Editor’s note: This excerpt is from Embrace Your Life by Elizabeth Woodson (B&H Publishing, 2022) and is posted with permission.

Our daily temptations toward emotional escapism will not disappear. We will continue to be bombarded with insufficient and temporary options for relief that are imposters of joy. We also have to remember that we have been significantly influenced by our environment (family of origin, friends, faith community, education, work, and the cultural currents of the world around us). Even seemingly inconsequential things are forming us on the inside, whether that be the social media posts we scroll through every day or space we work in or the neighbors we chat with every time we take our dog on a walk. This means that our default responses to difficulty are the outworking of the ways in which we have been shaped by those around us. So, our pathway of healing requires that we be honest with ourselves, an honesty that assesses how we’re handling the hardships of life. It’s in this place of vulnerability and transparency that we’re able to uncover the lies and misplaced motivations directing our choices.

I believe this honesty best comes when we take the time to consider how we have allowed idols to capture our affections. Using the practice of self-examination, we can see the ways in which we’ve chosen the path of emotional escapism, and realign our hearts to the truth of God’s Word. Over the years, the following three questions have helped me to dig deep into the roots of my motivations and better understand the idols I’ve looked to for joy.

Question #1: What am I feeling? 

The relationship between Christianity and emotions tends to be a bit interesting. For most, we can have a tendency to overemphasize or underemphasize our emotions. Some of us are discipled to believe that our emotional experience with God is the central point of our faith, while others are taught that our emotions are to be suppressed. Using the practice of self-examination, we can see the ways in which we've chosen the path of emotional escapism, and realign our hearts to the truth of God’s Word. Click To Tweet

Perhaps you grew up on the emotional suppression side of the spectrum. If so, you likely see emotions as irrational, annoying, untrustworthy, or even dangerous. For you, emotions are more of a distraction than an essential part of your humanity, naturally leading you to minimize your negative emotions. As J. Alsadair Groves and Winston T. Smith write in their book, Untangling Emotions, “The driving theological idea here is that negative emotions are inappropriate, given God’s sovereignty. If God ordained this suffering to happen and he works all things for good, then the only reason to feel bad is if you don’t have enough faith . . . however, [this] misses that emotions are a God-given gift, an aid in obedience, a constant source for connection with the Lord, and a vital source of information about the deeper problems of our hearts.”

In learning to gloss over our deep disappointments with Christianese, we’ve made our sorrow and godliness mutually exclusive. But as we read through Scripture, faith and sorrow are inextricably connected. Through the stories of the people of God, especially in the Psalms, we see that it’s okay to not be okay. But we also see encouragement to bring our brokenness before the Lord.

Therefore, with this first question I encourage you to both name your emotions and validate the freedom you have to feel them. Be as specific as you can. If you feel unsure of what words to use, try some online resources like “the feelings wheel”—these are very helpful in giving you a bigger vocabulary to describe the emotions you may be experiencing.

Question #2: What happened? 

After identifying the specific emotion I’m experiencing, this question allows me to pause and think through what might have happened that is causing the emotions I’m feeling. There is always a triggering event that leads us to turn to our default habits of emotional avoidance for refuge. My emotional escapism has been triggered by all sorts of things! It might have been a critical comment from a social media post or the selfishness of a friend. It has also been my grandmother’s cancer diagnosis or the suicide of an old roommate. Anything, whether big or small, can be a triggering event. By uncovering the patterns of our emotional escapism, we ultimately reveal the way in which we have placed our hope for salvation in ourselves (or something else) instead of God. Click To Tweet

This question also helps you to see how the event of the moment might be reminding you of a deeper emotional wound. The dishonesty of a spouse hits differently when that spouse has been unfaithful in the marriage. It’s as if we are experiencing the original wound all over again. So, by noting the connection, we’re able to gain clarity about our emotions but also notice the ways in which we’re running away from them.

 Question #3: Am I avoiding my pain? If so, how? 

This is where you keep it real with yourself! Be honest about what you may be using or doing to avoid feeling the emotions you identified. Have you been doing a bit more shopping, getting more Amazon deliveries than normal? Or maybe you emotionally shut down every time you have to talk with a certain person or talk about a certain event? Perhaps you’ve been reaching for the fridge or the phone or the bottle or the ex-boyfriend’s number you swore you wouldn’t text again?

Resist any shame or embarrassment you might feel. Remember, our emotional escapism is our attempt to survive, and more than that, Christ has taken away our shame—past, present, and future! So, how are you trying to live in the midst of prolonged difficulty?

By uncovering the patterns of our emotional escapism, we ultimately reveal the way in which we have placed our hope for salvation in ourselves (or something else) instead of God. As I’ve said before, the gospel does not only have implications for eternity, but it has implications for our life now. The good news of salvation through Jesus Christ means that we’re invited into eternal relationship with God. In this relationship we have the privilege of experiencing the presence of God in our life. We experience his compassion, power, wisdom, healing, provision, and deliverance. When the emotional weight of life is too heavy to carry, God is there to help, to bear the weight for us. The good news of salvation through Jesus Christ means that we're invited into eternal relationship with God. Click To Tweet

But in order to experience his assistance we have to turn from the idols we have put in his place—we have to name our functional, false saviors and go running back home to the real one. This is why I usually end my time of self-examination in prayer. After having my heart motivations uncovered and brought into the light of the gospel, I am compelled to confess my idolatry to the Lord and repent. I am also compelled to ask for help because it is only in this place of surrender we are able to truly embrace the pain we have been running from.

Elizabeth Woodson
Written by: Elizabeth Woodson on March 30, 2022

Elizabeth Woodson is a Bible teacher and author who is passionate about equipping believers to understand the rich theological truths of Scripture. She is the author of Embrace Your Life: How to Find Joy When the Life You Have Is Not the Life You Hoped For, and a contributing author for World on Fire: Walking in the Wisdom of Christ When Everyone’s Fighting About Everything. Elizabeth graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with a master’s in Christian education.