaged or even destroyed by making emotionally-based decisions—Schelske’s argument is refreshing and different. He claims that your emotions always tell you the truth. Here’s the problem , though: most of us aren’t very skilled in learning how to interpret our emotions correctly.
Just like that annoying “check engine” light flashing on your car’s dashboard, your emotions are telling you that something may be wrong in your life, or out of whack. The problem is, though, that just like when that red light flashes while we’re driving, we don’t always know what it means; but it’s probably bad, and could lead to expensive repairs, or worse yet—a blown engine, leaving you stranded alongside the road somewhere. But it could be something very simple and easily fixed, too. If we don’t take the car in for a diagnostic test, however, we’ll never know—and we’re flirting with potential disaster.
Navigating with a Faulty Road Map?
The major problem that so many people have, however, when dealing with that emotional “check engine light” in their lives, is this: they’re trying to navigate through life with a faulty, or incorrect, “road map.” Schelske argues that when we are growing up, we’re all handed various “road maps” relating to how to navigate life. How are these road maps formed? We see the examples set of how others do it—be it a parent, an authority figure, a teacher, a coach, a friend, a relative, whoever.
Therefore, during these incredibly important formative years, we form these “mental road maps” relating to how we should handle various situations that arise in life. The problem, however, is this: not all these maps are accurate, or very good. Some of them are completely faulty, and can allow us to get hopelessly lost in life. For example, blowing up in anger when blocked or frustrated is one way to handle situations; giving up and quitting every time the going gets rough is another way.
Your map could be positive, too; maybe those examples you witnessed in others taught you to keep going through adversity, or trained you how to deal with difficult people and situations in mutually beneficial ways. As we navigate through life and make use of various “maps” to deal with situations in life, we discover (hopefully) that some are not as effective than others.
Can you change the maps you’ve been using to make your way through life? Maybe you don’t even know that’s how you are living your life, and trying to pilot your way through it. Learning to understand our emotions, and discovering ways in which to strike a healthy balance between reason and emotions, is the first step toward changing that emotional road map.
The beauty of The Wisdom of Your Heart is that it is a great resource for you to begin to explore that very journey. Its practical, applicable and honest realities all relate to exploring the issue of finding the balance between emotional and spiritual maturity. The fact is that we need both in equal measure; we will result in being a lop-sided and dysfunctional person if we ignore, or misread, our emotions. In fact, although we may claim to be emotionally stable, and go around saying that we always make rational decisions, the truth is that most of our major decisions have an equal share of emotions to them. Schelske points out in the book this reality: without emotion, reason is crippled.
Reason is certainly good and necessary, for certain; but our emotions are equally important too. We cannot claim to be spiritually mature, while at the same time existing in an emotionally immature state. Emotional and spiritual maturity are, after all, two sides to the same coin.
The journey begins when we learn to start trusting the truth of our emotions, and begin to see them as a God-given gift instead of as a crippling liability.