We were on our way to Dairy Queen to get a treat when I asked ten-year-old Clay what he wanted. “That chocolate thing,” he said. At the drive thru, I ordered a chocolate dipped cone for him. “That’s not what I want,” he hissed from the passenger seat. “I want a cookie dough blizzard.” While the cookie dough blizzard has chocolate chips, I didn’t think it qualified as “that chocolate thing.” I changed the order, and as we waited, I asked, “Why did you describe what you wanted like that?” Sounding a bit exasperated, Clay replied, “I didn’t know how to express it.”
I smiled at Clay’s way of expressing himself in that moment. Then, I started wondering about the kernel of truth in Clay’s statement. Lacking the ability to express ourselves is confusing and frustrating to the one trying to express himself and the one trying to understand. Unfortunately, it is not limited to childhood. In theory, we should know better how to express ourselves as we get older, but this is not always the case.
Life gets complicated, and we don’t always know exactly how we feel. That is, if we are willing to feel the emotions in the first place. Many of us spend a lot of time avoiding our emotions at all costs. We don’t want to experience anger, frustration, sadness, or unhappiness, so we pretend that everything is fine even when it’s not. If we are brave enough to feel our emotions, especially the negative ones, we still may not be able to find the words to describe those emotions or label the roots of discontent.
This inability can lead to aggravation on our part and for those around us. My teenage daughter Riley has called me out in the past when I’ve snapped at her for a minor infraction that didn’t rise to the level of my reaction. She’ll say, “You’re mad about something else.” Then, I have to confess that she’s right along with an apology. Something else has upset me, but instead of expressing that accurately, I take my anger out on someone else. If only we could be honest with ourselves and others when we don’t know how to express ourselves. We might save ourselves a lot of heartache and miscommunication. Saying, “I’m having a hard time, but I don’t know why,” could go a long way to easing tension inside of our own heads and in our relationships.
Thankfully, God does not need us to communicate with crystal clarity with him. One of my favorite passages in the Bible says, “God’s Spirit is right alongside us helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves . . .” Romans 8:26-28 (MSG). God does not require us to know exactly what emotions we are feeling, where they came from, or what they mean before we ask him for help. When we feel overwhelmed by emotions, we can simply sigh or groan, vent or cry, and he understands. We may not understand our own emotions, but he does. God is present with us in the swirl of emotions, shame, and guilt, even when we feel we are in an endless downward spiral.
And maybe, if we seek God’s help when we feel unable to express our emotions, he will give us guidance on how to adequately express ourselves to others who can help us in our daily lives. God gives us family, friends, and community to surround us and hold us up when we feel we are drowning in emotions that threaten to drag us under. The willingness to ask for help, even if we don’t know what we need, is brave and a sign of strength.
Clay’s willingness to confess that he didn’t know how to express himself was a mature analysis for a kid, even if he was talking about ice cream. Words may escape us at times, but it’s okay to be open and honest and admit our failure to find the right words. God will help us when we are lost and help us find the people who will stand with us as we find our way.