How does a mature Christian handle her emotions? “Keep a tight lid on them” is the answer many of us might offer. But this intuitive reaction is not God’s prescription. He made us in his image, and he gave us emotions. Suppressing our feelings goes against his good design. That’s why it doesn’t work so well. Instead, God gives us a better way to handle our emotions. We are to pray. Rather than suppressing our emotions we are to express them to God. Instead of denying or ignoring our feelings, we are to bring them to the throne of grace.
The Psalms—indeed all of Scripture—is full of countless examples, but let’s consider one today: the story of Hannah. As you know, Hannah was barren and unkindly treated by her husband’s second wife, Peninnah (1 Sam. 1:5-6). She was overwhelmed by wave upon wave of tempestuous emotions. She was so upset she could not eat (1:7).
Did Hannah bottle up all of those bad feelings and put on a good front? Did she deny the bitterness and pain in her heart? No, Hannah’s painful feelings compelled her to pray.
”[Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.” (1:10)
Hannah prayed to the Lord. Her misery drew her to God.
Here we have a vivid illustration of the usefulness of unpleasant feelings. Bad emotions can have a beneficial role in our lives when they compel us to pray.
Charles Spurgeon highlights this point:
“Observe, that through her sorrowful spirit, Hannah had learned to pray. I will not say but what she prayed before this great sorrow struck her, but this I know, she prayed with more intensity than before when she heard her rival talk so exceedingly proudly, and saw herself to be utterly despised….Thus bitterness of spirit may be an index of our need for prayer and an incentive to that holy exercise.”
Hannah’s sorrow was the incentive to pour out her soul before God. Hannah rightly handled her miserable feelings. She didn’t allow her miserable feelings to drive her away from God; instead, they were the impetus to turn to God for help. So too our miserable feelings: they should drive us to God, they should compel us to pray.
Prayer is absolutely essential if we are to rightly handle emotions. If we expect to keep our emotions from wreaking havoc on our lives, then we must pray!
Dr. R.C. Sproul makes this assertion about prayer: “Prayer does change things, all kinds of things. But the most important thing it changes is us… Prayer changes us profoundly.”
Prayer changed Hannah profoundly. God changed her heart through prayer and subsequently her feelings changed. And as we know, Hannah’s emotions changed rather dramatically. She went from being “deeply distressed” at the outset of her prayer to being “no longer sad” by the end (1:18).
Pour Out Your Soul
Hannah’s prayer wasn’t some lifeless, dutiful, half-hearted prayer. It was an honest, fervent, “meet God where you are” kind of prayer. There were tears with this prayer. Lots of tears.
As the tears spilled out, Hannah spilled out her soul to the Lord. So emotional was Hannah’s prayer that Eli, the high priest, mistook them for drunken mutterings and wrongly accused Hannah of being intoxicated (1:13-14).
Hannah assured Eli that she was not under the influence of alcohol, but in a state of prayer: “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord” she told him.
Did God condemn Hannah for her emotional prayer? Quite the opposite! He put her in Scripture as an example of a woman we should follow. It was Eli—the one who looked down his nose at Hannah’s emotional prayers—with whom God was displeased.
Hannah unburdened her soul before the Lord. She did, as Charles Spurgeon put it: “Turn[ed] the vessel of [her] soul upside down in [God’s] secret presence, and let [her] inmost thoughts, desires, sorrows, and sins be poured out like water.”
She poured out everything to God.
We can only imagine the lightness of soul Hannah must have felt after she poured out all the grief and resentment that had been pent-up in her soul for so long!
When we suppress our emotions, it weighs us down. It’s as if we are lugging around a heavy bag with us wherever we go. We all know what happens if we have to carry that bag for an extended period of time: The longer we carry it, the heavier it feels.
So it is with an overwhelmed soul. The longer we bear it, the heavier it feels.
The longer we ignore our sin and suppress our sorrow, the more weighed down we become. The bitter emotions only grow stronger. The depressing feelings only get more intense.
That’s why we should pray. There is no simpler, better way to find help for our overwhelmed souls than to pray. There is no other means whereby we experience relief from our sorrows and forgiveness for our sins than to pray.
That is why James instructed the believers to whom he was writing with these words: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray” (5:13)
Let me turn James’ question on us: Is there anyone here suffering? Is there anyone here whose soul is weighed down? Maybe you are burdened by a severe trial you are walking through. Possibly you are distressed about a particular sin you can’t seem to overcome. Or maybe you feel depressed and you are not even sure why.
If so, may I encourage you to pray?
Let’s pour out our souls before God. No matter how we are feeling, God wants to hear from us. He wants us to tell Him everything that’s on our hearts—to hold nothing back.