By Brett Tilford
Campus Pastor for New Hope Christian Church in Lucas
Speaking with a friend the other day who had undergone years of abuse at the hands of his father. As a result he carried with him a profound sense of shame.
I asked him to describe the feeling more deeply and he said, “I feel so unworthy.” I responded, “Scratch the surface of that emotion. What do you feel unworthy of?” He said, “I don’t know…I mean…I guess I feel unworthy of love.”
When my kids were toddlers they were fascinated by dishwashers. I think it was because there were so many interesting objects—shiny pots, colorful bowls, glass plates.
Of course, I was a vigilant parent, and we had a rule: no playing in, around, or on the dishwasher.
But every once in awhile a horrible event would occur. I would be unloading the dishwasher but my back would be turned to it for a moment as I put a plate or cup away.
However, as I returned my gaze the blood froze in my veins because there stood my toddler stood with the biggest grin on their face and our largest kitchen knife in their hand!
Now, what emotion do you think I was overcome with? Compassion? Forget about it. Love? Heck no! I’m embarrassed to say it, but I was overcome with anger.
Seriously, I was furious. Furious at my child. Furious at the universe for making dishwashers with the utensil holders on the bottom rack. Furious at, myself. Furious. But scratch the surface of that emotional response. What was underneath it? My child was unsafe and because they were unsafe, I felt unsafe.
Terry Hargrave and Franz Pfitzer in their book Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy help us peel back the layers of our emotional reactions with this insight.
“Many individuals will be tempted to say things like, ‘I feel angry,’ ‘I feel frustrated,’ or ‘I feel ashamed.’ It is important for the therapist to point out that these types of secondary feelings are actually more associated with reactivity and action in response to the primary emotions most often related to feeling unloved or unsafe [emphasis mine].”
In other words, whenever we find ourselves in a highly reactive emotional state it can be extremely illuminating to ask these two questions:
1) Am I feeling unloved right now?
2) Am I feeling unsafe right now?
What these questions can help us identify is the issue behind the issue.
For example, the truth is that my friend who endured abuse is profoundly loved by many people today, and although my knife wielding child really was unsafe my emotional reaction of anger was not helping the situation.
Of course, as people of faith the truth is even more profound than that.
John 3:16 speaks directly to these primary emotions with the claim that “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” God loves us deeply and he has promised that when we place our trust in him we will never perish—we are profoundly safe.
Take a moment to reflect on your day thus far? Have you experienced any secondary emotions related to feeling unloved or unsafe? What might it look like to invite God into those situations? Remember, you are not alone.
You are deeply loved, deeply known, and profoundly safe in the arms of the one Jesus called Father. Rest in that truth.