How is it that when we are part of the people of God and wanting to live a good life that we can still struggle with our emotions and motivations? We are in good company. In the Bible, Jacob wrestles all night with an angel (Genesis 32: 22-32); Elijah, frightened for his life, flees to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19: 1-9); Jonah becomes irritated when God spares the people of Nineveh and goes off in a sulk (Jonah 4:1-11). What do we do with negative emotions such as envy, anger, and fear?
When I was training to be an Occupational Therapist I practised being part of a therapeutic group. One exercise working in pairs was to describe and draw each other as an animal. I drew my colleague as a magnificent black panther as I saw her as beautiful and elegant, swift and powerful. She drew me as a pretty young deer lying down and half hidden among long grasses. She saw me as gentle and timid and difficult to get to know. We talked together about our descriptions of each other. Both of us were surprised yet pleased too. I realised that I was envious of my colleague’s dark beauty, her long black hair, large expressive eyes. In particular I envied her ability to be forthright in what she said. I was a little frightened of her. She admired my gentleness and wished to get to know me better. She had no idea that I had been timid of her. During the remainder of our course we became firm friends.
Gerard Hughes, a Jesuit priest and writer, suggests that we think about those of whom we are jealous and consider why. There may be a quality they possess which has been thwarted in us. When we become aware of this desire in us, we may be able to free it in ourselves.
I was happy with my new friend’s description of me as a deer; I was pleased she saw me as gentle. However I realised that I wanted to be less timid. I admired my friend’s ability to be bold.
Sometimes we compare each other thinking of ourselves as better than another. Jesus demonstrated this when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke18:9-14). The Pharisee stands up to pray: “I thank you that I am not like others.” He then names all the reprobates he can he think of including the tax collector praying “at a distance”. Think of the dislike we have for bankers at the moment. The tax collector cannot even look up to heaven and “beating on his breast” says: “God, have mercy on me a sinner”.
What do we think when we hear this parable? I remember a talk by Rev Michael Townsend. He pointed out to me that as soon as we catch ourselves thinking: “I am much more like the tax collector in the way I pray. I am so glad that I am not like that Pharisee!” we are caught out. There we go behaving exactly like the Pharisee.
Anger: what happens when we are angered or hurt by someone? We want to see ourselves as a forgiving person. Stephen Cherry in his book: “Healing Agony. Re-imagining forgiveness” suggests that there can be danger in being too ready to forgive. In our eagerness, we may inadvertently condone unjust behaviour. Think of the wife who is being subjected to physical or verbal abuse by her husband; or a person who is injured or killed by wrong doing. Consider the family of the murdered Stephen Lawrence. Not only was their son unlawfully killed; since then, they have had wrong after wrong heaped upon them. Stephen Cherry argues that it can be helpful to hold a “good grudge” against those persons who continue to behave unjustly. He states that forgiveness can never be forced. To have a forgiving heart we need to have a concern about justice. And also we need to encounter a distasteful empathy for the one who has wronged us; hold on to faith; and have an orientation towards moving forward. It can be a difficult yet worthwhile path to travel.
On the other hand, let us be wary of assuming that when someone offends us, they are naturally in the wrong. Initially we might consider whether the person is challenging us appropriately before mounting our white charger and riding off onto the moral high ground. We may have caused the bigger offence in the first place. We may need to be the one to check our behaviour and make amends. I can think of occasions where I have fallen off my high horse, needed to dust myself down and repent.
Finally our fears; what do we do when we are fearful? Even the disciples when following Jesus had occasion to fear. Reflect upon those experienced fishermen, overwhelmed by the powerful waves on stormy Lake Galilee who finally turn to Jesus who is asleep in the boat. (Matthew 8:23-27) Gerard Hughes argues that fear is a destructive yet necessary emotion. He tells a story of a young woman full of fear, who when on a retreat, dreams about the need to undertake a dangerous journey. She travels in one direction; and is being pursued so tries another way. Whichever way she turns she is being followed by dark shadowy figures. In her dream finally she arrives at her destination. She explains how she eventually manages the journey. “My fears followed me everywhere I went. In the end I turned around and faced them and asked for their guidance. They proved indispensable in helping me to find my way.”
Music: Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush: Don’t give up
Prayer: After a destructive encounter (John O’Donohue)
Withdraw for a while into your own tranquillity,
Loosen from your heart the new fester.
Free yourself of the wounded gaze
That is not yet able to see you.
Recognize your responsibility for the past.
Don’t allow your sense of yourself to wilt.
Draw deep from your own dignity.
Temper your expectation to the other’s limits,
And take your time carefully,
Learning that there is a time for everything
And for healing too,
And that now is not that time…yet.
Blessing: to come home to yourself: by John O’Donohue
May all that is unforgiven in you,
May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquillities.
May all that is unlived in you,
Blossom into a future,
Graced with love.