Lord's Day Liturgy

The Seven Spirits of Grumpiness

I have given similar exhortations before, and this should wrap up and tie a nice flip-sequin bow on the recent mini-series about emotional control.

Christmas is a perfect test of our emotional control, especially when it comes to our responses. Parents are typically worn out, kids are typically wound up, and that can make for a vicious vortex of unpleasant feelings. There are unmet expectations to manage, there are unmanageable relatives coming to dinner. Your nerves are stretched as precarious as that old strand of lights you hoped could make it through one more season. How will you respond?

All of that is blessed-case scenario. Some of you are approaching Christmas for the first time without the presence of a loved one. Some of you are in isolation, or you are isolated from those in isolation. The ostensible physical protection from viruses contrasts with the obvious discouragement of hearts. How will you respond?

Kids ripping into presents too quickly is better than ripping into their siblings too quickly, and being heavy with burdens is better than never having known a full table. But these are not actually the hardest parts of Christmas.

The most difficult emotional effort is rejoicing with joy inexpressible and filled of glory (1 Peter 1:8). The angels announced good news of great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10). It is much too easy to be dull to the King of David. How will you respond?

Emotional control for the Christian is more than casting out the seven spirits of grumpiness. If your emotional house isn’t run by the strongman of gladness and love, the unclean spirit will return and plunder your joy tank (see similarly Matthew 12:29, 43-45; Luke 11:24-26). “Let loving hearts enthrone Him.”

Lord's Day Liturgy

The Umpire over Rogue Responses

In order to please God we must have perfect emotions. God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus punctuated His sermon with it. “You therefore must be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This was after taking aim at feelings of anger and irritation, passions of lust, overconfident emotion, as well as resentment and bitterness. Temptations to these are not sin, but there is a line that can be crossed where the heart sins before the parts sin.

Disciples of Jesus not only should develop emotional control, they must, when necessary, confess some of their emotions as sin. This is a much higher standard than some of us prefer to consider.

But that means that what we really prefer is to need less grace than God offers.

We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.

In other words, our hearts pumped bad blood. We were controlled by our sinful emotions.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Here are two points. We ought to mourn our sinful hearts rather than justify sinful hearts, and when God justifies us by faith then we must “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

It is worse than we often admit, but in Christ it is also better then we often apply. Do you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead? Then you are justified by faith and have peace with God (Romans 5:1). You are under blood-bought, Spirit-enabled obligation to let the peace of Christ umpire all the rogue responses in your heart.

May false guilt be damned. May memories of previous sins and the attendant sorrows be constantly brought back to your identity as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.

Lord's Day Liturgy

Guard Rail Posts Scotch Taped to the Road

As sparks fly upward, so man was born to riot against being told what to do. Every generation has its millennials, or millennials are like every other generation in some ways, namely, disliking, deriding, disobeying authority. I myself have thought a lot of things sounded good to do until someone asked me to do it.

When it comes to emotional control issues, young people have a fleshly tendency toward being fussy about submission. This is not due to adolescence, it is due to being in Adam. Sin makes you steer directly at the guard rails, who in this illustration are the authorities God has put in your life to keep your feelings from driving off the cliff.

But the ones I really want to address today are the authorities, the dads and moms, the bosses and teachers, the shepherds and disciplers. Teaching others about keeping their fleshly feelings in check won’t work if our guard rails posts are Scotch taped to the road.

Parents pass things down. Every sinner is responsible for his own sin, and also, is it really so surprising that a son acts like his father? We look at a kid, we say she has her father’s chin and her mother’s eyes, and we look at her again and say she has her father’s anger and her mother’s anxiety. It’s not pretty.

Many years ago I heard the phrase covenantal permission. A Christian household is held together on a promise to honor the Lord and vows from the spouses toward each other. A dad who preaches against lust to his son while watching porn on his phone is obviously a hypocrite, but is actually condoning, if not promoting his son’s behavior. His words are like fighting a forrest fire with cotton balls.

A popular word today is systemic, related to how a system is connected. A family is connected, a flock is connected, and a mother who hates her husband’s instructions and priorities is raising haters, even if she spanks them for it.

This does not mean that you must be perfect before you can say anything, especially to someone you are responsible for. But God says you must be perfect even as He is perfect, which at least means it’s wrong for you to expect someone else to be at emotional peace while you’re raging on the inside like a toddler with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Lord's Day Liturgy

Holes Punched on Your Frequent Sadness Card

When it comes to more typical (rather than traumatic) emotional control problems, we considered that some of the problem is what we want. We want/covet the wrong things or the right things for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we want the right things at the wrong time. This leads to a consideration of emotional control while we wait.

Life is waiting, and God is not surprised by that. He invented the concept as much as He created time to begin with. He determines how fast or slow it goes, and His Word is filled with the call: wait.

Wait for the LORD;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!
(Psalm 27:14, ESV)

Waiting assumes a better situation, and that you’re (perhaps painfully) aware of it. You know. You want it to be over, and you’re thinking about it being over. That’s what waiting is about. Dinner will be good but it’s still the middle of the afternoon; giving birth will be a joyful relief but you’re only in the first trimester; surgery will be helpful but it’s not even scheduled; getting married will be quite a celebration but you’re only fourteen; Christmas will be great but it’s still November. You have to wait. It is possible to want these things without coveting, but it is also to want them now and complain.

Not everyone needs to know that you know, though. Say your current situation is so bad that you’ve committed some fasting time to it. Do you want it to be past the problem, or could you be satisfied with others thinking you’re a spiritual person for fasting about a problem? Lower your standard and you can have your reward (Matthew 6:16-18). Or, don’t let them know, which includes not whining.

Prayer is part of emotional control; make your requests (for something better) to God with thanks (Philippians 4:6). Maybe someone will think you don’t realize how bad it is because you’re thankful, but you’ll know how hard the battle was to be so thankful. If you are not praying at all, how do you expect to glorify God for His answer, and/or for His strength for your rejoicing in heaviness (1 Peter 1:6)?

Seeking counsel (to get to something better) can also be helpful for emotional control, but seeking more holes punched on your frequent sadness card from soft hearts is like putting the wrong cream on your rash; you’re just going to make it worse. Likewise, ignoring the (wise/tough) counsel that tells you the problem is you, as in your wants or your timing, sets you up for feeling like no one understands you, which makes you very understandably in danger of thinking your hurt feelings are a virtue.

They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:31, ESV)

Lord's Day Liturgy

Quotidian Coveting and Emotional Control

True emotional control is only possible for a Calvinist. And, sure, she doesn’t have to know that she’s a Calvinist, but she certainly has to deal with her desires like one.

Quotidian emotional control issues typically concern not being happy what we have, or what we don’t have, or what we see that someone else has. Another way to say it is that those who can’t control their every-day feelings of discontent are guilty of breaking the 10th commandment: You shall not covet.

Moses recorded God’s prohibition which included some examples:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, of his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)

The preceding commands are also about one’s neighbor: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, and don’t bear false witness, all of which behaviors directly affect your neighbor. But who does it hurt if the problem is just unfulfilled longing in your heart? It offends God.

The problem here is not simple disobedience, it is idolatry. The idol could be the “thing,” as in, you want the car (that’s just a modernized tangible example, it could be “anything” material or abstract or perceived) more than you want God, but it’s often more like the kind of idol of a different god than the one who didn’t give you the car. Of course you’d be guilty if you stole the car, but that would break the 8th commandment. You’re guilty of the 10th commandment if you won’t give thanks to God for not giving it to you.

In Ephesians Paul said that the countermeasure to sexual immorality and impurity and covetousness, which is idolatry, is to “let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:3-5). Giving thanks is perhaps the ultimate act of submission, not just accepting God’s sovereignty but appreciating it (like a Calvinist). We will not be ready for higher level lessons of emotional control without accepting the results of God’s elections–His election of your house, your relationships, your productivity, your wealth–by honoring God and giving Him thanks.

Our gratitude is not just the result of emotional control, it is the reins of it.

Lord's Day Liturgy

Emotional Epilepsy

The more I think about the subject of emotional control, the more it freaks me out. Just kidding. The more I think about it, for real, the deeper the rabbit hole goes and the network of tunnels pops up almost everywhere you look. There isn’t anywhere we can go to get away from The Feels, because wherever we go, there we are, let alone whatever drama queens we may run into.

My point is, it’s a big topic, possibly and not really ironically a hot topic. Let’s see what we can do with three qualifications for this series of exhortations.

First, some of you have really big problems, and I say that to say that I have no interest in band-aid ministry. Emotional health, like any sort of health, resists quick fixes. There are some who have been, or perhaps are being, truly and traumatically abused in any number of ways. Likewise, there are some who have chosen, and may still be choosing, persistent and patterned sin. You will probably need to be as persistent in establishing a pattern of repentance. Also, I think especially for our kids, many have never been taught or even talked to about the blessings and freedom of disciplining their emotions.

That leads to my second qualification. I cannot ever remember hearing about this as a kid, or as a college student, or without pursuing the subject on my own. I suppose there were times when I was whiny and my dad told me to “Stop it,” which, is fine, and Bob Newhart definitely made it funny. But it is something that can be learned, I am continuing to learn it, and have said before that I have had to repent, especially from anger, that caused real damage to those around me. I am addressing the issue with concerns for almost every one of my roles, not just as a pastor trying to lord it over how everyone else is doing it wrong.

And then third, emotional control is not just something that can be learned, it must be learned as a disciple of Christ. This does make it a pastoral priority, then, not just a comfy therapy session. God Himself says to “keep your heart with all vigilance” (Proverbs 4:23), and to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

If you are triggered into emotional epilepsy by dinner being 10 minutes late, an unexpected bill, a barking dog, disobedient kids, traffic, finding out the candidate you voted for lost, an undesirable diagnosis or prescribed treatment, an inattentive spouse, a crying baby, the looming reality of uncomfortable family conversations (over Zoom, ha!) this Thanksgiving, by being involved in boy/girl drama or by watching others involved in boy/girl drama, to name a few, then we have military level work to do to gain control of the emotional ground in our chests.

Lord's Day Liturgy

The Heart of the Problem

Proverbs 4:23 says:

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

While there are other verses that address what we allow in, this verse provides wisdom for watching what comes out. Our hearts, complex as they are, require constant supervision.

Jesus taught the same thing to His disciples. He said (recorded in Mark 7:21-23):

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It is as common as breathing to blame others rather than take responsibility. But what I plan to exhort us to consider for the next few weeks is not who is responsible, but what we are responsible for. Stated more specifically, this will be a confession exhortation mini-series on emotional control.

How many times have you heard someone say that she can’t help a certain behavior or making a certain comment because that’s just how she feels? Her response must be accepted by the rest of us because it wasn’t something she chose; she might even say the response chose her. Many Christians have been catechized with these worldly, emotional defense mechanisms, and it makes no less of a mess.

The Christian’s goal is not suppression of emotion or feeling, the goal is mortification, that is, the killing of sin in our hearts by God’s Spirit. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). That same Spirit produces the fruit of love and joy and peace and patience, which certainly include relevant emotions. Self-control doesn’t mean being emotion-less, it does mean we don’t let fleshly emotions rule us.

It is as dangerous for a man to indulge in fits of anger that his kids aren’t obeying him as it is for a young man to indulge in proud self-pity that a young lady isn’t fawning over him. It is as dangerous for a woman to indulge in envy over another woman’s housekeeping skills as it is for a young woman to indulge in foolishness over a teenage boy who couldn’t fill her father hunger even if he wasn’t foolish himself. These things come from our hearts, and that is the problem.

A Shot of Encouragement

Equip the Rider

The goal is not to cripple the horse, but equip the rider.

—Rachel Jankovic, A Spirited Rider, on training girls to control their emotions.