Through a Glass Dimly: Emotional Intelligence As Discipleship (Part 2)
I was a 32-year-old mother of three before I knew the Pieta existed. This masterpiece sculpture depicts Mary holding Jesus’s limp body after the crucifixion, and evokes a deep sense of motherly, human grief. Her bowed head and downturned mouth behold the body of one that she gifted life. As mother and disciple, this piece of art moved me into deeper understanding and connection to a story that I knew backwards and forwards, but never truly felt.
In part one of this conversation, spiritual maturity was defined as appropriately using all three centers of intelligence: thinking, feeling, and doing. But, as discussed in part one, the “feeling” center has often received some negative attention in church and culture alike. So what is this whole feeling thing actually for? Enneagram master Suzanne Stabile teaches that feelings are for building and maintaining connection and intimacy in relationships, artistic creation and appreciation, experiencing gratitude, assigning value, and creating meaning. These are important dimensions of the human experience and the very stuff that discipleship is made of!
The goal of the gospel is to create right relationship between God and humans. The lived-out gospel is right relationship between humans, in families, churches, communities, and nations as evidence of this right relationship with God. Emotion is required to create connection, much less intimacy. Connection requires me to feel joy in shared experience and sadness in separation. The gospel is an emotional story that requires emotional intelligence to discern and follow.
The most powerful communicators of the gospel are artists. Paintings, sculptures, and stained glass tell the story of God’s love throughout Christendom’s history. Artistic creation is a product of emotional response and is necessary to being a disciple—even for those of us who will never produce a work of art for a museum. Creativity is a piece of God’s character displayed in creation and in us. Only an artist could have formed trees, grass, and weeds of all different shades of green!
Gratitude is foundational to the life of the disciple, so how would one respond to the gospel but through gratitude? This experience is one of emotion! Gratitude invites us to know joy as well as our own inadequacy to meet every need ourselves.
The gospel is just a story unless we create and attach meaning to it. This ability to find purpose and connection between one experience and another is an emotional response that allows us to see God’s story unfold over history. We only assign value to ideas that we have attached value to, so without emotion, we cannot assign value.
As a tradition that is newer to acknowledging and respecting feelings, we might need some practice in navigating emotional responses. A very simple practice to start with is a “welcoming prayer,” which can be broken down into three steps:
Name the emotion and where it resides in your body (there are six basic human emotions: anger, sadness, happiness, guilt, shame, and fear*). Simply for example, you might notice that you feel anger in your gut, fear in your throat, or sadness in your eyes.
Say either verbally or mentally, “Welcome, anger (fear, sadness, etc.). You are in the presence of God.” Say this as many times as necessary until your body softens and releases.
When you are able to hand over the emotion, leave it with God. This is NOT the same as repressing or ignoring the feeling. Instead, it is trusting that God will hold the feeling and all that it might want to teach you. You can return at any time to explore the feeling with God! It is often wise to look to our feelings to be our teachers once we are not gripped by them and can instead be curious about them.
What if the Churches of Christ chose to imitate the fullness of God’s character as revealed in Jesus? Discipleship calls for right thinking, productive doing, and connecting feelings. Together these offer us a clearer, fuller picture of God who desires connection with us and between us.
*You could consider these six emotions like primary colors. They come in varying intensities and mix together to create other emotions humans have named. For instance, jealousy could be a mixture of fear and anger. Excitement could be happiness with a little bit of fear.