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Topic: Common Issues in the Christian Life

The Believer and the Emotional Roller Coaster

by Darrel Cline

The monorail car jerked suddenly as the final safety bar was locked into place. Anticipation, already building, crept to a new high for the thrill-seekers as the cars were steadily pulled higher and higher. Suddenly, from the foremost cars, screams began filling the air as the rapidly accelerating train began its extended plunge. The thrill, evidenced by the whoops and screams, mounted as the cars whipped around the sharply banked turns. Then, all too soon, the ride was over and the thrill was gone. In order to recapture it, many of the riders hurried back to the ticket booth in order to ride again.

As a new believer in Jesus Christ, I discovered that a good bit of my life was like the ride on the coaster. I was either experiencing an emotional high, the process of building up to one, or (the worst part) the inevitable let-down after the high. I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of anticipation and the adrenaline kick of the highs. I could hardly tolerate the depression of the lows. Over a period of time I found the highs further and further apart and the lows becoming more extended and depressing.

The worst part of the cyclical character of my experience was the discovery that my motivation to do the will of God rode the same path that my emotions rode. I began to find that my decisions in life were being made on the basis of my feeling the presence of the Spirit. I found myself moved and highly motivated by high-pressure illustrations and rapidly spoken sermons and turned off by low-key, howbeit content-filled, droning. The problem was that it was not content, but style, that motivated me.

Even after several years of training for the ministry I continued to be more motivated by feelings than facts. When things were popping I was intensely interested in the ministry. When things were dragging and filled with problems, both real and imaginary, I was ready for something else. Finally, after a series of emotional busts, I resigned my charge.

It took several years for me to discover the idolatry of living by emotion. Gradually, however, the Lord graciously showed me that Jesus' statement about seeking to save one's soul, with the inevitable corollary of loss, had a direct application to my emotional lifestyle. It was then that my eyes were opened to some of the facts of life on the roller coaster.

The prophet Jonah, best known for his fish story, has since become for me an example of both the problems of life by emotion and the solution. In Jonah 4:1-11 the prophet wrote of his own life on the coaster. In the first four verses we find him so strung out by his emotions of anger that he pleads with God to kill him (something chapter two denies he really wanted).

Then, in the next two verses, we find Jonah extremely happy. The word translated by our word extremely is one which Jonah reserved for things which were a good bit beyond the ordinary (the 'great' storm, the 'great' fish, and the 'great' city of Nineveh were all described by this same word). So, Jonah bounced from extreme depression to exceeding joy in a matter of a few hours.

But then, in the next three verses, Jonah is again begging God to kill him. He has come full circle. Extreme depression...exceeding joy...extreme depression.

Is there something here that can help us to live more wisely? I believe there is. God motivated Jonah's testimony and He resolved Jonah's emotional problems. Therefore, His words through Jonah ought to help those of us who suffer similar things.

The first thing that we notice from Jonah's testimony is that his commitment to do the will of God followed the path of his feelings. When dominated by hatred and anger toward the objects of God's mercy (the Ninevites), his commitment to be God's prophet fell by the wayside. When confronted with severe discipline by God, the fear of death took precedence over his anger and rebellion and obedience followed. But, it was a forced obedience without joy.

The crisis arrived in chapter four. There Jonah, extremely angry over God's mercy to Nineveh, and then extremely happy over a little shade, revealed the causes of emotion: deep-seated desires which were either frustrated (causing anger) or met (causing joy), Jonah's emotion-directed lifestyle was killing him by degrees and God wanted to deliver him from the living death he was experiencing. The first thing He did was challenge Jonah to think about what his emotions were telling him about the level of his commitment to his selfish goals. Do you have good reason to be angry? (4:4 and 9; NASV). If Jonah would listen, his emotions would reveal his commitments.

The next thing God did was to lovingly 'set Jonah up'. He created a shade that made Jonah extremely happy. Even this was to reveal to the prophet what his real 'god' was: the satisfaction of his own personal desires. Then, in one fell swoop. God destroyed the shade and again questioned Jonah's resultant anger.

The last thing Jonah recorded for us was God's penetrating question concerning the emotions of compassion. Why is this? Probably because this is where the answer really lies to the idolatry of life by emotions. Here God revealed that even He is motivated by emotions but emotions that are spawned by knowledge and a commitment to the benefit of others. Jonah's problems existed because his emotions were spawned by an almost total commitment to his own selfish goals, while God's emotions reflected His interest in the plight of the ignorant and lost.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul, in Romans 12:1-2, established the fact that genuine Christian living must begin with a commitment to God without known reservations. Anything less will harbor idolatrous goals which will, in turn, spawn emotions which will ultimately lead to great (perhaps even suicidal) despair. Only by deliberate, believing, submission to the gracious God who has saved us can our emotions be made to serve us. By this submission His goals can become ours (there is a time-consuming process to this), thus eliminating a tremendous number of frustrations arising from false goals and the corresponding failure of achievement.

The alternative? The emotional roller coaster.

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This is article #255.
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