Pastor as Interpreter

Emotions are not naturally and easily understood. In fact, you have to learn to understand them. Your parents and friends give you the vocabulary for them as you experience them. When you are a little baby and you cry you mom might say to you “oh, are you sad?” or when you laugh she might say “oh, you’re so happy!” When she does this, she is helping you develop an emotional vocabulary. Really understanding what is going on in your heart and what to do about it is a skill learned over a lifetime — this is especially true for those who missed those key development moments as children.

What if your mom never really asked you if you were sad or happy? What if she never displayed any emotions? What if your dad never told you he loved you? What if your parents mocked you when you showed emotion? When you fail to form a bond and fail to develop an emotional vocabulary, a variety other unhealthy things happen. Just a few of them:

  • You may basically shut down all emotional information and become laconic, and completely unaware of your own emotions
  • You may become emotionally manipulative, narcissistic, or in the worst case sociopathic. In other words, you are someone who understand the realm of emotions, but you only use them to gain power over others. You never feel a bond with others.
  • You may experience love as pain and pain as love. When someone is warm to you it hurts, and when someone hurts you it make you feel loved. This naturally happens for those who have been abused in some way.

The issues above are very severe examples which will require very significant long term care to unravel, and to be honest, few people ever completely reverse them. A much more common problem which occurs through normal socialization is to be disconnected from your emotions because you spend more time maintaining appearances than being real with people. 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, because everything has been on the surface.

Part of the pastor’s role, then, is as en emotional interpreter. Just like mom asked you “are you sad?” when you cried as a baby, the pastor asks and helps discern at a much more complex level. “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. Then they can respond, “Actually, you know I think it might be more that I’m 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 exploratory surgery. They say some things and you ask questions.  As you ask questions, you experience and the Holy Spirit help to direct the conversation. You float some more ideas, and ask more targeted questions. The two of you are cooperatively listening to God to help get to the root of the issue.

“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 is going, or what you are going to find. You are floating ideas and looking for what is going to stick.  You are challenging simple answers to try to get to the reason behind the reason. If we can get to the reason why you feel condemned, then we are really dealing with something much more significant than your tendency to interrupt. During the entire process, however, you maintain that kind of non-judging exploratory posture. It’s important to ask diplomatic questions that keep the person feeling like you are a partner, not an accuser. That might be hard for some people and you might need to build trust to the place where they will feel loved rather than accused. But the point is, it’s explortory, a 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. Situations become familiar. You become comfortable with the basic mechanisms of the human heart and you are able to pull a lot from a little and move the ball forward more quickly. And honestly, 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. A person who is well pastored will then often develop the skill themselves, just from having learned this level of heart-dialog. So you’re not just an emotional interpreter, your an emotional developer… you are helping them in process of understanding and mastering the emotional world. You are helping them 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, you give them the first piece of power over the situation.

Of course sometimes, this is complex, because they may be masking even from themselves, what the real root cause is behind their behavior or statements. They may not really have developed the capacity to be honest with themselves and discern what is going on. They have given false names and patterns to what is going on and you have to break through the smoke screen. “I have a gift of discernment”  may really be “I judge people because I need to feel superior to others” You challenge their self-lies to bring the truth into the picture. The truth can hurt, but the truth also is what sets you free. Nothing can set you free until you become emotionally honest about what is really going on.

As an aside, this is why I am not a promoter of “In Christ” doctrines. I do in fact believe that I am more than a conqueror in Christ, and that this posture is extremely important for overcoming sin, etc, BUT in the context of pastoral care, these kinds of statements are almost always cover for a deeper problem. Rather than deal with the deeper issue, the person simply wants to skip ahead and declare they are wonderful. “I’m blessed and highly favored” even though my life is falling completely apart.  I see the process as get honest, then let Christ redeem the real you. As I turn from my sinful thoughts and emotions, then I am more than a conqueror. You can’t skip the step.

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