One of the lovely things about young children is they don’t have a filter. They look right into your soul! At least that seems to be what’s happening when you look into their eyes, or when you give them focused attention or engage with them in conversation.
But sure enough, life comes along to change all that – most often in interactions with adults that shock and confuse – and the child begins the process of shaping self-protective strategies.
Think about sentences like:
- What are you crying about now?
- Look, how many times do I have to tell you, you’re not allowed to have a lollie?
- They’re not real tears, now cut it out.
- You’re only crying because you can’t get your own way.
- Stop being a sook.
- Why do you have to be so clumsy?
- I told you to stop running. Now look what’s happened.
- It serves you right.
- Don’t come running to me when you break it.
As a child, we get introduced to the way adults feel about a lot of our behaviours and emotions and for many of us it isn’t a pleasant experience. As a child we quickly learn being angry is a definite no-no, being afraid is silly, being happy or laughing and giggling around adults is annoying, being curious and inquisitive is rude, being sad and silent is unacceptable, being shy and uncertain is manipulative, and on and on. We’re not allowed to say ‘No!’, ‘I don’t care!’, ‘I hate you!’, ‘I don’t love you anymore!’, ‘I’m not eating it!’, ‘I don’t like that one.’ or ‘He can’t have it, it’s mine!’
If we do, a parental reaction quickly follows that can drive what a child feels underground. As little children we are shocked into sorrow and confusion. This is what sets us on a path of managing our emotional responses to life rather than seeing them as a wonderful gift.
Let’s look at the difference with anger:
- Defensive anger provides the energy to move us away from what we believe will expose us as someone of little value, as ugly or unloveable. Not surprisingly, our usual method of moving away will involve pushing others away from us. This is where ‘defensive anger’ does its greatest damage.
- Righteous anger, however, provides energy to move toward others for the purpose of restoration. God’s anger is righteous anger. He sees our lostness, He’s angry about our propensity to live life our own way. He knows this is an eternal barrier to a perfectly restored relationship with him. And He intervenes in the most extraordinary way – God’s righteous anger has driven him to move toward us in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.
God has made us in his image with the rich capacity to know internally, through emotions, what our impact is upon our world and what our world’s impact is on us. And, understood well, our emotions can help us challenge our negative internal voice and make sense of what we have had to face. Our emotions are the most profound closed-loop system of knowing and meaning-making that any creature in God’s creation has access to. How incredible it is to be gifted with such a sophisticated emotional life!