“What if maturity did not mean subduing the ‘feeling’ part of us, but bringing it into balance with the rest of our person?”
On Sept. 29, 1966, television viewers tuned in to the fourth episode of a brand-new series called Star Trek. “The Naked Time” found the crew of the starship Enterprise on the dying planet Psi 2000, searching for a scientific research team on the frozen surface. Finding the scientists have all mysteriously died, the crew prepares to leave before the implosion of the planet, but not before Joe, a particularly careless member of the away team, removes a glove; first to scratch his nose, then to stick his finger in an unknown liquid (as any reasonable person would do if surrounded by unexplained corpses on an alien world).
Joe’s newfound virus spreads fast, and when transmitted to the familiar characters of the Enterprise, it soon reveals its nature. After a bit of sweating and itching, the disease removes the inhibitions reasonable people place upon their emotions. Infected, Lt. Sulu becomes a shirtless, rapier-brandishing maniac, Nurse Chapel declares her smoldering love for Mr. Spock, and a poorly groomed crewman named Riley adopts a bad Irish accent, locks himself in the control room and sets the ship on a 20-minute-long death spiral toward the planet.
Even the unshakably logical Spock is not immune, weeping furiously. He addresses his captain, James Kirk, who is the definition of an intuitive, emotionally decisive leader. “Understand, Jim,” Spock says as they work to save their lives, “I’ve spent a whole lifetime learning to hide my feelings.”
“Love,” Kirk replies a moment later, in the throes of viral emotion. “You’re better off without it.”
From Spock to the Stoics
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s inspiration for Mr. Spock was largely drawn from Stoic philosophy. Typified by Greek thinkers Zeno and Epictetus, and by Romans like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, the Stoics taught that virtue meant finding your harmony with life’s changing fortunes. This was achieved by a blend of personal discipline and resignation. Full control of self was foundational to living well, but it wasn’t enough—letting go was just as vital. The Stoic worked to see reality as it is, do what is possible and release the impossible.
The Stoics, contrary to stereotype, did not look down upon the experience of feelings. All humans, of course, would feel love, grief and happiness in the course of life. But the philosophers were disturbed by the idea that once experienced, emotions might turn to “passion” (from the Greek, πάθος—“pathos”), a feeling that metastasized, growing until it took control of you.
Out of control, an emotion might lead you to a false belief or attempt to control something you couldn’t. This, cutting at the very root of what they considered virtue, was an unsettling prospect. In this most basic sense, the Stoics believed that “pathos” could unman a man.
Because of this danger, emotion was not to be encouraged. Had a time-traveling Marcus Aurelius tuned in to “The Naked Time,” one can imagine him cheering at Kirk’s line, perhaps spilling popcorn on his toga. “Yes!” he might shout at the TV. “We are better off without it!”
Where emotions are concerned, popular evangelical teaching today feels close to the Stoics. Emotions may be experienced, but they are deeply suspect, fundamentally flawed. Usually discussed in the context of decision-making, we’re gently (but firmly) told from pulpit and page, that emotions are no way to know truth, make choices or understand ourselves. Rather, it is reason (shaped by the teachings of God’s Word) that is the star Christians ought to steer their ships by.
I imagine Epictetus gathering his students to teach them the words of modern pop-Christian teacher Joyce Meyer: “Our feelings are unreliable and cannot be trusted to convey truth” (from the transparently titled Living Beyond Your Feelings: Controlling Emotions So They Don’t Control You). Or, I can picture Seneca on a marble tablet, retweeting popular Bible teacher Josh McDowell, who, in a June 2017 tweet (later deleted) emphasized the untrustworthiness of our “pesky feelings.”
This perspective is present in our broader Western culture, too. “Emotions are the slaves to your thoughts,” popular author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) writes, “and you are the slave to your emotions.” In this idea, humans are doubly enslaved—by mind and heart. The implication, of course, is to rebel and enslave the thoughts in turn—willing our way to control of self. War, slavery, conquest, control. Emotion—a traitor, and often an enemy.
In such mindsets, a sanctified Christian or a strong Westerner looks uncannily like Spock—finding virtue most possible to attain when emotion has been suppressed. It is not too blunt to say that in this view, Christian life is best lived when our feelings have been numbed.
But there’s a problem. Stoic philosophy is not Christianity. Missing from a low view of emotion is a full biblical vision of what feelings are, why we have them and which possibilities exist to know and serve God and others by growing in our emotional health. More dangerous, also missing from this view is a realistic sense of what happens when emotions are bundled out of sight. They may be ignored, laughed at or dismissed. But not without danger, and sometimes, a bitter cost.
Even for the leaders of the church.
Understanding the Burden
Marc Alan Schelske is teaching elder of Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon, located in an old brick building just off the main road through a quiet Portland suburb. Marc has served there for 20 years, through multiple congregational transitions. Founded during the split of another Portland congregation, Bridge City has seen its share of drama and trauma throughout the years. Two lead pastors left during the early years—one after a co-pastoring model failed to work effectively, the second after an affair that left a staff member pregnant and the church’s plan for restoration ignored.
Schelske, ministering as youth pastor and later in an associate role, found himself leading a church that was hurt and shaken. Being strong in crisis felt familiar, though—when Marc was a boy, his father had died and his mother was unable to cope. Marc had stepped into a role greater than his years. “I became the grown-up,” he remembers. “I had to be the strong one.”
But that “strength” came at a cost—one that nearly cost Marc his ministry, marriage and faith. Controlling his emotions (in the best of Stoic tradition) led him to a simmering exhaustion that reached a point of crisis. Roughly, mercifully, he describes the transition away from emotional control as being “jarred awake.”
In the introduction to his new book, The Wisdom of Your Heart: Discovering the God-Given Purpose and Power of Your Emotions (David C Cook, 2017), Marc writes:
I am 46 years old and deep into the most daunting transition of my life. I came to the end of my rope. The tools I built my life with no longer worked. I had been living disconnected from my emotions. Disconnected and afraid. Untended pain leaked out in my relationships. At times I’d see the edges of this darkness and be mortified. I’d want to change—at least I would as long as the pain lasted … Pain forced me to face what I wasn’t willing to look at on my own. God was in that pain.
Curious for more, I drove from my home near Portland to seek out this pastor with the leaky pain. We met on a hot day of early summer, the hum of lawn mowers chopping dry grass a block or two over.
“In the first five years of my leadership, it looked like everything was working,” Marc begins. “We had strong attendance, people involved in home groups, a nice-sized staff. But I was completely clueless that my way of leading was hurtful. It was easy to value the systems I was building over the people. I was concerned more with logistics, mission and a good experience for people than the true health of my congregation, staff or myself.”
“What was happening in you?” I ask.
“I was pedaling as hard as I could. I only found personal affirmation when church ‘worked.’ This is a sick place for a pastor to end up: If performance is where you get your value, the church becomes an extension of you. It was easy for me to say, ‘Things are this way because they serve our mission.’ But that was code for, ‘Things are this way because I can control them.’ Life had taught me that the way you avoid pain for yourself or others is to make sure everything happens in a predictable, controlled fashion. I unconsciously covered all this with high-powered, ‘we’re on mission together’ language.”
Things looked like they were going well at Bridge City. People who attended had a great experience. “Great worship,” Marc comments. “Great teaching. Great home groups. But our volunteers and staff were bearing a burden that I didn’t really understand.”
“Because I didn’t understand my own burden.”
Like a kettle that nears boiling before even hinting at a whistle, Marc’s burnout took time. But the burden did not become lighter, and his ability to carry it soon wasn’t enough. “I began to get incapacitated. I had noticed a pattern for a while—exhaustion in my staff, tension with my wife. But I read danger signals in myself as everyone else’s fault. ‘They’re tired.’ ‘They don’t get the vision.’ ‘This is a season for them to step out of ministry.’ I justified myself. I didn’t ask the ‘why’ questions.”
He goes on, “I wasn’t paying attention to my internal state at all. I went through some variation of the same conflict with my wife a few times a year. ‘Things are really busy,’ she’d observe. ‘I’m not seeing you very much right now. This is not the way I want to live my life—what’s going on?’ My answer was always some version of the same excuse: ‘It’s just this one thing. Right now we’re in the middle of this big program, this big launch, this big … whatever. When this one thing is over, then I’ll be able to scale back.’ Sometimes my response was gentle, sometimes it was angry, sometimes crying, but I always heard her in a way that judged her. I’m working 80 hours a week supporting us! This is ministry! Come on, this is my calling! Why are you creating discomfort for me around doing my calling? Just stop it. I was able to lie to myself this way until we had kids. Then the lie that I had margin in my life was revealed.”
When Marc’s pace finally couldn’t support what was needed, life began to crack. He’d return from too-long days in the church office to a wife with bloodshot eyes and a wailing infant. “My value came from performance. My performance crumbled, and my value crumbled with it.”
At one point, a key leader in the church came to Marc. It was obvious she was nervous about the meeting. “‘I love and respect you,’ she said, ‘but it’s obvious that you are the bottleneck for this church. I don’t know if I can continue to work with you.’ Even then, though, I couldn’t really hear her,” he says. “In my mind, I responded with the old script: I’m responsible for the vision. My job is to defend the mission of the church. If I say yes to everything, I can’t be faithful to what God’s called me to do.”
Marc laughs a little. “All the right words, right?” I nod. “But at some point you hear yourself say the same justifications so much you know you’re lying. My spiritual life was shot. I wasn’t trying to be fake, but I couldn’t not be OK. I was spiraling. I couldn’t even recognize how deeply this was impacting me, or how dark my internal life had become.”