What to Do With Negative Emotions In Discipleship

What do you do with negative emotions when you experience them? What do you think you’re “supposed” to do with your anger, anxiety, and contempt as a disciple of Jesus?

This is actually a pretty important question that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention in most of the ways we practice discipleship, and it’s a similar issue to what we do with our desires in discipleship.

Fighting, feeding, and fleeing

I used to think that my job as a disciple of Jesus in regard to negative emotions was to stop having them.

Negative emotions seemed like evidence of a lack of faith, or a defect in my discipleship. So I definitely couldn’t admit having negative emotions (to myself or others), and thus I focused all my energy on fighting the negative feeling, usually by telling myself I “should” be better than this.

I met other people who very different from me. Rather than fight negative emotions, they seemed to indulge them, reveling in how “alive” their feelings made them feel. These people seemed to enjoy feeding their negative emotions to gain a sense of “authenticity” about their faith.

Others didn’t seem to have negative emotions! I suspected they were just very good at ignoring them, finding ways to numb their awareness of anything negative, insulating themselves from really feeling their feelings. They were fleeing from negative emotions.

It seems to me that most of us seem to fall into one of these camps when it comes to our negative feelings:

  1. We FIGHT them. We try and “stop it,” judging it as bad. We give ourselves a little pep talk or a guilt trip to punch the bad feeling in the mouth and get it to go away.
  2. We FEED them. We dwell on it, unable to do anything else but indulge the bad feeling and explore it, stewing on it to feel authentic and alive.
  3. We FLEE them. We try to ignore the bad feeling, distracting ourselves with work or pleasure.

Facing negative emotions with Christ

But Fighting, Feeding, and Fleeing from negative feelings are all terrible strategies for learning to be like Jesus. They don’t do much good for us, and they distance us from God’s transformative power, because they’re all ways of “dealing with” bad feelings in our own strength.

We’re often very confused as to how to actually DO our discipleship – thinking it has mainly to do with moral performance or cognitive certainty.

But our discipleship to Jesus is a process of becoming aware of and discerning our desires, and this is messy work. It will always involve processing and discerning negative emotions. Our anger and rage, our anxiety and fear, our jealousy and resentment need to be faced with honesty, and brought to Jesus.

So what do you do with negative emotions in discipleship? Instead of Fighting, Feeding, or Fleeing, try Facing those feelings with honesty, and bringing them to Jesus for discernment and healing.

Here’s a method to try that will begin to help you open space to meet God in the midst of your negative emotions (because God is so real he most fully meets us where we really are).

  1. Notice the negative feeling without judgment. Don’t evaluate it. Just acknowledge the feeling: “When he told me about his success, I felt jealous and resentful.”
  2. Realize the problem isn’t “out there,” it’s “in here.” The issue isn’t the stimulus (what others are doing or saying), it’s your response to the stimulus that needs attention.
  3. Realize the feeling isn’t you. You are not your feelings. Emotions you have are not your identity. You are different from the feelings you have. For example, sometimes it’s helpful to rephrase “I am angry” to “I feel angry.”
  4. Ask God what he wants you to know about this feeling. Now that you’ve acknowledged the feeling without judgment, taken responsibility for it and separated your identity from it, you’re ready to discern it with God and see where that takes you in prayer.

Learning to do this instinctually has been a game-changer for me. Now, when things bother me, I’m much more able to differentiate my reaction to the situation from the situation itself, which enables me to actually respond to the situation with a non-anxious presence, instead of anxiously reacting to the situation in an attempt to quell my anxiety.

In other words, learning to handle negative emotions in discipleship has made me better able to lead like Jesus in difficult situations.

(Also, for resources and exercises on recognizing and processing negative emotions from a psychological standpoint, check out this article.)

(Oh, and by the way, our coaching focuses quite a bit on fundamental self-differentiation skills like this one. If you’re interested in learning to lead like Jesus and make disciples like Jesus, check it out.)

Questions for reflection

  • Which of the three “unhealthy” ways of dealing with negative emotions is your “go to”? Why do you think this is?
  • What has been helpful for you in facing negative emotions in discipleship?

Leave a comment below to start a conversation.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Kate Heichler on June 18, 2018 at 10:38 am

    Great reflection, Ben. I realized some years ago that feelings are like two-year-olds. Ignore them, and they’ll get louder, wilder and throw tantrums. Acknowledge them with love – which doesn’t mean giving in to them – and they’re apt to settle right down, and say, “Okay, just wanted you to hear me.” Of course, as you say, we also want to look at what gave rise to those feelings and deal with that too – with Jesus. He’s usually gotten there first!

  2. Ben Sternke on June 18, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    That’s a great metaphor, Kate! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Werner on June 19, 2018 at 7:16 am

    Great article Ben.Negative emotions will allways be part of society.When we were young,negative emotions popped up many times, and we managed them in some sort of way.Today I know where to look in handling them.For me Luke 15:11-32 is a good example,how Jesus teaches us to manage negative emotions.
    Regards and God bless.

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