We are sitting at Turner Field in Atlanta, watching the Braves take on the Washington Nationals. A batter steps up to the plate, a lanky left-hander, tightly circling his bat. Two nights earlier he hit two home runs out of four times at the plate. Atlanta’s best pitcher eyes him over the rim of his glove, then winds up and throws. The batter pops it up impossibly, third-deck high. We let out a whoop. And everyone around us turns and stares.
We are cheering for Adam LaRoche, son of one of my best friends and first baseman for Washington, surrounded by Brave fans who don’t take too kindly to our enthusiasm. There aren’t hardly any Nats fans in the players’ friends and family section so our cheers for the enemy come off really flagrant. When the Braves bat next they cheer the hits loudlyand smile at us. Or maybe “smirk” is a better word.
Part of the fun of cheering at a game is being swept up in the shared excitement. Doing the tomahawk chop with thousands upon thousands of empathizing others. We always have fun cheering for Adam, but our tiny band is on our own. Our energy and excitement is the sum of six parts. Not multiplied by tens of thousands more.
Emotions truly are contagious. The more people cheer in a stadium the more exciting it feels. The more the energy builds upon itself. It’s the same with worship. Somehow the added energy of thousands of voices raised in praise lifts my heart to the throne room higher and faster. When our former church divided from one service into two the energy in worship really took a hit.
Intuitively we know that joy and sorrow, fear and excitement are contagious. Our challenge is, how will we infect others? How can we be emotionally contagious yet authentic? How can we engage others without playing upon people’s emotions in an underhanded way to unfair or selfish advantage?
First, since emotions are contagious, we are mindful that our listeners will feel what we feel. If we are excited, they will be too. I had a principal back in my teaching days who looked at the faculty and said, “People, I love to get up in the morning and come to work.” So simple, yet it made me excited to come to work too. If you feel fear or nervousness, people will feel uncomfortable with you. If you are emotionally flat people will feel that as well. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22).
This is pretty basic yet overlooked all the time. You can influence the emotional thermostat of people around you. For better or worse. This is so important in today’s postmodern culture; people want to be engaged emotionally as well as intellectually. They are not as interested in simply knowing what you know. They want to experience what you’ve experienced.
So, when you are communicating with others, especially about Jesus, do a heart check. When it comes to your experience of him and his Word, what are you experiencing emotionally?
David’s heart, a heart that God loves, was emotionally rich—awestruck, desperate, passionate about God’s Word (Psalm 119) and passionate about God as a person. “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind …feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Ps. 36:7-9).
If your heart for God is somewhat flat and un-contagious, what might you do to change it? When I’ve asked people, “How has God ignited your heart for him?” the most common response I’ve received has been, “I got serious about praying.” Some said, "I saw someone whose heart delighted in God, and I told God, “I want what she has.” Others have cried out to God, “I’m so stuck in duty. Give me a desire for you. A delight in you.”
Church Father Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” To be fully alive we need to be emotionally alive. Not happy-clappy. But richly, deeply, emotionally alive. Then when we speak to others of Jesus the emotion that overflows from our hearts will be authentic. And contagious.
When we are speaking to a group, crafting an emotional flow can be underhanded and manipulative if we are ratcheting emotions higher and higher or deeper and deeper in a way inauthentic to the response of our own hearts to God. But if our emotion is rich and authentic, we will not need to try to manipulate others with disingenuous laughter or tears. They will quite naturally catch what we feel.
Finally, you might more easily infect others emotionally if they sense you are tuned into their emotions. To understand and identify with what others are feeling is to empathize with them. Some of us do that more naturally than others. But empathy can be learned.
When we really listen to others and mirror back to them their joys, sorrows and fears with our tone of voice and facial expression they feel understood. And the more they feel like we are mirroring them the more they will mirror our emotions in return.
Before you speak to others...in meetings, from a platform, as a parent at the dinner table, in a small discipleship setting...think about how you will emotionally infect others. Remember to ask the Father to give you contagious emotion for his Word and for him. Ask his help to empathize with the joys, sorrows and longings of those who are listening. And ask him to pour that emotion out of your eyes, your words, your expressions, your body language straight into the hearts of others.
How have you infected someone emotionally lately? Or how has someone emotionally infected you?