Installing our smoke detector right outside the kitchen seemed like a good idea at the time. It made sense as fires often start in kitchens. I wish we knew then what we know now.

The next time we sautéed veggies on the stove, we immediately discovered that our little safety device was overly eager to do its job — and the problem did not go away. At least half the things we attempted to prepare on our stove were met with an earsplitting: “BEEEEEEP BEEEEEP … FIRE FIRE… BEEEEEP BEEEEEP … FIRE FIRE.” And as luck would have it, the deafening distress signal would typically interrupt the peaceful naps of at least two of our three children.

To manage the issue, we established a ritual of preventative steps before cooking: Close the kitchen door, switch on the ceiling fan, open the door to the back yard, turn the annoyingly loud stove suction fan up to full blast, etc. Then, and only then, was I ready to put on my hands-free headset and announce, “We are go for Operation Steamed Artichokes. I’m firing up the stove in 3… 2… 1.”

Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit. But it was truly annoying to live with a hypersensitive smoke detector. (I suppose an overly sensitive device is better than one that only goes off when 75 percent of the house is engulfed in flames.)

I think smoke detectors have a lot in common with emotions. While emotions are infinitely more complex, they both inform us about what’s important and compel us to respond. When they work well, they are a huge blessing. But when poorly calibrated, they can be problematic in ways ranging from irritating to downright dangerous.

Anger is an easy example. Some of us are highly sensitive and able to blow a fuse at the drop of a hat. Others may be extremely easygoing, but a deeper look may reveal a detached indifference in situations that ought to provoke anger. Scripture points us to something different. We are told to “be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). Part of that involves being “slow to anger” (James 1:19).

There are situations that should make us angry, but we must remain in control of our response. For instance, if my son is rude and disrespectful to his mom, there is something wrong with me if I don’t get angry (Eph. 5:25, 28). But if I do, it doesn’t mean I can recklessly react. I must be extremely careful with something that is so powerful (Eph. 4:26; 6:4).

Whether we are talking about anger, sadness, fear or joy, we ought to wrestle to keep our emotions properly calibrated. And the standard we want to use is God’s Word. Our emotions and reactions to them should reflect those of our Creator. But how do we get there?

To answer that question, we need to know two things:

First: Emotions reveal what we love. Like the check engine light on your dashboard, emotions reveal that something is going on inside — in the heart. What we feel is always a byproduct of what we perceive is happening to the things we deeply care about and are committed to. Why do some of us get so flustered behind slow drivers? For one person, it may be the love of being punctual and respected. For another, it may be the love of driving out on an open road with no one to block your view.

Or, why do people shudder in fear when asked to speak in public? It depends. They might care about looking competent (or clueless) or maybe it’s something else entirely… Will I look fat? Are my clothes frumpy?

With every emotion, there is love at the root. Why did David weep in 2 Samuel 18:33? Because he loved his son Absalom whom he lost. Why was Paul anxious in Philippians 2:28? Because the Philippians he loved were in distress. Why are we commanded to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15)? Because we should love and care about the well-being of those around us.

Love feeds emotion. The question is: Does the source of the emotion reveal a godly love or a selfish love?

Second: God gave us emotions to move us to action. Fear moves us to protect ourselves. Anger moves us to fight for what seems right. When the good Samaritan saw a man left for dead on his way to Jericho, his compassion convinced him to stop and take care of a stranger (Luke 10:25). Hannah’s distress over her inability to conceive moved her to go to the house of the Lord to weep and pray (1 Samuel 1). Tragically, Cain’s envious anger moved him to take his brother’s life (Genesis 4).

The same is true today. A child accused of cheating at Hide-and-Seek is moved by anger to defend himself. An overworked executive is moved by anxiety to get up early and go to the office. A teenager who sees his crush outside school will either be moved by desire to go talk to her, or be paralyzed by fear and freeze in his tracks.

Emotions are designed to move us. The question is: Are they going to move us in a productive direction?

So, to properly calibrate our emotions, we must learn to slow down and ask ourselves two questions:

  • Where is this feeling coming from?
  • And, where is this feeling taking me?

These are short and simple questions. But the truth is, answering them well is a challenge. It takes a lot of humility and self-awareness to be honest with yourself. Jeremiah 17:9-10 teaches us that we can’t know our own hearts (including why we feel what we feel) apart from God’s help. Nor can we respond to powerful emotions in God-glorifying ways on our own (John 15:5). The good news is that we have a God who is willing and eager to teach and help us (Jeremiah 17:10; John 15:7).

 

 

Ryan McCarthy

 

 

Spring Soul Care Groups
Beginning Thursday, March 19 at the Fort Worth Campus
If you’re looking for healing, hope and transformation, one of Soul Care’s upcoming groups, starting Thursday, March 19, may be the first step. Groups include “Uprooting Anger” and “Redeemed Sexuality” for men and “How to Be Free From Bitterness,” “Fear and Anxiety” and “Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out and Lonely” for women.

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