I spent a few years living in Nashville, and let me tell you, the traffic was bad. I rarely took the regular roads, I always got onto the extensive highway system that went around and throughout the city in order to bypass the traffic on the regular road system. Even to go half a mile up the road, I used the highway. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but in the car it saved me a lot of time. That half mile could easily take a half hour or more depending on the time of day.
I think sometimes I do that with my emotions. I’m confronted with something about myself or someone else that is upsetting, but I’m busy and in too much of a hurry to take time to deal with it properly. So instead I build little bypasses in my heart to get above the upset and keep moving.
The problem is, if I do that more than once, the bypasses get established and I end up using that every day, for every emotion. The longer I live in bypass-mode, the more I forget how to deal with my actual emotions. Maybe even forgetting how to identify and name them.
The un-dealt with emotions turn into a nameless gridlock that threatens to take over the safety of my bypass system. Everything and everyone who stirs this unknown threat becomes a part of the threat and a part of the problem. Triggering new emotions that get pushed off the bypass and down into the gridlock below, making it that much more of a mess.
Perhaps I’m being too abstract. Emotions are not road infrastructure. But I think it’s a good picture for the way emotions get treated sometimes. I spent a long time creating little and big ways to get around feeling upset, a long time living like that, and a long time taking it all apart and going back to feeling what I’m feeling. It’s messy and confusing, so I like to have pictures to keep it straight.
I know I’m not alone in handling upset and strong emotions in unhealthy ways. It’s all over the bible too. Take King Saul in 1 Samuel. He was the first king of Israel, anointed by Samuel himself. Saul was handsome, well liked, and had the favor of the LORD on his life. Yet, when he was confronted with his own failures he tended to find a bypass around the pain of it.
Shortly after becoming king, Saul goes to war with the Amalekites. God told him, through the prophetic voice of Samuel, to destroy everyone and everything, valuable or not. God didn’t want Saul to take anything tied to the wickedness of the Amalekites back to Israel, His holy people. But Saul disobeyed. He kept King Agag and the best of the livestock and the plunder.
When Samuel came to meet him after the battle was won he asked Saul why he disobeyed the instruction of the LORD. Saul bypassed the shame of his decision by throwing blame on his men, “They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.” (1 Sam. 15:15 NKJV emphasis added) Rather than own up to his mistake and process the pain and what was behind his actions he blamed. He sort of tried to make them look good by saying they did it for the sake of an offering to God. But he only took credit and said “we” when it came to the actual obedience, so I think he knew what God really wanted, more than a rich offering on the altar.
Samuel tried to call him out on this verbal side step and reminded him of what God had said before the battle, he even pointed out the insecurity that may have been behind Saul’s decisions. “When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the LORD anoint you king over Israel? Now the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then, did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the LORD?” (1 Sam. 15:17-19 NKJV) Samuel pointed out that Saul did not think much of himself, but God saw something in him and made him king. That same God gave him a mission, and rather than rise to the identity God was calling him into, he stuck to his insecurity and did what was popular. But it was an act of disobedience, so it was “evil in the sight of the LORD.”
The sacrifice itself was not bad, it was the source of the offering that was an issue. It was the heart behind the offering that was not right. Saul couldn’t own this, it probably hurt his low self-esteem too much. So he stuck to his story, “But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” (1 Sam. 15:21 NKJV) He admitted that the sacrifice should have been destroyed in battle and not in sacrifice, but he still held that it was the men with him who disobeyed God, not him.
Because Saul tried to bypass his pain and justify his actions through blame, instead of just saying, “Yeah, I was feeling insecure so I did what all the other kings around do in battle. I kept the defeated king and the plunder. I was wrong.” So Samuel goes on to tell Saul that God doesn’t delight in burnt offerings, but the heart behind them. That obedience is a better sacrifice than the ritual of sacrifice. He says that rebellion is as bad as witchcraft and stubbornness as bad as idolatry, and because Saul rejected God’s word, He has rejected Saul.
At last Saul breaks, “Then Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Sam. 15:24 NKJV) He asks Samuel to forgive him and get God to pardon him too, but Samuel refuses. They go back and forth a bit over this, until Saul tries to justify himself again and Samuel goes and kills King Agag himself to fulfill the word of the LORD.
From this point on the book of 1 Samuel is about David, the man God chooses to replace Saul as king. God says that David has a heart after His own. After David is anointed in chapter 16, we only see Saul in his relationship to David. Every time we see Saul, he is still stuck in insecurity and an inability to process his feelings. It is always someone else’s fault that he didn’t follow through, or plans fell through. His bypass pattern was set after that day at Gilgal. Saul’s actions escalate in evil and violence until he meets his end in a battle with the Philistines in Chapter 31.
All this to say that emotional bypasses seem like a quick and easy fix for pain and upset, but it’s a dangerous business. The more set a bypass system becomes the more disconnected we become with our actual heart and it’s actual state. The longer we try to avoid the pain the more it threatens the bypass system. Until what we created to serve us starts to rule us; and we begin to serve it, going to further and further lengths to protect the narrative of the bypass system.
The good news is, there is a way to get off the bypass, and reconnect with our hearts. Jesus came to break the power of sin, and take down the strongholds of the enemy, including emotional bypass systems. Since He is Immanuel, God with us, we can be sure that He will walk with us every step of the way.
Every emotion I enter when I leave the bypass system, is felt by me and Jesus. Every moment spent in grieving the hurts of old, every anger and injustice named and expressed, every lie pulling the strings of decisions exposed, He is there. I do this by taking my emotions to Jesus in prayer. Whenever I find an old bypass system, I repent immediately. I don’t want its destructive work in my heart anymore.
I may have spent a good chunk of my life like Saul, but because of Jesus, I don’t have to stay in that pattern. I can turn my heart to Jesus, and allow His word and commandments to reform it into a heart after God’s own heart. I can start like Saul, but I can finish like David.