April 19, 2009

Thinking His thoughts

“The biggest problem people have today is that they measure everything by their emotions.”

This was said to me yesterday at the writers’ conference by a young man whose life used to be a roller coaster of emotions. Now he says, “Christians must learn to base their lives on objective truth.”

Included in this discussion is how people determine what is good. Most people measure goodness by whether or not something makes them happy or comfortable. If it feels good, it must be from God, but if not, it cannot be part of God’s plan.

Of course, this includes suffering. It used to be that only non-believing people would say, “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” However, I’ve heard some Christians ask the same thing. I’ve done it myself, in so many words.

Yet suffering is inevitable, like death and taxes. It is not only certain, it is included in the plan of God. Peter wrote, “For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17)

God uses suffering. It might be a teaching tool, or chastening. As His children, we learn far more from our mistakes than we think. Besides suffering for making mistakes, Jesus, who made no mistakes, still suffered. Why should I be different?

Actually, I’ve experienced both. That is, I’ve often suffered because I did wrong and I’ve suffered a few times for doing something good. I can affirm that Peter is right; it is better to suffer for doing good. The pain is still there, but it is not as severe because I’m also feeling pain for the person who wronged me. When I get what I deserve, all the pain is my own.

Either way, God can use the struggles of pain and sadness. While he was trying to figure out the purpose of life, Solomon wrote, “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4)

Some might say this man took things far too seriously, but his philosophy fits with what I’ve also learned. I don’t pay much attention to God when I’m feeling good, life is comfortable, and nothing pinches. I don’t learn much about Him and His grace either. Yet when I am sad, particularly about sin in the world and sin in me, my heart is open to what God has to say. When I mourn for the losses and mistakes in my life, my heart is teachable.

The paradox in all of this is that sorrow and laughter and close cousins. The people who refuse to be sad very soon have problems with feeling joy. It is not good to shut down a negative emotion for it turns off the spigot for all of them. We can “be angry” but are also told, “Be angry and sin not.

Yet when it comes to emotions, I’m learning to pay more attention to what I am thinking rather than what I am feeling. Emotions are connected to and flow out of the thoughts in my head. If those thoughts are God’s thoughts, then my emotions will match what He feels about my situation. I know that if I hate sin, then I will feel sad when I (or someone else) sins because God hates sin and is sorry when we sin. This is true for the events of life too. If something breaks God’s heart, I will feel that sorrow.

Yet God is not always doom and gloom. He is a happy God who tells us to rejoice in Him. When I think the way He thinks, I’m usually lifted out of sorrow. For instance, when my father died, most of our friends expressed “sorrow for your loss.” However, one young friend bounced up to me and said, “I know this is supposed to be a sad thing, but I am so happy for your dad!”

Instantly my thoughts were taken from my discomfort to my dad’s joy. He is with Jesus. How could I be so selfish to feel sorry for myself when God had taken him from pain to paradise? Every time I think of him, I think of that spontaneous expression of God’s thoughts and my grief over the loss is replaced by joy — from my Father — for my father.

Emotions, like pain, are symptoms of what needs attention. Yet if I try to live by them and make decisions by them, my life gets very complicated and muddled. Romans 12:2 tells me that I am far better off to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . .

My challenge is avoiding the trap of measuring everything by my emotions and instead measuring everything by what God says.

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