When I was heading to Memphis for the recent Gospel Fluency of the Heart training, I happened to throw Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in my bag. I didn’t realize its relevance to the subject at hand—the gospel and our hearts (or emotions)—until I read the first chapter.
O’Brien’s lists of the physical objects these soldiers carry through the jungles of Vietnam are metaphoric for the “emotional baggage”—the “grief, terror, love, longing,” the “intangibles [with] their own mass and specific gravity”—that dominates their thoughts, though perhaps unconsciously, and directs their actions (20). The story of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross illustrates this most clearly. He carries love letters from a girl named Martha and spends much of his time thinking about her. He imagines being buried with her in the sand when one of his men is shot in the head. Overwhelmed by guilt, fear, and shame, he leads his men into a village. They burn everything. And he burns the letters. But he is unable to “burn the blame” (22). Instead, he decides to “dispense with love,” accepting “his obligation was not to be loved but to lead” (25).
Like O’Brien’s characters, we carry around all that we can bear. We have “emotional baggage” tied to our stories and memories. The things we want to overcome. The things we want to compensate for. The things we want to forget.
The things we carry dictate our lives. We rage at our children when they talk back because we fear who they will become and what that will make us. We give people the silent treatment or thrash them with our words when they hurt us because we don’t want to get hurt again. We condemn ourselves to doing five good things after we aren’t the something somebody else needed us to be because of the guilt and shame weighing us down.
But Jesus asks us to carry a cross. And it’s at the cross where the things we carry intersect with the good news of who He is, where the things we carry are redeemed.
Passions at War
O’Brien tells the story of the wars that arise in men’s souls as they live the horrors of war, and Scripture tells the same story. James 4:1 asks, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”
We could substitute “passions” with our eight core emotions: hurt, loneliness, sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, and gladness. These passions represent our needs, which James 4:2 refers to as desires. These needs/desires aren’t dangerous in and of themselves. They are dangerous when we “ask wrongly, to spend it on [our own] passions”(James 4:3). They are dangerous when we don’t bring them to a God “‘who yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’” (James 4:5).
James states that we do not have because we do not ask. We choose friendship with the world over friendship with God. Based on a Tin Man Ministries’ feelings resource, trying to meet our needs somewhere else leads to impairment, while going to God as the Supplier and Sustainer of all things, allows us to receive the gifts of God. It is in the drawing near, the humbling of ourselves, that our needs are met.
James 4:9 calls us to “[b]e wretched and mourn and weep.” That’s not a call to hide or deny our emotions. It is also not a call to be toppled or drowned by our emotions. It is a call to be fully present with God, fully human, depending on Him to be fully God. His grace meets us in our need. It’s abundant in our need. And it’s in our need that we are exalted.
The Cross He Carried
Like many writers before him, O’Brien writes Lieutenant Jimmy Cross as a Christ-figure. He has the initials J. C. and the last name Cross. He “humped his love” up a hill (3). He sacrifices something precious—his letters—and he carries the burdens of his men.
But Jesus is more. He carried the cross, took on our guilt. He sacrificed Himself. With His body and blood, He paid the price. Now all our sins are covered.
And He calls us to something more. He calls us to take up a cross and follow Him, to lose our lives so that He may save our lives (Mark 8:34-35). To our Enlightenment-influenced ears, this may sound like a command to beat down our feelings, but it isn’t. Jesus didn’t beat His feelings. He was the God-Man who fully felt every emotion on His way to the cross. Those feelings also came with physical expressions. He wept. He prayed. He remained silent. He cried out in a loud voice.
In Mark 8:36, Jesus asks, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” We could equate this forfeiture of soul with a forfeiture of feelings, but that’s not what our Father in heaven wants for us. He wants us to love Him with all our hearts, souls, and minds. He wants us to offer up our whole being to Him, to lay down the old self with its misguided passions and put on the new self that has a heart like His.
We cannot discredit all this feelings stuff as pure malarky no matter how woo-woo it seems to our logical minds. We serve a God who has given us emotions that show us our need for the gospel and a gospel that speaks to our emotions.
The call to take up the cross is a call to carry our hearts to Jesus.