Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions by Brian Borgman
She was angry. She was hurt. She was trying unsuccessfully not to cry. Gripping the tissue in her hand like a child’s security blanket, she said, “Pastor, you don’t understand; you don’t know how it feels. The thought of his being with that woman grips my mind like an iron claw and it will not let go. I pray. I cry. I pray again. I do not want to think about it. But I can’t help it. The thoughts
create a hurricane of emotions. By the time he gets home from work I hate him all over again. I don’t want him near me. I want him to die. I can’t stand the way I feel.”
* * *
With a trembling voice that seemed out of place in his massive, rugged frame, he said, “I would wake up and know that God was just waiting to kick sand in my face. If it was a really bad day, I figured God said, ‘Forget the sand, I’ll just kick your face.’ The dark cloud of thinking that God loved other people but certainly did not love me sank me into a deep depression. If something good happened to me, I chalked it up to God playing with me so he could pull the rug out from under me. I believed God hated me, and my feelings would not let me believe anything else.”
* * *
The pastor said with serious concern, “Scott, I notice you never sing during worship. May I ask why?” With a pseudo-philosophical tone he replied, “You know, I walk into church and see all these people lifting their hands, singing the songs, tears running down their face. Frankly, I am not into all that emotionalism. When I come to church I don’t think I need to sing, and I certainly don’t need to get all ‘touchy-feely’ with God. After all, you can’t trust the emoFeelings
tions, and I am perfectly fine with worshiping God in my own way without all those gushy feelings.”
* * *
The defiance was frightening. “I know what you are thinking. I know what you are going to say. But I can tell you right now that nobody has ever loved me like he has. Nobody has ever cared for me and listened to me like he does.” The pastor gently yet firmly replied, “But he is not in the Lord; you know what the Word says about being unequally yoked.” The rebuttal was undaunted, “I love him, and we are getting married. What do you expect me to do? I’m in love. I can’t help the way I feel.”
* * *
“Pastor, there is a joy I never knew before. To believe that God really cares about the way I feel and that he has changed the way I feel is amazing to me! I finally get it. God has opened my heart to be compassionate. I care about people. When I sing his praise, I feel a passion for his glory. There is a joy that comes, even when the Word cuts deep. For so many years, I felt emotionally dead to the things of God, but he has breathed something into me. My heart caught up with my head. I finally believe that God has all of me!”
* * *
What do these scenes have in common? It is quite simple.
The emotions play a critical role in each person’s thinking and behavior.
The unrelenting pain of unforgiveness, the poison of bitterness, the short breaths of anxiety, the cancer of lust, the devastation of volcanic anger, the ravages of insane jealousy, the inescapable ruts that lead to strife and broken relationships, habitual patterns that drag one into depression all have one thing in common: they are all related to our emotions.
The tears of joy while singing God’s praise, the conviction of sin during the preaching of the Word, the contentment that comes from holding your wife as you watch the sunset, the thrill
that comes from seeing your son hit a home run during All-Stars, the satisfaction of a good day’s work, and the sense of peace that flows from communion with God are also all related to our emotions. Matthew Elliott does not overstate the case when he says, “Everything we do, say, and think is, in some sense, emotional. We enjoy it, we dislike it, or we just don’t care. We describe our experiences and ourselves by describing how we feel. Life without emotions would be in black and white.”1
But what can we do about the emotions? This is a huge question for me because as a pastor I am called to help people. I want to see them mature into Christlikeness and practical godliness. My desire is that they grow into mighty oaks of righteousness as moms and dads, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, employers and employees, followers of Jesus in a hostile world. As a result, I need to help people deal with anger, lust, bitterness, and envy and grow in faith, joy, peace, and contentment. If I do not see that the emotions play a crucial role in all of life, then I am a blind guide. Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed:
I regard it as a great part of my calling in the ministry to emphasize the priority of the mind and the intellect in connection with the faith; but though I maintain that, I am equally ready to assert that the feelings, the emotions, the sensibilities obviously are of very vital importance. We have been made in such a way that they play a dominant part of our make-up. Indeed, I suppose that one of the greatest problems in our life in this world, not only for Christians, but for all people, is the right handling of our feelings and emotions. Oh, the havoc that is wrought and the tragedy, the misery and the wretchedness that are to be found in the world simply because people do not know how to handle their own feelings! Man is so constituted that the feelings are in this very prominent position, and indeed, there is a very good case for saying that perhaps the final thing which regeneration and the new birth do for us is just to put the mind and the emotions and the will in their right positions.2
Have you ever wondered why so many of God’s people stay stuck as stunted saplings instead of growing into mighty oaks in the Lord? Why is it that people who attend good Bible-teaching
churches with sound doctrine often fail to progress, even though well taught? Why do certain sins cling like sap from an evergreen, while certain fruits of the Spirit barely dangle from the branch? I propose that one of the reasons is that we do not have a biblical understanding of our emotions, and therefore there is little or no biblical handling of the emotions. We try to treat symptoms and fail to get to the root of the matter.
We are under a twofold obligation to understand our emotions. First, the emotions are a biblical subject. Since the Bible has much to say about the emotions, it is imperative for us to understand what it teaches. Whenever God speaks, on whatever subject he addresses, we are obliged to listen and learn. Second, the emotions are a deeply personal subject, playing a prominent role in each of our lives. Therefore, it is vital to understand what the Bible has to say for our own personal maturity.
It is only when we gain a biblical perspective on this significant part of our humanity that we can begin to grow and put the mind and the emotions and the will in their right positions. As we learn to understand and handle our emotions biblically, we begin to mature in new ways. My pastoral experience has taught me that a biblical understanding of the emotions and the application of these truths can become a virtual greenhouse for spiritual growth and maturity.
If our emotions are to be sanctified, if our emotions are to be conformed to the image of Christ, then we must have a grasp on what the Bible says. If we are going to successfully cultivate our emotions for greater godliness and put to death those destructive, ungodly emotions, then we must have a handle on what the Bible says about them. A biblical theology is foundational for us if we ever hope to understand our emotions and grow spiritually. A commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture must undergird our approach. A confidence in the grace of God is a prerequisite if we are to change. Once that commitment and confidence are firmly in place, we can begin the journey with the expectation that God will teach us, prune us, and grow us.
As soon as we start this journey, however, we encounter
obstacles and potential detours because there is so much erroneous teaching on the emotions. We need to navigate around the obstacles, avoiding dangerous detours, and cut a clear course when it comes to the emotions and what the Bible teaches. To think erroneously, that is, unbiblically, about the emotions is to be held captive by wrong thinking and to remain powerless to overcome wrong feelings and cultivate right feelings. To have a biblical foundation for understanding the emotions is to think rightly about them. Such an understanding is a pou sto, a place to stand. To have a theologically robust perspective on the proper use of the emotions is to enter into the greenhouse of spiritual growth, for, as Jonathan Edwards argued in his classic, Religious Affections, “The nature of true religion consists in holy affections.”
Common Misconceptions about the Emotions
Our secular culture is preoccupied with emotional wholeness. We are a therapeutic society in search of wellness. Take for instance the support group Emotions Anonymous. Their Web site reads:
Emotions Anonymous is a twelve-step organization, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. Our fellowship is composed of people who come together in weekly meetings for the purpose of working toward recovery from emotional difficulties. EA members are from many walks of life and are of diverse ages, economic status, social and educational backgrounds. The only requirement for membership is a desire to become well emotionally.3
The number of self-help books, seminars, CDs, DVDs, institutes, and gurus of inner peace and emotional wholeness is overwhelming. The foundational perspective of any given book or seminar may vary from a minimal foundation, just dealing with emotions as something we feel, to an evolutionary psychology of the emotions that is purely physiological and chemical. But apart from Christian theology there is no sound understanding of the emotions. Yet many Christians, influenced by our psychologized culture, fall prey to the shallow, even godless, views of the emotions.
Some Christians teach that emotions are bad and need to be suppressed. From the philosophical side of life Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics argued that passions (emotions) could not coexist with moral virtue. Emotions are contrary to reason and all rational principles, thus they are contrary to all that is desirable and good. Therefore, moral virtue includes the subduing of the emotions. A common Christian version of this says that the mind is all that is important. The emotions do nothing but mess us up. They cannot be trusted and should be suppressed. A stoic and cerebral Christianity is the result.
Others have not gone that far but do teach that the emotions are irrelevant and unnecessary. What matters is not feeling but believing or doing. The emotions are there, but they are like in-laws who have overstayed their welcome; they are a nuisance and best if ignored. This view of the emotions is captured in a gospel tract:
Let’s say that a snowmobile represents “fact’’ and the sled it is pulling represents “feelings.’’ A snowmobile will run fine without a sled. And, of course, it would be useless for a sled to try to pull a snowmobile. It is the same way when we are Christians. We cannot trust our feelings. We have to put our trust in God.
It is certainly true that we put our trust in God and not in our feelings. But the message is clear: the emotions are optional. They are untrustworthy. Our faith would function fine without them.
Another misconception about the emotions that many Christians buy into is that emotions are so powerful that they govern and control us. At the popular level this is seen in expressions such as “I can’t help the way I feel!” This appeal to the sovereignty of the emotions is used to justify hatred, divorce, infidelity, and all kinds of sinful conduct. From this perspective, the emotions remain immune from obedience, exempt from Christ’s lordship; they are simply external forces that thrust themselves upon us, leaving us at their mercy. One Christian writer expresses this sentiment: “As a saved person, you can control your mind and your will, but not your feelings. God’s plan is for us to believe Him and choose
to submit ourselves to His loving care and authority regardless of how we feel. All together now, Rain on how I feel!”4
Just as some Christians elevate reason and dismiss the emotions, others believe that the emotions are the most important thing about us. This view or, rather, feeling turns many Christians into experience junkies who just want to have an emotional high. Such experiences are the sum and substance of their Christianity. They reduce their faith to an empty emotionalism. Being led by the Spirit is nothing more than how a person feels about something. Feelings determine duty. Doctrine is determined by “how I feel about it,” thus, “I don’t believe that doctrine because it makes me feel yucky.” The idea that the emotions should be changed, sanctified, or cultivated is not even on the radar.
This is a very brief and generalized view of some of the most common misconceptions about the emotions. Although these are generalizations, they are accurate ones.
A Working Definition of the Emotions
The Bible does not give us a clinical definition of the emotions, but it does give us numerous words that describe both the source and expression of the emotions. The Bible often commands our feelings, commending or condemning certain emotions. This is an important observation in establishing a working definition. In the Bible, emotions are not amoral. We are responsible for how we feel, and we are expected to exercise self-control and have certain emotions.
Matthew Elliott’s thorough work on the emotions goes into great detail answering the question, “What is emotion?”5 Historically, there are two views on the emotions: one sees the emotions as unrelated to the mind or thinking (the noncognitive view). The other sees the emotions directly related to the mind or thinking (the cognitive view). For those interested in the philosophical and psychological nuances I gladly point you to Elliott’s excellent work. The noncognitive view is generally an evolutionary perspective that sees emotions as a physiological change in feeling (e.g., sweaty palms, racing heart, euphoria), which is named by the person
experiencing the change (fear, happiness, etc.). In other words, we are subject to our emotions and are not ultimately responsible for them. They are something that happens to us, physically or chemically. We cry and feel sadness. We feel anxiety because our hearts race. Although emotions often have physiological manifestations (the Bible affirms this), this view is biblically unacceptable. It also flies in the face of common sense and is just plain backwards!
The cognitive view of the emotions sees the emotions as based on beliefs, standards, judgments, evaluations, concerns, and thoughts. The emotions and reason are interdependent. The emotions are not simply impulses; they are the indicators of what we value and what we believe. “Our emotions can be considered to arise from our beliefs and concerns.”6 The emotions reflect and express the inner man, the heart, the soul, the mind. They have an object. For instance, thinking about anger cannot make us angry, but thinking about the injustice of abortion can make us angry. The object of the emotion of anger is the injustice of abortion because we value human life. The thought of losing one’s spouse can cause us fear or sorrow. The emotion of fear has an object: the thought of losing a spouse. Seeing my daughter deliver the valedictorian speech at her graduation brings me joy, because I value my daughter and am proud of her achievement. The power of the emotion is based on our own personal evaluation and valuing of the object. I would have a different emotional response seeing a car hit a jackrabbit and a car hitting a child. Matthew Elliott summarizes this:
Emotions are not primitive impulses to be controlled or ignored, but cognitive judgments or construals that tell us about ourselves and our world. In this understanding, destructive motives can be changed, beneficial emotions can be cultivated, and emotions are a crucial part of morality. Emotions also help us to work efficiently, assist our learning, correct faulty logic and help us build relationships with others.7
As we work through the theology of the emotions, we will do so using this definition: the emotions are an inherent part of what it means to be a person; they express the values and evaluations of a person and influence motives and conduct.8 The emotions are more than feelings;
they tell us about what we value and what we believe, producing desires and inclinations that affect our behavior. “Emotions were given in order to energize behavior and were intended by God to be a catalyst for action.”9
This does not mean that all emotions are rational. They often are not. But it does identify the fact that the emotions are responses to our perceptions, which may be right or wrong, real or imagined. “Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice.”10 This is not to claim that all emotions are easily intelligible and able to be thoroughly analyzed. They often cannot. And yet, we must learn to understand this basic part of our humanity. Sam Williams rightly notes, “God gives emotions for a specific purpose. They are necessary for us properly to know and relate to and glorify God.”11