Being raised in church in Northern Ireland is a fairly unique experience that sometimes feels like a million miles away from the ideas around faith that I hold now.
The Bible belt of the UK, Northern Ireland has always had religion running through public life. I once heard a statistic that sounds just likely enough to be true, that it’s believable but still insane enough to still be dubious about. That there are more Christians in a 50 miles radius from Belfast per capita than anywhere in the world.
How true this is I’m not entirely sure but it’s believable enough that I couldn’t say it was ridiculous altogether.
Either way, religion permeates everything. Politics, schooling, laws. You name it, religion probably has a part to play.
There does however seem to be a shift occurring in the public life in Northern Ireland where religion is concerned.
With the Republic of Ireland, overturning of abortion laws and the change in marriage equality it seems Northern Ireland is next.
It may be a matter of time before these things change up North, and less a matter of if.
If you had told me as a kid, with admittedly a very small amount of knowledge on the role religion played in everyday life in the Republic of Ireland, that they would be leading the way on the island in terms of equality in relation to women’s right and marriage equality in a couple of decades, I would have been highly dubious.
But here we are.
But what is most striking is that for all the change that is happening, it is not simply that non religious folk are leading the way but that there are those from the religious community who are playing their part in these dramatic changes.
A couple of weekends ago, Belfast experienced the biggest Pride event in the history of Pride in Belfast. Among those marching were people from many different backgrounds, and that did include people whose lives are inextricably interwoven with faith in God. They represent, a few brave folk in the church whose ideas around gay marriage and homosexuality probably stand in stark difference to most Christians in the country.
For many though there is no budging on issues such as equal marriage. The Bible they would say, is very clear on how God feels about homosexuality and that to hold any alternative view, is not only to compromise on the Bible but to attempt to be popular to those outside the church.
Those who support marriage equality they say, are doing so only out of a place of emotion and wanting to be liked.
Ironically, standing up for marriage equality in the Church can be one sure fire way of being ostracised by many who hold traditional views on marriage.
A popularity game, this is not.
I use this only as an example of the piece of a bigger picture the role our emotions play in our beliefs.
I am grateful for my Christian upbringing but in the wider sense it did a lot of damage to the role of my emotions in my life. Much Christian culture subdues our emotions by framing them in a way that gets in the way of true faith. The Bible is very clear on what it says on many issues but don’t dare to question it because ultimately your emotions can not be trusted.
Despite this weariness of emotions by the church, even some of the language we use in Church points to emotions being important. Guard your heart, it’s a heart issue, give your heart to Jesus.
Yet, these ideas are very rarely truly built on say a deep healing but in an intellectual balancing act of making sure you don’t tip the scales. Know the three things you need to do to become a Christian, have a clear system of theology, don’t doubt and certainly if you do, don’t drag those mucky feet in here.
Emotions though are not completely abhorrent in the church. Our worship music is designed to cause an emotional experience in the congregation. Whether it’s through the anthemic hymns of people like Wesley or whether it’s the pop mass appeal of Hillsong United, it’s designed to evoke something strong emotionally in us.
The issues most churches have with emotions then is not that they are entirely unhelpful but only the bad ones.
But anyone who understands emotions will tell you that subduing the bad emotions because they cause us trouble, while keeping the good ones is nigh on impossible. And dangerous.
The danger in this approach is that emotions play a massive part in our lives. When we aim to subdue them, we’re not clearing the path for greater understanding but subduing a very big part of what it means to be human.
As a child I remember the traumatic idea of going to Heaven, when some of your friends and even your own family would be spending eternity in hell, was reasoned by the belief that you would be having too good of a time to even care.
This never sat well with me and looking back can perhaps be seen as a pivotal moment in my life where I began to keep my emotions at bay. They were just getting in the way of truth. I didn’t want to consider that horrible thought so I tried to make myself feel better by telling myself I would be oblivious to the suffering of Billions of souls. A few of them people I loved.
Of course, many will read this and view this as exactly the point. Sometimes the Bible has things to say that are not palatable and are hard to hear. That you just have to suck it up.
But my emotions were always there, nudging me to take notice. To listen to them.
But just in case there was still the magic solution to all of this that was to just understand more.
Read your Bible more, pray more, you just need to understand better.
Thankfully, as I’ve grown up I have had people in my life, teachers and pilgrimers, a little ahead of me on the road who have guided me back to not seeing my emotions as my enemy. That have shown me that it’s ok to feel, in fact feeling is critical in healing and recovery, whether that is from substances or whether it is from religion.
One of the struggles in all of this though has always been in how we read the Bible as Western Christians. How do I balance the idea that the Bible is “God’s word” and should be obeyed and trusted and with how my emotions are unsettled when I see Christians treating those who they would say need more love than anyone, as second rate citizens? How can we not get emotional when many Christians who voted for our current president, are able to so coldly dismiss the damage to families who are being separated from each other at our borders.
So our emotions perhaps do play a pivotal role in the Christian experience, it’s just more that we push them down because they would cause us to confront our own complicity.
The discussion of the nature of the Bible is clearly a massive undertaking and one that has birthed countless books and writings and teachings and which I am not even going to attempt to get into too deep here, but needless to say those discussions themselves are highly emotive, showing that emotions can not be simply ignored when it comes to faith.
A slight change in how you read the Bible can turn it from being a set of writings that can be used to give us a clear set of instructions of what to believe and how to behave, to a collection of writings by Humans trying their darndest to understand God, the world and their place in the Cosmos. In all their messy, emotional selves.
We identify ourselves in the Bible because it like us, is also messy.
For this reason for far too long, huge questions have only resulted in small answers.
But a small change in how you see the Bible can lead to a huge life changing experience with it.
But above the Bible, above what we have been taught, how does Jesus treat emotions?
It should be clear to anyone reading the Bible that Jesus seemed pretty comfortable when dealing with his emotions. He would get angry and sad. He would spend time rejoicing and time mourning with friends. He could be afraid and he could be incredibly brave.
Jesus was in one moment one thing and in another, something else. We don’t like to think this about Him though because oftenwe’re uncomfortable with this in our own lives. But when we truly realise Jesus’ humanness, rather than threatening something of His power and beauty, it actually allows us to fully engage with our own humanness.
Then maybe we can truly heal and find redemption.
It’s hard to see the humanness of Jesus sometimes when all that you’ve been taught has been to think analytically about faith and the Bible. Our emotions somewhat inconveniently, tend to not follow a logical thought pattern sometimes, which leads to feeling uncomfortable which in turn allows us to remain cautious over them.
But when we proclaim a message of healing and resurrection but don’t allow each other to sometimes go into our deep pain and in turn preventing healing; in essence the message that we portray about Jesus is false. Perhaps this is one of the biggest problems that Atheists have with religion. Not so much that it’s a fairy tale but that we don’t often truly represent the redemption we say is ours.
If I was never brought up in the church, I’m not entirely sure I would believe in this god either.
This is also why so many Christians are addicted to porn. It’s why the church is not exempt from #MeToo. It’s why we talk a lot about radical healing but in the next breath talk about being works in progress. It’s not about achieving complete holiness or sinlessness but admitting that maybe we don’t have all the answers like we believe we do.
That can be excruciatingly painful.
For me in my own life, this dilemma has mostly been present when my emotions have been suppressed. When I’ve felt like I can’t trust my emotions. When we can’t trust our emotions as a valid part of being human, we can’t trust ourselves. The answer is not that all emotions are good to hold onto, but that all emotions are necessary for healing and fullness of life.
We need to acknowledge where we’re in pain and only then can we discover where we can genuinely rejoice.
As I read the stories of Jesus, I see someone who was fully human and didn’t shy away from the role emotions play in our humanness. It can truly transform how we view God, when we being to move away from the Divine as someone who is only concerned with rules and facts and as someone who truly became human and never once tried to diminish that.
Jesus recognised that power of emotions and this is where Grace can truly come in to play. When I am in one place of peace and healing and someone else close to me is in deep anguish, I do them a great disservice and harm to remind them of “biblical truth” and not allow them to fully sit in whatever it is they need to sit in.
In those times perhaps then, the greatest truth from the Bible we can remind anyone of is that “Jesus wept”.