During my first year of being married, I woke up every day, swung my legs over our shared bed, and picked up a floral journal with a gratitude list scribbled inside of it. It was my homework assignment from a counselor: Anxiety made me self-centered and ungrateful, they told me. I needed to rehearse all the things I had to be grateful for to conquer my scarcity mindset and the anxiety it produced.
I rarely dealt with or named my emotions—at least not the “negative” ones. They had to be killed, banished, ignored, and stuffed. I learned this from both Christian circles (like the counselor above) and my own fears. I didn’t want others to see my emotions. Negative emotions always equaled sin and weakness in my mind, a reason for people to look down their noses at me. So I tried to kill my negative feelings with kindness—or gratitude.
But what if there’s goodness in every emotion—even in the ones we don’t like so much?
Every Good Emotion
Sadness, anger, and fear aren’t parts of me that I need to pummel into mush, like a spider creeping along my water-stained windowsill. They aren’t the bad parts of me—they are simply me. While it’s true that the brokenness of sin can mar these emotions at times, that doesn’t make them bad in and of themselves. Happiness can turn to gloating, but that doesn’t mean we should never feel it for the risk of it becoming a prideful dangling of our gifts before others.
Emotions are a part of God’s good creation. While many of the negative emotions wouldn’t exist without the fall into sin, they are still a part of us, and at times even a means to protect us. Fear can guard us against real danger. Anger alerts us to injustice. Sadness cries that the world is not as it should be. Rather than squashing every emotion, we can become curious and ask ourselves what it’s trying to tell us.
Naming Our Emotions
As I’m learning to keep my emotions from the weaving briars of sin, I’m trying to name what I feel rather than suppress it. When we shove our emotions into a darkened corner of our hearts, it doesn’t get rid of them but gives them time to fester with the sin that still resides in us. It’s like when my toddler stuffs unwanted food under the table hoping it will disappear. Rather than vanishing, I discover the food days later—crusty, slimy, and moldy. It’s worse than before.
Practically, we can name our emotions in many ways. We can bring any emotion to God in prayer, as the psalmists often did, such as in Psalm 22. As we feel anger boil in us during a conversation, we can pause and say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now. Can we pause this for another time when I’m feeling better?” We can retreat to the washroom and simply say to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious.” We can call or text a trusted friend or mentor to weep. Naming the emotions gives us the ability to decide how to move forward, rather than pretending they don’t exist and letting sin sneak up on us.
I always thought that the people who were able to spin any situation on its head in a positive manner were the more holy and mature ones. Those who could look at the burnt house, job loss, or devastating medical pronouncement as a “good” gift from God were the people I should aspire to be. While it’s true that God uses all things—both the evil and the pure—for our good (Rom. 8:28), that doesn’t mean he delights in them and expects us to show gratitude for them as wonderful presents. God doesn’t call our suffering good, and he doesn’t demand that we do either.
Rather, like the psalmists, we can cry out for deliverance and relief while simultaneously trusting God to work through our circumstances. We can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” as Paul wrote (2 Cor. 6:10) because we’re trusting not in our ability to spin gold from the ashes, but in the God who holds each of us in his careful, kind, and sovereign hands.
As I name and feel the sadness, grief, fear, and anger within me, I resound a holy agreement with God that his world is broken by sin. With David, I can cry, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast” (Ps. 22:14 ESV). The masterpiece God painted now has streaks and the canvas is ripped. But as I do, I can look forward—not with silly smiles and gratitude but with true, yearning joy—to the incorruptible inheritance of eternal life he’s building for me. He promises that no echo of sin will resound there and that such an inheritance can never be taken from me (Rom. 8:37–39).
What makes that inheritance so beautiful? He’s there, in all fullness, and I am his. There’s a part of that here for me now in the gospel—when I trust in Christ alone for my salvation, I’m saved by grace and receive Christ. He draws me in and calls me his beloved. He gives me a taste of heaven to come. Until then, I can name all the unpleasantness of this world and look forward to the day when all will be made new and glorious (1 Pet. 1:3–9).
While a gratitude list is unhelpful when we use it to stuff down all our negative emotions (and can feel a bit forced), as believers we can “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). We can rejoice because we have Christ, and one day he will wipe away every tear. Jesus and the eternal life he gives us will never be stolen away. He’ll never tarnish or fade, and he won’t let go of us (John 6:39). That’s our true joy and reason for gratefulness, no matter our emotional state.