Emotional Discipleship

by Tim McGraw

Sitting in a workshop a few years ago I heard a speaker outline twenty keys to effective leadership. One point stuck in my mind: “You must deal with your stuff.”

By that, he meant, “You must process the unfinished business in your soul.”

He was referring to the unhealed wounds of the past, the unresolved issues that sabotage leadership. Robert Lewis describes the process as “lifting the manhole cover over your heart to see what may be lurking underneath.” If that sounds scary, maybe it explains why pastors hesitate to go there. Dealing with your stuff calls for courage. It points out our need for emotional wholeness.

Peter Scazzero has done the church a great service in this area. His books on emotional health have exposed a major gap in our discipleship. The subtitle of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality says it all: “It’s impossible to become spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.” A pastor would be wise to ponder that statement.

Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality

Scazzero lists 10 symptoms of an emotionally unhealthy spirituality:

  1. Using God to run from God.
  2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear.
  3. Dying to the wrong things.
  4. Denying the past’s impact on the present.
  5. Dividing our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments.
  6. Doing for God instead of being with God.
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict.
  8. Covering brokenness, weakness, and failure.
  9. Living without limits.
  10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey.

These behaviors go a long way in explaining the pride, criticism, and mean-spiritedness often found in the body of Christ.

A denominational leader addressing a group of pastors said, “ Tell me the two greatest problems facing you right now in your church.”

Without hesitation, a pastor spoke up: “Bitter Christians.”

He never got to the second problem! The pastor had been taken aback by the unkind behavior he encountered among so-called mature saints. I’m sure he’s not alone.

In a private conversation, I recently asked an older woman if she had grieved the death of her husband. It had been over a year and a half since he died. She responded with disdain, “I don’t grieve.”

Her tone clearly implied grieving was for unspiritual people. She went on to belittle a relative who continues calling in tears over the loss of her husband. As for the proud saint, she apparently thought she had risen above emotional needs. Or had she? I believe she was denying her emotions. “When we do that,” Peter Scazerro says, “we live in unreality.”

Bitterness, jealousy, and anger reflect unhealed emotion. Covering them under a veneer of spirituality doesn’t make them go away. It simple means we’ve found a religious way to hid them. This is denial. And denial feeds emotional immaturity.

The Emotionally Healthy Pastor

If the church is to become emotionally healthy, the pastor must lead the way. Few would disagree. As the saying goes, “Healthy pastor, healthy church.” But how does the pastor remain healthy while navigating the demands of ministry?

Pressure is inescapable. And pressure causes weaknesses to bubble to the surface. We do our best trying to plug the holes — not realizing it is God who wants to expose them. His purpose is not to embarrass, but to heal. However, healing cannot happen without our involvement. We decide whether to lift the manhole cover from our hearts or keep the lid on. If we choose the latter, we’ll eventually be exposed — or explode!

A better option is to engage our heart. Bring our emotional need into God’s presence. Emotions can be a catalyst to spiritual growth. In fact, we might be surprised to discover behind the blinking red light is the possibility of deep transformation. We can possess emotional freedom if only we choose to “go there.”

As for me, I’ve decided to embark on a journey toward emotional wholeness. Here are a few suggestions.

Monitor Your Emotions

We need to get a read on what’s going on inside. This requires solitude. The Psalmist said, “I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content” (Psalm 131:2).

Solitude is not just about getting away from it all. It’s an intentional effort to remove distraction to be with God. Only solitude can put us in touch with our emotions. In quietness, ask, “What am I feeling right now?”

Give yourself time to learn. Men are notoriously out of touch. David was not, however. This spiritual leader fully integrated emotion into his spiritual life.

“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught …. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me …. As for me, I call to God, and the Lord saves me. Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice (Psalm 55:1,2,4,5,16,17).

Can you sense the raw emotion? Notice how David identifies what he feels. He refuses to deny or spiritualize. He names emotions and brings them into God’s presence.

The same emotions live in us. Quietness before God will put us in touch with them. We may be surprised by what we discover lurking underneath. Feelings of boredom, jealousy, betrayal, abandonment, defensiveness, hurts from childhood, and wounds from ministry may all live inside us. Neglected and unhealed, they deplete us of precious energy. But when they’re exposed to the light of God, we may come alive in ways we never dreamed. Bring our emotions into God’s healing light as David did.

Get Feedback from Your Spouse

Ask your husband or wife for feedback. No one knows you better.

My wife and I had scheduled an appointment with a loan officer at the bank. We arrived a few minutes early, and so we were talking. Out of nowhere, she made a comment that really got under my skin. I can’t recall the exact words, but they made me feel terribly incompetent. They took the air right out of my balloon. So I shot back with an unkind remark of my own, and for a few moments we spiraled into an ugly spin cycle. Yes, all this happened moments before our appointment. Isn’t that the way things often work?

In the course of talking it over, my wife began to tear up. She told me the way I had perceived her words was nothing close to her intentions. It was as if something came between us and twisted her words. Suddenly, in the midst of our confusion, this thought came to me, “The words you heard are not those of your wife … they’re a voice from your past.”

The Holy Spirit was giving me insight. He took me back to crippling words that I had heard growing up. I didn’t realize I’d been falsely attributing those words to my wife, though they didn’t represent her heart toward me at all.

Amazingly, God used this conversation to expose an unhealed wound in my soul. I had unknowingly twisted her words because of my damaged emotion. But now, with feedback, the matter came into focus like I’d never seen before. The moment opened a whole new conversation for both of us — and a new level of freedom.

Honor the Sabbath

Remember Clint Eastwood’s famous line, “A man has to know his limitations.”

Too often we live as if we have none. As one pastor put it, “We think we’re made of steel.”

In Egypt, God’s people were treated like machines. Pharaoh used the Israelites as tools of production. They never experienced a day off. Life was work, work, and more work. But when God brought them out of Egypt, He taught them they were human beings, not human doings. Made in God’s image, they needed to follow the pattern of rest God built into creation.

I’m embarrassed to say this, but for years I acknowledged the Sabbath while failing to practice it. I preached and led worship three times a week for over ten years. That will make you tired of your own voice. I was young and seemingly invincible. But it caught up with me. Ministry pressure, church conflict, and unhealed wounds conspired against me. I found myself shutting down and becoming depleted. I learned my own limitations the hard way.

Thankfully, God has taught me patterns of renewal. Honoring the Sabbath is one of them. It’s nonnegotiable.

Go to the ocean and hear the cadence of waves crashing the shoreline one after another. God built rhythm into creation.

“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God …” (Deuteronomy 5:13,14).

Failure to honor the Sabbath causes us to live out of rhythm.

We know Sabbath means “rest,” but the more fundamental idea is “stop.” One day, one 24-hour period, we need to stop from the activities of the previous six days. We need to rest and be with the Lord.

Take a nap. Turn off the cell phone. Get away from the computer. Watch an old movie with popcorn. Take a long walk. Immerse yourself in nature. Take in a nice dinner with your wife. Discover what refreshes you. Discipline yourself to stop from weekly activities. Do this consistently, and find renewal!

Learn To Disclose

As you make strides, stand before your congregation and teach them what you’re learning. A pastor set free can set a congregation free. A pastor growing emotionally can lead a congregation toward emotional health.

In my case, I’ve been learning the value of disclosure. When I shared the incident at the bank with my congregation, I was amazed by the response. People think, If the pastor is honest about his struggles, maybe I can be, too.

This creates an atmosphere of authenticity. The pastor is saying, “It’s OK to be honest.”

I don’t disclose personal struggles with the church until I have worked through them privately. I understand pastors must use discretion from whom and where they receive ministry (usually outside the body of Christ). But having done so, the testimony of how God has helped you will bring enormous blessing to others, not to mention emotional authenticity to the church.

I believe Peter Scazzero is right. Emotional maturity and spiritual maturity are linked. We must join them in the process of discipleship. If the congregation is to become emotionally healthy, the pastor must lead the way. Everyone hungers for the authentic. Let’s not separate what God has joined together!