They are tricky. And they can be trouble. Often, they spring up from our triggered trauma. For example, let’s say (hypothetically) your husband says something about your blog. He might mean it innocently, even positively. But (hypothetically) you hear it differently. And you immediately feel threatened, defensive, hurt. All of your (hypothetical) insecurity swells to the surface in an instant. You can go with it. Milk it. Act on it. Hurt him back. Or you can do the better thing and take it back to truth. (Kelli Worrall)
I have just come from a workshop that talked a lot about the emotions of our students. Resilience was mentioned in a few of the presentations. Millennials are being assessed as having less resilience than their forbears. The reasons that some are putting forward is that we are trying to protect this current generation from feeling bad. We try and maintain a ‘rainbow unicorn’ world, one presenter said. If anyone brings truth which questions, creates discomfort, or discord, we shut it down with aggression. When trauma is triggered, rather than deal with the trauma we reject the person who revealed the disquiet, discomfort, or pain. The pain becomes suppressed again and we go back to living in unreality. We have frail people because we have a frail grasp on reality. We inflate positive feelings and we ignore the negative. That may work for a while, but as we age the accumulation of emotion which we have denied over the years begins to scream for attention. I agree with my wife, Kelli, that we fail to evaluate our emotions at our peril.
Some biblical characters, like King Saul, had emotional outbursts which showed their heart was ruined. Others, like Elijah, had God come close and help them to evaluate the meaning of their own emotions. Jonah’s emotional state throughout the book bearing his name is an interesting study. What do the emotions in Bible passages reveal about the work of God or the condition of a character’s heart? In the same way that sleuthing the emotional trail in a story reveals a deeper understanding, so evaluating our own emotional lives will reveal the truth of the condition of our own hearts.
If you read the story of Jonah, you will see the that story builds to an emotional climax in chapter 4. In chapter 4 we read:
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to theLord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5 Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then theLord God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
The Assyrians were a bloodthirsty warrior race. They showed no mercy to those who did not submit to them fully. They skinned people, they made pyramids from their skulls and they impaled them on spikes in the ground. It is no surprise, then, that Jonah tried to flee twice as far in the opposite direction when God told him to go a preach to the Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh. Although we see that the sailors in Jonah 1 are afraid of the God who stirs up the waves and masters the skies, Jonah’s condition is hidden from us. In fact he seems resolute in his disobedience. He knows that he must be thrown in the sea, but we have no indication that he knows a large fish is waiting to save him. In fact, chapter 2 would lead us to believe that he was sure his life would end. He has gratitude that results in a song, and it also overcomes his revulsion with the command of the God who saves.
But Jonah’s emotions are front and center in chapter 4. Jonah is displeased and this leads to anger. He knows that God is compassionate and because of this God will save the people of Nineveh. This might be at the expense of God’s own people, Israel. It is definitely not the kind of justice that Jonah wants to see. Jonah wants what is right and not what is merciful. Jonah’s anger leads to an outburst against God where God’s anger is contrasted with his own. Whilst Jonah’s life in the book is marked by anger, God is slow to anger. What Jonah knows about Assyria from his limited human perspective, God sees in its entirety. If anyone knows how much Assyria should be destroyed it is God. Knowing more of their atrocities than Jonah God chooses to stay his hand. He is not moved by rage or by a sense of justice. In fact God questions Jonah’s lack of submission. God evaluates Jonah’s emotions.
At this point we see no verbal response from Jonah. We can imagine him pouting, but the text gives us no proof of our suspicions. We have him intently watching and hoping that God will change his mind. Then God brings relief to Jonah. Jonah is shielded from the scorching sun by a plant that God himself ordains. This plant will be key to an object lesson. The lesson is so important that it will push Jonah to the edge of despair. Some lessons are like that. Not only will Jonah learn how his emotional condition can reveal a wayward heart, but all subsequent generations should see something of themselves in Jonah’s response to God’s actions.
Jonah was exceedingly glad. The plant brought him relief. It changed his circumstances. Many of us change our emotional state based on material circumstances. Unlike the Apostle Paul who learned how to be content in all circumstances, most people find emotional peace in material comforts and despair when they are taken away. Jonah’s situation has improved and naturally so have his emotions. In this time of relative peace, though, God strips away the comfort to teach a lesson. Jonah’s physical condition becomes desperate. The text says that he becomes faint. He also becomes depressed. He wishes he was dead.
When God questions Jonah this time, Jonah answers. When God asks Jonah about his anger, Jonah justifies himself. God then contrasts the lives of people with the life of a plant. God points out to Jonah that his emotions reveal a lack of proper priorities. Jonah does not have compassion which is modeled on God, Jonah’s compassion is conditional. Jonah wants justice more than he wants compassion. We do not know whether Jonah responded well to God’s evaluation of his emotions, but that is not the point. The book was written for its readers to warn them. As we read the book we can think of our own emotions. There are times when we will hold a grudge when God wants the hatchet buried.
Our emotions speak truths to us. We must acknowledge that they are there so that we can assess what they are saying. As we evaluate our emotions we can see if our emotions align with God, or whether, like Jonah, our emotions show us the truth that we are at odds with him. Our emotions show us the condition of our heart or the unexamined thoughts that lurk beneath the surface. Sometimes I may not be able to identify a train of thought that is working against my faith, but I can feel an emotion. Sometimes I do not see how far from God I have wandered, but those who live with me every day can see that my emotional state has changed. The emotions should not drive the heart, but the heart shows in the emotions.
In our culture men in particular are praised for being stoic and emotionless. The reality, though, is that we all have emotions. We need to give them voice. We need to learn to name them and learn from them. As men lead the way in emotional health they will blaze a trail for young men to be strong too. Strong men can head into emotionally demanding situations and evaluate both the situation and the emotions. They can then deal with difficult tasks and feelings. This is true resilience. We do not shelter ourselves from life’s traumas but we find the courage and the strength in God to face into them. As the Holy Spirit leads we find our emotions become more stable, but even minor tremors in how we feel lead us further in our walk.
Complete the following observation questions:
- What was Jonah’s initial response to God withholding judgment from Nineveh?
- What emotional words are associated with Jonah throughout Jonah 4?
- What emotional words are associated with God?
- Why did Jonah try and flee to Tarshish?
- What question does God ask about Jonah’s emotions?
- Where did Jonah sit and why did he sit there?
- How did Jonah feel about the plant?
- Why did a worm eat the plant?
- How did Jonah feel physically after a day in the sun?
- What did God ask Jonah about the plant?
- What emotions did God tell Jonah that Jonah felt about the plant?
- What emotion did God feel for Nineveh?
Complete the following interpretation questions:
- After completing a brief search on-line describe the conduct of the ancient Assyrian armies.
- Was Jonah’s emotion understandable? Why might an Israelite have reacted like Jonah did when God did not destroy Nineveh?
- Do you think that there was fear behind Jonah’s anger? What fears might Jonah have had?
- Why does God evaluate Jonah’s anger over Nineveh?
- Why doesn’t Jonah respond?
- How did God construct an object lesson?
- When God teaches Jonah a lesson by constructing shade and destroying it, who is responsible for Jonah’s emotional reaction? Is God responsible for creating the circumstances or is Jonah responsible because of how he reacts?
- Is God sadistic when he brings comfort for Jonah by growing a plant, only to take it away again?
- Why doesn’t God protect Jonah from feeling intense emotional pain?
- What is God’s purpose in asking Job to evaluate his emotion about the plant?
- How do you think that Jonah would respond to God’s questions about his emotional state?
- What happens to the people of Assyria, and therefore Nineveh, in the book of Nahum?
Answer these application questions:
- How often do you evaluate how you feel?
- What have you been feeling lately?
- Why have you felt the things that you have been feeling?
- What possible reactions could you have to your feelings?
- What ways could you grow by reacting differently to situations around you?
- What emotions did your family express growing up?
- What did their actions teach you about them?
- How did you learn to handle your emotions from your family and friends?
- What threats can evaluating our emotions bring?
- What benefits are there to evaluating emotions?
- Do you resonate with Jonah at all? Why? Why not?
- If God spoke to you about your emotions, what would he say?