There is no spiritual growth without emotional growth.
Does that seem like an overstatement? Perhaps it’s taking things too far, but the more I think about this, the more it seems accurate.
I have known people that on the outside seemed to have been pursuing spiritual growth for years, decades even. Yet they aren’t more peaceful. They aren’t better at managing their relationships. They participate in religious activities, even spiritual disciplines. Some of them have for years. Things like being part of a community of faith, attending worship services, reading the Bible, praying, perhaps giving to the poor. These are the kinds of things that we often assume a good Christian or spiritual person would do. And yet, these disciplines often seem to fail to bring about real and deep life change.
As I’ve reflected on my own pastoral experiences, and the piles of material I’ve been reading in preparation for the book I’m writing, I’ve come more and more to think that this gap between expected and real growth isn’t about the spiritual disciplines at all. I suspect it is because these people do not consider emotional growth to be a necessary part of growing spiritually. It just isn’t on the radar.
I know that it wasn’t for me. I’ve learned a lot of ways I could grow spiritually in my now almost 40 years. Different ways to pray. Different kinds of Bible study. Different ways to serve. And yet none of these things addressed the deep things in my heart.
I learned more about God. I learned to navigate the Bible better. I got more and more comfortable with different spiritual practices. And yet I would keep coming back to the same kind of painful moments in my marriage, or with staff members who worked for me. Certain insecurities would rise up in me and seem to take over. To cope, I’d make bad decisions that did more damage relationally. The next big spiritual idea would come along, and I’d have high hopes for how this would turbo-charge my growth, but it always turned out the same.
Ephesians 4 shows us God’s intention for us. The goal of living is that we would grow up, mature, in the image of Christ. As a body of people mature in Christ, they have more and more of an impact on the world around them, revealing God’s love in their character and actions. This builds up the church, it reveals God’s character, and it blesses the world.
How could we possibly look at this idea – growing up in Christ – and not think that it includes emotional growth? How could we hear Jesus’ words about loving God with all our heart, mind and strength, and not see that this includes our emotions? And yet we have. Most of Christianity has left emotions on the sideline. At best they are considered a distraction; at worst, deceiving. This has left a lot of good-hearted people emotionally hobbled, left wondering why praying and reading the Bible more isn’t making any difference.
The truth is this: Our particular emotional brokenness will impact our view of God and our spiritual growth. Intimacy with God is a relational reality. Emotions are the way we connect in intimate relationships. So, if you’re relationally broken, you will have problems with intimacy. And that won’t just be with people – it will be with God too.
Peter Scazerro, the Senior Pastor at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, has written on this in a number of books. His book “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” presents the problem well. In this book he talks about the differences in how people live and relate as they mature emotionally. All of us go through these stages normally. But some of us, due to trauma and brokenness, get stuck. We relate to everyone – God included – in emotionally immature ways.
Take a look at Scazerro’s categories:
“I have found that telling people to love better and more is not enough. They need practical skills incorporated into their spiritual formation to grow out of emotional infancy into emotional adulthood. It is easy to grow physically into a chronological adult. It is quite another to grow into an emotional adult. Many people may be, chronologically, forty-five years old but remain an emotional infant, child, or adolescent.
The question then is: how do I distinguish between them? The following is a brief summary of each:
- Look for others to take care of them.
- Have great difficulty entering into the world of others.
- Are driven by need for instant gratification.
- Use others as objects to meet their needs.
- Are content and happy as long as they receive what they want.
- Unravel quickly from stress, disappointments, trials.
- Interpret disagreements as personal offenses.
- Are easily hurt.
- Complain, withdraw, manipulate, take revenge, become sarcastic when they don’t get their way.
- Have great difficulty calmly discussing their needs and wants in a mature, loving way.
- Tend to often be defensive.
- Are threatened and alarmed by criticism.
- Keep score of what they give so they can ask for something later in return.
- Deal with conflict poorly, often blaming, appeasing, going to a third party, pouting, or ignoring the issue entirely.
- Become preoccupied with themselves.
- Have great difficulty truly listening to another person’s pain, disappointments, or needs.
- Are critical and judgmental.
- Are able to ask for what they need, want, or prefer – clearly, directly, honestly.
- Recognize, manage, and take responsibility for their own thoughts and feelings.
- Can, when under stress, state their own beliefs and values without becoming adversarial.
- Respect others without having to change them.
- Give people room to make mistakes and not be perfect.
- Appreciate people for who they are—good, bad, and ugly—not for what they give back.
- Accurately assess their own limits, strengths, and weaknesses and are able to freely discuss them with others.
- Are deeply in tune with their own emotional world and able to enter into the feelings, needs, and concerns of others without losing themselves.
- Have the capacity to resolve conflict maturely and negotiate solutions that consider the perspectives of others.”
(Quoted from Peter Scazerro, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality iBook Edition, p.225-227)
In order for us to grow in the image of Christ, we need to grow emotionally as well. The kinds of things that we are called to – loving our enemies, being people of reconciliation, living with wisdom, living out the Beatitudes – simply don’t happen when we are stuck in emotional brokenness and immaturity.
If you look at these categories and see that you relate to others more as an emotional child or adolescent, you will see the same patterns in your relationship with God. God wants to move you onward and upward. That means that a part of your spiritual growth – what we’ve called Discipleship – means dealing with your heart. God is making a new you, and that includes growing in your emotions as well as in your faith.