When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.—Mark 6:34
My emotional cup runneth dry quite quickly. Physically and mentally, my capacity seems limitless comparatively. That’s not how strong I am, that’s how emotionally weak I can become. Physically I can handle a lot. And when I’m beat physically, I can still think clearly and critically. But my emotional capacity—my ability to enter in, to listen and understand and relate and grieve and have compassion—is the first to go.
Like Jesus, I can see a crowd, like sheep without a shepherd, and work furiously to “teach them many things.” But it takes an emotionally healthy person to have compassion—“and he had compassion on them.” Unlike Jesus, most times these are my reactions to the wandering sheep:
I see the crowd and I can be anxious: “Look at all these people that are living like sheep without the shepherd!”
I see the crowd and I can be frustrated: “Why won’t these people follow the shepherd and obey the shepherd!”
I see the crowd and I can be angry: “Why won’t these freakin' people listen to me when I tell them about the shepherd!"
I see the crowd and I can be apathetic: “They won’t listen to me about the shepherd, there’s nothing I can do.”
When my emotional cup empties I tend not to be patient with the sheep (though I, too, am one); I tend not to be empathetic.
Being emotionally healthy means we have:
The ability to be present, in the moment
The ability to enter in to someone’s suffering
The ability to listen
The ability to "good news” (gospel) someone’s bad news; not a one-trick, one-sized fits all ministering
The ability to long-suffer
The ability to say “no”
The ability to communicate feelings without shame and without shaming
Jesus, The Perfect Man
Jesus, as the perfect man, was emotionally healthy in that he rightly embraced God-given human emotions and expressed them before the Father and others in non-destructive ways.
He weeps when he hears about Lazarus. He confesses his sorrow to his disciples in the garden (“my soul is sorrowful to the point of death”). He rejoices in the Holy Spirit when the 72 return. He was grieved at the Pharisees hardness of heart (Mark 3:5).
Tim Keller tells us, “Look at Jesus. He was perfect, right? And yet he goes around crying all the time. He is always weeping, a man of sorrows. Do you know why? Because he is perfect. Because when you are not all absorbed in yourself, you can feel the sadness of the world. And therefore, what you actually have is that the joy of the Lord happens inside the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the sorrow. It doesn’t come after the uncontrollable weeping. The weeping drives you into the joy, it enhances the joy, and then the joy enables you to actually feel your grief without its sinking you. In other words, you are finally emotionally healthy.”
Emotional Health Coram Deo
So how do we get there? How do we increase our emotional capacity? How do we get emotionally healthy? JC Ryle once said, “The child of God has two great marks about him: he is known for his inner warfare and his inner peace.” How do we have both?
Too often we have a conversation with ourselves about what we are feeling when we should have that conversation with God. Our emotional state should be lived out before the face of God, not in self-pitying, navel-gazing, or in numbing diversion before the television. Lloyd-Jones said the problem was listening to yourself instead of preaching to yourself. Other than Jesus, the man after God’s heart learned this best.
When you read the Psalms, you see David coram deo with his feelings over and over. Pick almost any Psalm and see that David:
is aware of his emotions
names his emotion
is honest about his emotions
is willing to be corrected that what he “feels” isn’t necessarily true
is realistic about what he feels but trusts in “ultimate reality”—the truth about God—more than he does what he feels
manages his emotions and is changed by that truth
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.” — (Ps 25:16)
So instead of an anxiety-ridden “Look at all these people that are living like sheep without the shepherd!” If you add just one word you are on the road to emotional health: “Jesus, look at all these people that are living like sheep without the shepherd!” Directing your frustrations, tiredness, and emotions to the God who gave you emotions prostrates your feelings before the God of feelings and invites comfort and correction.
Emotional Health in Leadership
And, of course, increasing our emotional capacity makes our gospel ministry more effective. Mark Sayer says that “[the first step of] leadership is not so much about skill and technique as it is about allowing God to transform your inner world of anxieties, fears, and insecurities.” Because then we can lead others through theirs.
The fact is, emotional health is a mark of holiness, of sanctification. Your pursuit of godliness, of Jesus, must include a pursuit of emotional health. And like any pursuit of holiness it is fueled by Gospel truth. For, “if we believe the great God of the universe really loves us, it should make us emotionally unshakable in the face of criticism, suffering, and death” (Tim Keller).