I could start this out by saying, “I was having trouble with friends because they were acting difficult,” but that wouldn’t be the deep truth. What I was actually having trouble with is more difficult to admit. I was having trouble with my feelings about friends, people I interacted with on social media, and acquaintances. The even deeper truth is I was having trouble wanting to be around lifelong friend, questioning their morality, and avoiding them, because I was nursing a deep annoyance and anger. It was also hard for me to listen to anything they said and think they had any wisdom at all simply because of things they said about others and choices they made. And to add to it further I was stuck here in my righteous anger.
Then one day I caught myself thinking something appalling, “I will never forgive them if anything bad happens to my family because of their choices.” The details aren’t important but sirens went off inside my head as I felt a pain in my heart. I was appalled at how much anger I had cooked up into what seemed like a beautiful dinner of righteous anger, but was really a rotten pile of slop.
Part of the problem was how I saw the situation. The other part of the problem was that they actually were supporting negativity and prejudice, so my anger and upset felt righteous. I felt strong and righteous judging people who supported judgement and hatred. It was hard to think myself out of it and it was affecting my physical health, so I turned to a tool called Theological Reflection. This tool can be helpful when we want to consciously bring our feeling, behavior, and beliefs more in line with the Christianity we profess. (Or any religion you profess.) It acknowledges, that without reflection, a fairly large percentage of our feelings, behavior, and beliefs are inherited or learned without actually deciding what we believe and how we want to feel and act.
Here’s how the process of Theological Reflection looks:
1. Select a situation you are struggling with emotionally. Acknowledge the feeling and analyzing it. Allow yourself to go beyond the stance of it being another person’s problem. Look deeper into the issue. Where is the feeling in your body? How would you describe this feeling? Recreate and re-experience it and discover how it feels.
2. Often as you describe the feeling an image will come up for you. One thing to listen for as you describe how it feels is the use of language that is similar to common idioms, for example, she went behind my back. If you don’t get an image that relates to the feeling and issue, pray for one. We are an image making people so many images will come. Wait for the one that gives you an ah ha moment.
3. Take that image and kneed it. Question it. How does it feel to live inside that image? What is hopeful about that image? What is discouraging about the image?
4. Now think of Christian traditions that relate to this imagine or situation? This is a brainstorm of all the scripture you can think of related to this incidence. These can include Christian tradition of behavior, songs, words of wisdom, scripture, religious speakers, other books, and nature.
5. Finally wrestle with how your image you got in step 2 relates to the Christian tradition that you got in step 4. Where are they in conflict? Where do they line up with each other? Can they live peacefully together? This answers the question: are your beliefs, behavior, and feelings in line with what you believe.
At this point the process may seem very confusing and not worth the effort. Let me assure you it is. I will demonstrate how it works on a specific instance to make the process more clear.
Select a Situation, Feel Where it is in my Body, and Describe the Feeling (Question 1)
Situation: Angry and distant with friends.
What does it feel like in my body when I feel this anger at people? The anger feels like a blocking out of people. A building pain in my chest. A constriction of my chest. A tightness in my jaw.
Images Related to the Experience (Question 2)
I realize this may be a bit strange for some people, but we are at our base creative people. Start with the feelings and how they might translate to an image and give yourself free rein until you hit on something that feel like the right image to work with. Notice when you say things that are idioms. They often have some truth in them because they help us translate feelings into images.
Here is my image process: My anger feels like a wall. A shield against certain people. A denial of their humanity. A raising of me and a lowering of them in my imagination. A blocking them out. A turning my back not acceptance a part of who they are. Rejection of the whole person or rather a making one small part of them bigger than it is. Instead of a scarlet letter “A” for adulterous, it’s like putting a large weighted letter around their neck. “P” for prejudice or “E” for evil. It’s me putting those weights on them. (Please be aware that the images didn’t come as quickly as they are written. This took about 10 minutes.) When the last image comes up I feel how right it is. I am putting a scarlet letter on them.
Take the Image and Question It (Question 3)
Take one of the image and kneed it. Ask it questions. How does it feel doing that to people? What is hopeful about it? What is broken about it? Is there any possibility for healing that is present in this image? How does it feel living inside the place where I am putting a scarlet letter on people?
In one sense it feels good because it make me feel superior. But the weight of doing that continually is a big responsibility, something I am not capable of judging. At a certain point it means that I’ve judged everyone as not worthy of hanging out with for one reason or another. I also feel how wrong it is as this image comes up. It feels like I am not living in a way that I know deep down is the Christian way to live. So when I imagine how it feels to be living in that image it requires me to turn my back on what I know is correct in order to nurse my righteous anger. I am choosing anger over righteousness. The opportunities in this image is to not but scarlet letters on people.
Christian Traditions that Relate (Question 4)
The wealth of knowledge related to the forgiveness topic is a long list. I will not list everything here but it include Jesus saying on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” and multiple scriptures related to not judging and forgiving.
Wrestling with my image and the Christian tradition and how they fit together (Question 5)
Putting a scarlet letter on people and the Christian tradition are in direct conflict with each other. This realization is both painful and freeing. Jesus goes around taking off labels: the Samaritan woman, the woman at the well, and Zacchaeus just to name a few. Why I am putting labels back onto people? I should be helping him to take off labels whatever and wherever they are. This revelation is key to me and having the image in my pocket helps me to actual live out what I profess as a Christian. When I come into a situation where I begin to label someone, I imagine myself putting a scarlet letter on someone and I stop, take a few breaths, and asks for God’s help not to judge this person.
When doing theological reflection it is important to pray for direction throughout the steps. The process has been very helpful for me in looking at different aspects of my personality, my common behavior and unconscious beliefs and habits. I have come to the realization that so much of what I do and feel is only an unexamined pattern of behavior. These habits need to, through the process of theological reflection, be brought into the light of God’s love and challenged. This is the process of theological reflection in a nutshell. Try it on your own to help yourself with a seemingly stuck emotional issue. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions. I get a lot of email so put Theological Reflection Questions in the subject field.
Recommended book on the subject: The Art of Theological Reflection by Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer