[This is a post rooted in my own experience, and as such, does not attempt to be as analytical as it is expressive and didactic, even if it is sometimes imprecise and not perfectly clear.]
I was a victim, although, now I am a survivor. Many years ago, I lived in a religious environment that was ruled by emotions. In saying this, this is not some “rational” rejection of emotions as being false. I mean to say that people’s emotions ruled them, not simply guided and motivated them. The emotion that ruled that seemed to most rule over them was shame, but not in the sense that they felt shame. No, rather, people were so trying to escape the feeling of shame that they become blinded to the pain they were causing. In this environment, they taught a teaching very common to many spiritual and religious movements: the Gospel is about ending our shame, about setting us free from our shame.
Now at one level, there is much to celebrate within this idea. Overwhelming, toxic burdens of shame can paralyze, cripple, and even destroy people. I experienced it. Sometimes this shackling form of shame can come about as a result having done truly terrible things, but sometimes it can happen for even less egregious action or even things that are not bad in the slightest bit (such as being of the wrong race, gender, etc.). This type of shame is not a good thing; it is, as Paul would call, a “worldly grief that leads to death.”1
But what is overlooked is that shame, and all other forms of emotion, come in various degrees and intensities. Not all anger leads people to destroy, sometimes anger is a righteous anger that leads them to protect others or even themselves. Not all fear cripples people; some fear allows you to avoid those circumstances and people who would do you harm but the fear passes when the threat is out of reach of you. Nor does all shame shackle people; it is the feeling of shame when you have deeply hurt someone that motivates you to not do such a thing again. All of our emotions are signals in our own body that motivate us to do something in response to our relationships and circumstances; they motivate us to protect, to resist, to show compassion, to change our course of action, etc. But sometimes, these signals go haywire and they no longer become tied to interpretations of actual, specific, real-life situations, but instead, they become too tightly tied to our imaginations and memories of things long past, or things never there in the first place. These are the distorting form of emotions. But there do exist realistic, rational emotions that motivate our response to what is going on in front of us and these are not healthy things to avoid or miss.
Often times, when coming out of situations where we have been enslaved by an emotion, we begin to treat that emotion as entirely wrong or bad. Having struggled with depression in my life, there was always this sense that sadness was always a bad thing and that I tried to avoid it. Anytime I felt bad, there must be something incredibly wrong, with me or with someone else. However, sometimes sadness is a “good” thing, such as grieving and mourning the loss of someone close to you. These forms of emotions allow you to “prune” and “mold” your memories, attachments, and thoughts so that you can adjust to your circumstances. However, when in the throes of the pain of the memory of how they emotion held you back, you think of it as always bad, always to be avoided, always to be escaped because you only remember experiencing it as bad. However, at the end of the day, when you create a rule that an emotion is always bad, you still remain enslaved to that emotion in your seek to avoid it. Anything that you might anticipate stirring up that feeling within you, you try to avoid. Or, anytime that feeling does get evoked, you immediately jump to the conclusion that something is wrong, whether it be in yourself, your circumstances, or in other people. However, when you get in that place, you can interpret these signals differently. Instead of feelings of anger being interpreted as a perception of a violation or threat occurring, you interpret the anger as something wrong in and of itself. You do not consider if there is a correspondence between the feeling and the situation you are in: you simply avoid it and as a result, begin to become unaware of the causes of these feelings, except maybe as “triggers” that must be controlled or avoided. So, a person who feels anger at violation may ignore the causes and may seek to control their anger in the first place, rather than trying to figure out how to reasonably deal with the situation. Likewise, a person who feels shame may seek everything they can to avoid the pain, and not pay attention to whether there is something happening that is causing the shame that is one’s own responsibility and not another.
In my example, there were many signals I had sent of what was happening to me; the feelings of being threatened, controlled, and stalked; the feelings of having been cast aside and becoming disconnected from any sense of belonging. However, in my experiences of the people who had the power over my, I consistently witnessed a sense of superiority and power and a quick ease of taking offense; some of my observations afterwards reinforced that idea. You see, shame makes people feel humble and inferior, and people who seek to avoid those feelings are quick to find signs of offense and blame, even when it is not there or it is only of a small, muted kind. They are quick to try to control the situation and how other people might interpret these situations; the people who offend them must be seen as somehow inferior or blameworthy, regardless of the reality of the situation, and they seek to find others who share that feeling in order to feel secure themselves. If that offending person were to have any legitimate cause or concern, that must mean that “I” am an inferior and blameworthy person, but that clearly can not be the case as making me feel shame for my actions is wrong, so clearly “you” are the problem. While I commonly heard in that environment about not being condemned in Christ as a motto of overcoming the shame, what I saw were people enslaved to that shame by trying to avoid it. As my complaints evoked a potential feeling of shame, they presumably blocked that feeling of shame and continued to put the blame and burden onto me, despite the very threatening position I had been put into. In the end, they poured my future down the drain and left me out in the cold, without the slightest bit of listening, sympathy, compassion, or realization. Because shame motivates people to correct for wrong, hurtful behaviors and yet because this idea led to the attempt to block and avoid the feelings of shame, my cries were unheard.
What more, religion has a way of legitimating these rules of emotional avoidance. Our faith often times has us to engage in acts of imagination to comprehend what God is doing, since God’s Word often speaks of that which we can not directly see or hear and thereby necessitating imagination as a tool for comprehension. However, at the same time, our imagination can be ruled by something other than God’s Word, but the very narrow range of personal experiences, struggles, etc. we have. When we engage in the imagination of faith, we may think we are in alignment with God’s Word, but we can easily be imagining a world that is the escape and avoidance of what caused us great pain. In so doing, we believe we have a religious legitimation of our own emotional experience; thus, our emotions became less and less in touch as signals of the world around us, but instead become projected onto the conceptual fabric of God, such that the enslaved emotions are “evil” and the goodness of God allows for no such emotion and seeks to rid these emotions. It is this type of religion based upon emotional rules that can become quite cultish and controlling.
To be clear, the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ definitely entails a transformation of ourselves and the world, now and in the future, such that we experience a change of emotions. If we and the world around us change, so too should the emotional signals change. As such, this will often times free us from the more distorting, debilitating, unhealthy versions of the various emotions we have, although this is not always the immediate case; sometimes a person who follows Jesus and has the Spirit will linger with a long-term battle against such debilitating feelings. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t about freeing us from certain emotions, even if it has that effect; it is about the redemption of the entire creation, our minds and bodies included. But, if we treat the Gospel as (pseduo-)therapy that counsels us to avoid certain emotions, our religiously-justified rules of emotional avoidance will leave us enslaved to the very same emotion, while becoming unaware and oblivious to its control the and to realities of the world around us that evoke these emotions; thus, we begin to get into the game of treating these emotions as evil and thus also treating those people, circumstances, and things that causes these feelings within us as somehow evil and bad. Our rules written up in an attempt to escape from pain will leave the problem lingering, put other people into pain as the problem lingers, and in some situations, this may lead to that pain rebounding back in a greater, more extreme form. But the story of Jesus Christ is not about avoiding the pain of these emotions, but it entails an openness to and acceptance of the reality of suffering, but with the faith that this form of suffering can lead us through the power of the Spirit into conformity to the very pattern of Jesus Christ. It is through this that we overcome the debilitation of toxic forms of emotion; it is through this that our emotions are changed to rightly fit the situation so that that we become molded to the character of Christ.