Do Christians Carry More Emotional Stress Than Non-Christians?
Do Christians carry more emotional stress than non-Christians? It’s a good question from Amanda, a 24-year-old listener to the podcast who writes in. “Pastor John, thank you for this podcast. Do you think Christians feel more than unbelievers? Before I became a Christian my life was challenging of course, but I almost seemed to be ‘numb’ or ‘uncaring’ towards sin. Upon becoming a Christian, and as I continue to learn more about the faith, I’m finding my emotions growing stronger and stronger.
“Right now I’m walking through a season of loneliness because I no longer date unbelievers. Now I feel like I have almost too much empathy because others’ pain and troubles bring me to tears. My chest becomes heavy and my soul aches as I wrestle through so many life questions.
“I guess you could say God is ‘molding’ me, which I’m eternally grateful for, but it has taken a toll on me, too. I’ve been encouraged to hear that a number of great Christians experienced great emotional stress and struggle (even David in the Psalms), but it is almost paralyzing for me at times. Is this normal? As Christians we’re called to have faith, confidence in Christ, and be filled with a joyful spirit, but now I find my spirit to be heavy. I guess you could say my prayer life lately sounds like Psalm 88.” Pastor John, how would you counsel Amanda?
Well, this is a wonderful question to receive. I don’t mean that Amanda’s heaviness is wonderful in itself, but oh my, what a refreshing problem to wrestle with.
A Wonderful Problem
The first thing I want to do is give her a big hug and say, “You are a walking miracle. Do you realize how many millions of twentysomethings are so wrapped up in their private worlds that almost all they do is think about how they look or how they sound to others, and whether anyone likes them or thinks they’re cool? Here you are struggling to keep your spiritual nose above water because of the wake of empathy you feel for the suffering of others around you. Forgive me if this sounds wonderful.”
“The emotional life of the new creation in Christ is of a different order than what the world experiences.”
First a word about her lead question. She says, “Do you think Christians feel more than unbelievers?” Well, if we only talk about natural feelings, the answer is that it will vary from person to person. Some unbelievers will feel more than some believers and some believers will feel more than some unbelievers.
If you’re talking about spiritual feelings, the kind that only the Holy Spirit can awaken, then it is true that believers in Jesus will feel more than unbelievers. Unbelievers don’t feel any of these. These feelings are a miracle produced by the Spirit of God. That’s why I said, “Amanda, you’re a walking miracle.”
When we are born again, the Spirit gives life to our hearts — a life that was not there before. We have new life, and we see Christ and his word and his world differently. Therefore, we feel Christ and his word and his world differently.
Many of these new feelings will overlap with natural feelings in their appearance, and to the world outside they will be virtually indistinguishable. They’ll think that your joy over the beauty of a starlit sky and your sorrow over the loss of life in a natural disaster are simply the same sort of feelings they have from time to time.
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They can’t see how these feelings are spiritually new. They don’t know how they are profoundly of a different nature than their emotions because your emotions are now connected with Christ, and others’ salvation, eternity, and holiness. They’re rooted in the Holy Spirit. They have no categories for grasping what you feel. The emotional life of the new creation in Christ is of a different order than what the world experiences.
Let me say a word, Amanda, about your particular challenge of feeling almost paralyzed by the physical oppression from the burdens of these sorrows that other people’s sufferings are causing you. It seems to me from the Bible that two things are crucial.
“Christians are to take on the suffering of others in a way that we never did when we were not Christians.”
First, your new sensitivity is a good and necessary part of what it means to be a new creation in Christ. First Peter 3:8 says, “All of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” We are to have a tender heart that feels sympathy for others.
Paul calls us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). In Romans 9:3, Paul expresses that he feels unceasing anguish in his heart for his perishing relatives. In Galatians 6:2, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens.”
So yes, Christians are to take on the suffering of others in a way that we never did when we were not Christians. We are to take them for the sake of helping others. We don’t just sink down with people in their sorrow. Love does not just go down with others. It’s willing to, but it wants to feel with others so that we can help them survive and flourish, which leads now to the second crucial thing we have to consider.
Graces That Grow Together
Mature growth in grace means that interdependent graces must grow together. I know that’s probably too vague for anybody to grasp. Let me say it again, then explain it with an analogy. Mature Christian growth — which is what I think is needed in Amanda here — means that interdependent graces must grow together.
He’s an analogy. One of the problems with growing tomatoes is that the tomatoes are — at least in my experience; I’m a lousy tomato grower — often too heavy for the branches to support, so they bend down, lie on the ground, and rot.
It seems to me that’s what Amanda is experiencing. The wonderful tomato of empathy — a beautiful, red, juicy tomato of empathy has grown in Amanda’s life. But it has grown faster than the stalk and the branch of doctrinally informed faith to support it — faith that can sustain the weight of being bent down to the ground so that nothing rots in the Christian life.
That big beautiful tomato of empathy, therefore, in Amanda’s life, is threatening to lie on the ground and be ruined. That’s what she’s documenting — “I’m being ruined by this paralysis of empathy.”
Strengthen the Root
My simple counsel, Amanda, is that you set your heart and your mind to pursue the kind of growth and strength that would enable you to support, by faith, what God is doing in your heart. You need the strong fiber of God’s wisdom and sovereignty and goodness in the root, stalk, and branches of your life. This way you have the firmness to hold up the emotions that you feel, and they don’t crush you.
“Doctrinal knowledge and experiential grace need to grow together.”
Here’s what I have in mind. Second Peter 3:18 says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Both knowledge and grace. They need to grow together. They are interdependent, and they need to grow together. Doctrinal knowledge and experiential grace need to grow together.
Amanda, be glad. Be glad that your heart is graciously tender, and seek to add the tough fiber of doctrinal knowledge and truth to the branches of your life. God does not mean for you to be paralyzed by your empathy or your sympathy or your intense feelings of affection and love. He means for it to produce the action of love, not the inactivity of oppression. This is what the revelation of his fullness is for in the Bible. He will do it.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary