When you are a little baby and you cry, your mom might say to you, “Oh, are you sad?”, or when you laugh she might say, “Oh, you’re so happy!” This is part of a healthy upbringing. Your parents and others who love you are giving you words for your emotions, helping you to process and ultimately to master them. They help you to develop an emotional vocabulary. While it starts as a child, really understanding what is going on in your heart and what do about it is a skill learned over a lifetime. If this process is arrested in any way, it impedes your development as a person, and can manifest in a number of problems.
Perhaps the most common issue to arise even with normal socialization, is for someone to become disconnected from their emotions because they spend more time maintaining appearances than being real with people. This make take slightly different form based on your gender, but the effect is the same. A woman may be taught to suppress her anger because it is not “feminine,” so instead of feeling and expressing anger, she redirects it inward and experiences it as sadness and depression. On the other hand, a man may be told to “toughen up” when they express sadness or vulnerability, leading them to suppress these emotions and redirect them into other, more socially acceptable attitudes.
Most relationships in the world have some element of this dynamic, and so it is very common to encounter people who have gotten saved but are really not in touch with their emotions or real motivations. Part of the pastor’s role, then, is as an emotional interpreter. In my book Unlocking the Heart, I talk more about how to pastor people in a way that gets to the roots of their problems and helps them to change. Just as your mom asked, “are you sad?” when you cried as a baby, the pastor asks and helps discern at a much more complex level. You are there to help them, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to clearly see what is going on in their heart so they can bring it before God.
For example, as a pastor you might ask, “Do you think you are lashing out because you feel insecure?” Just by asking a question like this you are giving them vocabulary by which to understand their problem. They can then respond, “Actually, you know I think it might be more that I am afraid of looking stupid.” As they confess things from the heart, you float different ideas past them of what it might be and see how it resonates. This is an exploratory process. It’s like cracking a lock. You’re listening carefully to hear the pin drop. They will say some things and you ask questions. As you ask questions, you listen and probe and the Holy Spirit helps to direct the conversation. The two of you are cooperatively listening to God to help get to the root of the issue.
Here is how a sample conversation might go:
“I’ve noticed that you cut me off a lot. I wonder why you do that?”
“I don’t know I’ve never noticed.”
“Is it because you’re anxious?”
“I felt condemned when you asked that last question.”
“Ok, that’s good. Let’s talk about why you felt condemned.”
You see? It’s exploratory. You don’t know where it’s going, or what you are going to find. You are floating ideas and looking for what is going to resonate. You are challenging surface answers to try to get to the reason behind the reason. If you can get to the reason why they fell condemned, then you are now dealing with a root, not just a fruit. Their tendency to interrupt is just a result of a series of feelings that they have, which they may not even be aware of. The exploration process helps identify the root and empower the person.
During this entire process, you maintain a non-judging posture asking diplomatic questions that keep them feeling like you are a partner, not an accuser. For many people you will have to build up enough trust to be able ask these kinds of questions so that they will feel loved rather than accused. But the point is, it’s an exploratory, non-judging line of questions designed for both of you to get to emotional root causes.
After you have done this enough times with enough people, you start to see patterns and become good at it. This will enable you to extrapolate a lot from a little and move the ball forward more quickly. Part of developing the skill is having been pastored yourself. As someone helps you understand and identify your emotional motivations, you develop the skills to reflect on emotions in general, and see them in others. You’re not just an emotional interpreter, you’re an emotional developer… you are helping a person to understand and master the emotional world. You are helping them to give names to the patterns which hold them back. By giving it a name, and identifying a cause, you give them a place to fight and the first piece of power over their situation.
Many times people are masking the root cause of their behavior or statements even from themselves. They may not have yet developed the capacity to be honest with themselves and discern what is going on. For example, they may say, “I am ashamed,” but they don’t know why or what the underlying history of that feeling is. You are bringing it to the surface gently, and you are also helping them to face the truth. Some people may have become self-deceived about an issue. It’s easier to cover up something that makes you feel bad than it is face it. Part of your interpretive role is to challenge their self-lies and bring the truth to light. The truth can hurt, so be as gentle as possible, but as firm as necessary – the truth spoken by the grace of the Holy Spirit will unlock a heart.
When you are dealing with someone who has suffered significant childhood abuse or neglect, or trauma in an adult relationship, the rabbit hole can go much deeper. They may have shut down their emotions entirely in response. Some people have been so hurt in the past that they interpret pain as love and love as pain. On the other end of the spectrum, they may have learned to become emotionally manipulative and narcissistic. Be careful not to get out of your depth. In serious cases, a professional or at minimum a structured program like Celebrate Recovery, is needed. Remember, if an issue took a long time to form, it usually takes a long time to unravel. Be encouraged, though. Having worked with a street ministry in Cincinnati and now as Vice President of Prison Fellowship, I have seen the kind of transformation that can occur in what seem to be even the most obstinate cases.
If you would like to read more about the art of becoming a master pastor, check out my book Unlocking the Heart.