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Emotional Check Engine Lights

Have you ever been driving down the road and the check engine light comes on in your vehicle? It's an unsettling sight, isn't it? At the same time, isn't it nice that your car, for the most part, will alert you to a potential problem? Imagine if that wasn't part of the design, any problems that lie under the hood could sneak up on you suddenly and leave you stranded on the side of the road.

Negative emotions are much like check engine lights. The term "negative" does not mean that these are emotions are bad or that we shouldn't have them. Rather, it simply means that these are emotions that we'd prefer not to have or to avoid whenever possible. They aren't the "feel good" kind of emotions like happiness, joy, ecstasy, contentment, or peace. When we experience sadness or depression, fear or anxiety, we want those emotions to pass as quickly as possible.

In my practice, I encounter all kinds of emotions, most of them being of the negative variety. Folks don't generally seek counseling when they feel good. I like to share the analogy that these emotions are basically God's "check engine lights" for our soul. When emotions like sadness, anger, or fear rise up in us, they are alerting us to an issue that is amiss. They are attempting to signal to our brains that we need to at least pull over and "look under the hood" or find a mechanic to help figure out what the problem is. This is commonly understood in the medical community and by people in general when it comes to physical pain. We all understand that when we feel physical pain, it's our body's way of alerting us that something is wrong. And just like negative emotions, sometimes people choose to ignore the symptoms of what may be signaling a more serious underlying condition.

I try to teach clients to become an objective observer to their emotions. To learn how to recognize when a negative emotion is rising up and to take the time to explore where it's coming from. There are two main sources from which emotions get triggered, from within or from without. We may witness an event that would stir up anger or sadness in us, it may be something we cannot control. At the same time, our own thinking can trigger a negative emotion. Regardless of the source, when a negative emotion surfaces and your check engine light is blinking, it's important to stop and look under the hood.


Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you (Psalm 55:22a)


How do we go about "looking under the hood?" Just as Psalm 55:22 says, we need to take our emotions to God. When our check engine lights are blinking in the form of anger, anxiety, or sadness, our first response needs to be communicating these emotions to God.

Communicating with God---that's all prayer really is. We don't have to be all cleaned up first. We don't need any special words or rehearsed verses. We need to be real. We need to be raw. If you can't think of any words, that's ok too. Sometimes, all we can do is cry, but let your cry be on bended knees, intentionally in His presence. Sometimes, the only words we can muster are "God help me!" Ultimately, our check engine lights act as a beacon for the Lord's calling us to Himself.

However, all too often, when our check engine lights come on, we just keep right on driving. We hope the light will shut off on it's own and go away. Or worse, we do things to cover up or drown out the warning signals, like burying them with drugs, alcohol, work, and inappropriate sexual experiences. All of which, ironically lead to more check engine lights. We may even become complacent to the wicked companion of anger or anxiety and simply accept the lie that we're cursed with that emotional condition. Yet, if we run to God, He promises to bring us to a place of peace.


God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)


I encourage you to begin to pay attention to your check engine lights. You were designed to have them, and although they don't "feel" good, they serve a good purpose. God is the Master Mechanic of our souls. Since He's the designer, He's the only qualified expert in repairing what's broken. All things, when placed in the hands of God, are transformed into something beautiful (Romans 8:28, Isaiah 61:3).

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