I love to watch my friend Maria pray because her face is so expressive. Over the course of a single prayer meeting, her facial expressions move from impassive, to intense, to peaceful. As she praises God or cries out to him for help, her features reflect the state of her heart.
Since I’ve moved to college, the most present Christian mentors in my life have all been Gen Z Christians. These women—current seniors or recent grads—have taught me to pray longer and more fervently than ever but also how to bring everyday exhaustion, joy, discouragement, or celebration before the Lord.
My generation (Gen Z) loves to talk about mental health. We’re enthusiastic about “destigmatizing” mental health and “processing” emotions not just in a therapist’s office but publicly on social media. TikTokers share overly personal videos of themselves crying, with captions explaining how low they feel.
This culture of openly discussing mental health certainly has downsides, including a temptation to downplay the seriousness of sin by psychologizing it with therapeutic language, or denying our personal culpability by blaming past trauma.
But one upside is that Gen Z has a fluency in talking about emotions in ways previous generations did not. As a result, Gen Z Christians tend to possess a keen awareness of how their emotions relate to their faith and how to engage with God through these emotions.
Emotional Engagement with God
The Bible’s book of prayer blueprints, the Psalms, is full of emotional engagement with God. Asaph expresses confusion and loneliness to God: “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps. 74:1). David cries, “I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart,” and exults, “I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” (38:8; 13:5). David asks God to change his emotions, writing, “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (86:4).
In the New Testament, Paul commands Christians to give their fears to God: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know to God” (Phil. 4:5–6).
Like the psalmists, Gen Z Christians see emotions as an invitation to be with God—to process with him the range of what we feel and face in daily life. They’re hungry for a personal God who will take their anxieties and give them his joy.
Gen Z Christians see emotions as an invitation to be with God—to process with him the range of what we feel and face in daily life.
The Bible describes a God who wants to sanctify his people’s emotions. After instructing believers to make their requests known to God, Paul promises that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). This peace that God gives must be emotional at some level because Paul makes a point of saying it isn’t simply intellectual or logical—it surpasses understanding.
I’ve seen my family grow closer to God by bringing emotions into our faith life. Our church’s deep theology of weekly hymns and liturgy has blessed us immensely. However, my pastor recognizes that our worship can sometimes be stiff, and he encourages the congregation to kneel during confession and raise our hands in worship. In a sermon on Psalm 95:1–7, he explained how God connected our minds and bodies so our bodies can often instruct our emotions.
Going into her junior year of high school, my sister joined a youth group at a church in a different denomination. In addition to making close friends who love God, she became part of a congregation that always looks to meet God emotionally in worship and expresses that emotion through their bodies—clapping, dancing, and raising hands. In the two years since, I’ve seen her take ownership of her faith and seek intimacy with God, staying up late into the night to read her Bible and write prayers in her journal.
Emotional and theological aspects of faith shouldn’t be pitted against one another. God created us with hearts and heads, and I’m hopeful my generation will seek spiritual formation that engages both.
Healing Found Only in God
Another popular mental health buzzword for Gen Z is “self-care.” It’s the concept of refreshing your mental and emotional state by taking time to focus on yourself—by taking “mental health days” off, pursuing activities of “wellness,” spending time with friends, and journaling, among other activities. But the problem with self-care is that it can often become an excuse for selfishness. And the self has limited resources for refreshment.
If our best answer in times of stress is to give ourselves permission to care for ourselves, this sets us up for disappointment. How can the self be the solution for mental struggles that originate within that same self? We need something outside ourselves to truly find healing.
The problem with self-care is that it can often become an excuse for selfishness. And the self has limited resources for refreshment.
Gen Z Christians know the best self-care is to look outside of ourselves to God and refresh our souls with him. If our secular peers seek restoration by taking time to focus on themselves, Gen Z Christians seek rejuvenation by setting aside time to be with their heavenly Father. This practice comes directly from Jesus. Luke’s Gospel records six times that Jesus drew apart to be with his Father (Luke 2:46–49; 4:42; 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; 22:39–44). Many of my college friends intentionally set aside time each week not to work but to be refreshed in God through prayer, Bible reading, and eating with Christian friends.
Practicing self-care as Christians should also mean caring for others. Secular self-care proponents occasionally suggest volunteering, and numerous studies demonstrate the health benefits of regular volunteering. The world is picking up on something Christians know to be true: we’re made to serve others in humble imitation of our God (Matt. 23:11; Mark 10:45; Rom. 12:10; Gal. 5:13; Phil. 2:4). Jesus calls us to abide with him by serving our brothers and sisters (John 15:9–12). Spiritual rejuvenation from abiding in Christ goes hand in hand with obedient sacrificial love.
Gen Z, let’s be careful to not build our relationship with God solely on our emotions, especially when our emotions conflict with God’s revealed truth in Scripture. And let’s be sure we aren’t justifying selfishness or other sins in the name of self-care. We should be alert to the excesses and distortions of therapy-speak, especially if it becomes a more authoritative discourse in our lives than even Scripture. If we find that the words of a therapist loom larger in our lives than the Word of God, we know we’ve taken it too far.
But these excesses shouldn’t scare us away from the good ways fluency about emotions can enrich our faith. Let’s continue to bring God our emotions and seek refreshment from intimacy with him, casting all our anxieties on the One who cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).