Feelings, Emotions & Faith
FEELINGS, EMOTIONS & FAITH
by Dr. D. W. Ekstrand
Alfred Rehwinkel, a professor of Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, states the following with regard to “emotion” — “Emotions are an aspect of the mind… and are experienced within the soul… Emotions, like sensations, elude precise definition… Everyone knows what is meant by love, fear, anger, worry, etc. But it is most difficult to convey the meaning of any one of these emotions by an attempted definition. However, all emotions have in common the general idea of ‘being stirred up’ (the Latin word upon which our English word is built means precisely that), excited, and perturbed…. They are important factors in motivating human behavior. People are influenced more by their feelings than by reason. Emotions are more tenacious than ideas…. they give color and richness to life and value to our possessions…. they make an individual attractive or repulsive, reasonable or irrational, saintly or ignoble. Emotions are an important factor in man’s religious life. God so loved the world (Jn 3:16) is the essence of the gospel. [Conversely, believers are] to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and love their neighbor as themselves (Mt 22:37-39; also cf. 1 Jn 3:15; Prov 19:17)…. emotions enrich Christian worship, and the Christian faith sanctifies and purifies our emotions” (Baker Dictionary of Theology, 1976, pp. 181-182). As Frank Minirth and Paul Meier remind us in their textbook on “Psychology & Counseling” — “the concept of emotion is difficult to define objectively…. emotion generally refers to our intrapsychic feelings, [many of which] range from love or hate to fear or sadness” (Baker Book House, 1982, p. 30). I simply wrote the foregoing to give you a little picture as to what is written in Christian books of theology and dictionaries on this subject; therefore treat it as a launching pad for the study that follows.
REGARDING A THEOLOGY OF EMOTION
Dr. Ray S. Anderson (1925-2009), a distinguished professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, published a book titled “Spiritual Caregiving as Secular Sacrament” (Kingley Publishers, London, 2003), just a few years before he passed away. Dr. Anderson was a prolific author and a scholar of great faith who believed in and practiced a life of significant service on many levels. In his book he carefully addresses the matter of “emotion” in the life of the believer. He begins by saying that “one looks in vain through the standard textbooks in systematic theology for a discussion of emotional life of the self.” He goes on to say, “When one turns to the subject of faith, where the role of emotion might well be expected to contribute to an understanding of the experience of salvation, the focus is on the object of faith (God) rather than the subjective response of the believer.” Anderson concludes by saying that, “Theologians have traditionally displayed an innate disregard for the theological significance of emotion, except to treat it as a relic of the ‘old self.’” The lack of a theology of emotion in theological literature, he says, may be explained by the view of Professor Thomas Oden (1931-2016) of Drew University — in his book “The Living God: Systematic Theology” (Harper & Row, 1987) he writes: “Theology has no interest in feelings and emotional responses. The effective life of the self, with its emotions, is better left to the psychologists.” Since some feelings may seem to be too intense to some people, or too intrusive, too disturbing, too exacerbating, too overwhelming, or too whatever, “some people choose not to feel,” though that in itself can be extremely difficult. Unfortunately, the notion that feelings are bad or dangerous or unreliable is fairly common in most Christian traditions; there are a variety of reasons for the relative inattention to emotions and feelings in theological discourse. Consider for example Thomas Oden’s suggestions about feelings:
Christian teaching is not primarily focused upon an analysis of human feelings… [Instead] Christian theology is a logos, a series of reasonings about theos in the faith of the Christian community (not about one’s private feelings)…. [Though] our dialogue with this incomparable One [the Eternal Logos / God] powerfully affects our feelings… Christian teaching is less focused on the aftereffects than on the One who elicits and grounds those effects.
With the foregoing in mind, what does the neglect of emotions in Christian teaching look like by the average believer? Probably the most common way in which emotions are viewed in the Christian community is by the common slogan: “Fact, Faith, Feelings.” There is even a nice little graphic that depicts it — it is a "three car train:" the engine car (that's Fact)... the baggage car... (that's Faith)... and the cabbose (that's Feelings) --- incidentally, if you want to see it graphically, click on the pdf version of this study in the upper right hand corner of this study. The idea is that we should put facts first, then reinforce the facts with our faith, and then let our feelings tag along behind. The important thing this graphic picture illustrates is the importance of keeping our feelings at the end of the train; they’ll tag along eventually (they’re not that important). This pretty much corresponds with the way in which our Bible Colleges and Graduate Schools of Theology teach when it comes to studying Scripture — the first thing you are encouraged to do is find out what the text says… then ask what it means… and lastly, ask how it applies to you. Yet this hermeneutic (method of interpretation) fails in this regard — suppose someone writes you a letter and all it says is “I love you.” If all you do is parse the verb and collect the facts of the letter, you may never really understand what the writer is trying to communicate… but that’s what happens when you neglect the affective content of a text. The more intensely affective a text is, the more likely that you will miss the point when you neglect its affective content. In biblical studies this can have a pronounced effect since the biblical text is full of affect. God is not presented as the “unmoved mover” but as “the most moved of all.” So, when studying Scripture we need to enter into the passion and emotion that undergirds what is being said, and not simply satisfy ourselves with non-emotional facts.
Scripture is replete with emotion, both God’s and man’s. The Bible is the revelation (the communication) of a personal God to human persons made in His image. Since emotions are an important component of personhood, the Bible is necessarily about emotion, as well as other things. Dr. Sam R. Williams, a Professor of Counseling at Southeastern Theological Seminary tells us that the Bible frequently reveals God’s emotions so that our lives, including our emotions, might fully honor and glorify Him. When Scripture speaks about the wrath of God, he says, the Lord not only wants us to understand what He thinks about sin, but how He feels about it — “this is so that we might know Him better and improve our understanding of His holiness and His love. We must apprehend (rationally and emotionally) our moral dilemma before His holy justice, that we might experience the depth of His love for us when He poured His righteous wrath out upon His Son instead of us” (Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Winter, 2003). So the Bible itself is not just rational literature, it is emotional literature. Good theology should lead us not only to think God’s thoughts after Him, but also to experience God’s affections after Him. If Christlikeness is our goal, the Holy Spirit will bring fruit into our life that has significant emotions — love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, etc. (Gal 5:21-22). Jesus invites us into “His Joy” in the gospels (Jn 15:11; 17:13). In the Psalms God tells us, “in His presence is fullness of joy, that in Thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11). Unfortunately, contemporary evangelicals have paid little attention to the development of a theology of emotions, affections and feelings… as such, we seem to function as if Scripture is silent on these matters. However, Scripture contains the norms not just for our behavior and thinking, comments Williams, but also for our emotions and affections. Both Paul and David frequently enjoin their listeners to “rejoice” and “be glad.” Peter tells us to “cast all our anxieties on Him, because He cares for us” (1 Pet 5:7). “Fear not” is a frequent command in both the Old & New Testaments. Moses tells His people that they will be judged “because they did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart for the abundance of everything” (cf. Deut 28:47). Williams reminds us that we all have theories and operating principles about emotion (whether we are conscious of it or not) — “that when Scripture does not form our thinking, especially about a matter such as emotion which is so much a part of the nature of persons, something else will.” Fortunately, God’s Word is not silent about emotion, so what is critically important is that we come to an understanding of the biblical parameters of our emotions, affections and feelings. Let’s examine the essence of each of these three concepts:
- Feeling — the sense perception of something that one experiences (either internally or externally), be it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, hard or soft, hot or cold, that subjective experience is often identified as a “feeling.” David Powlison in his book “Journal of Pastoral Practice” (1991, pp. 50-53), describes four different uses of the word “feeling” — to describe sense perceptions… express emotion… communicate desires… and communicate thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. So “feeling” describes broad categories of human experience — feeling good/bad, as well as the experience of pleasure/pain, etc. God has designed us so that we desire our own good — we naturally seek that which we perceive will lead to life, happiness, and pleasure… and we naturally avoid that which we perceive as bad or aversive or painful. The pursuit of pleasure or happiness and aversion to pain and suffering is a basic principle of life, and in itself, begotten by God. As Sam Williams says, “It is because we are created in this way that God frequently motivates us in Scripture through an appeal to our feelings with promises of blessing and threats of punishment” (note the contrast of Deut 28: 1ff & 28:15ff). The Lord told His people, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judg-ments, that you may live and multiply, and the LORD your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish…. So choose life in order that you may live… by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him” (Deut 30:15-20). In the same manner, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the French physicist and Christian philosopher said, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. the will never takes the least step but to this object” (Pascal’s Pensees, by Trotter, 1958, p. 113); thus “feeling” is a predicate we use to describe our conscious emotional experiences.
- Emotion — this is a fully personal, bodily response to an internal and/or external experience of significant concern, which is sub-jectively understood by some feeling that prepares the body and mind for action. Emotions are generally held to be psychosomatic (body & soul), and are both responsive and preparatory; they are part of our response to our experience and also motivate us toward particular ends. The words “emotion” and “motive” are derived from the same Latin root, movere, which means “to move.” Specific emotions (by God’s design) have specific purposes and functions. Therefore we naturally and correctly speak of an emotion as being warranted or unwarranted, rational or irrational, sensible or ridiculous. Emotional experiences are either facilitating the individual’s purposes and functions, or more importantly God’s purposes and functions; thus specific emotions in specific contexts are either sinful or righteous — so the role of a particular emotion must attend to the spiritual / moral dimensions.
- Affection — this is a deep emotional and motivational vector of the soul, that moves us toward or away from something, contingent upon moral evaluation. A Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Dr. G. McDermott, in his work “Seeing God” (2000, pp. 31-33), differentiates affection and emotion by noting that affections are strong and powerful and ultimately determine our choices, while emotions are comparatively weak and fleeting. The renowned revivalist, philosopher and Protestant theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), was careful to avoid separating the affections and the will — he stated in his work, “Religious Affections” (by Peabody, 2000, p. 237), “The will and the affections of the soul are not two faculties…. In every act of the will whatsoever, the soul likes or dislikes, and is either inclined or disinclined to what is in view.” A century before Edwards, an English Puritan named William Fenner (1600-1640) wrote about the role of the affections and their necessary connection to the moral sense. He said, “The affections are the feet of the soul — for as the body goes with its feet to that which it loves, so the soul goes with its affections to that which it loves. The soul hath no other way to come at that which it loves, but only by its affections…. A man is moved by the affections. By anger he moves out to revenge; by desire he moves out to obtain; by love he moves out to enjoy; by pity he moves out to relieve. The affections are the emotions of the soul… and are directly related to the apprehension of good and evil. Where there is little apprehension of good and evil, the affections are weak and may hardly work on the body at all. But where there is great apprehension of either, not only the soul is deeply affected, but the body also” (A Treatise of the Affections, London, Rothwell, 1642, pp. 3-5).
A biblical psychology of emotion must begin and end with God, because He is the Eternal One who created us in “His image.” Dr. John Frame, a professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, aptly states in his book “The Doctrine of the Know-ledge of God” (P & R, 1987, p. 10) — “we cannot know other things rightly without knowing God rightly, essentially because the doctrine of the knowledge of God implies a doctrine of the knowledge of everything.” John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer begins in his work on the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” with a similar acknowledgement: “the knowledge of ourselves is inextricably dependent upon our knowledge of God, and vice-versa” (Eeerdmans, 1997, pp. 37-39). Incidentally, wisdom and knowledge about anything also begins with a particular emotional attitude toward God: “the fear of the Lord” (cf. Prv 1:76; 9:10). Throughout Scripture God is portrayed in personal terms because He is a “person.” Alvin Plantinga, a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, states in his book “Body & Soul” (Intervarsity, 2000, p. 25), “The assertion that the God of the Bible experiences emotion would seem to go without saying, were it not for the early influence of Plato and the Stoics upon theologians. The contrivance of an impassible, unemotional God stems from a pejorative view of emotions as inherently unruly & capricious (that was ancient Greek thinking). The emotions were viewed as irrational and intemperate and as a sign of weakness, dependence, and contingency. As a result, the Stoic ideal of apatheia became the ideal and this idea was imposed upon God.” The renowned Professor of Theology & Science at the University of Oxford in England, Dr. Alister McGrath, stated it this way in his book “Historical Theology” — “In order to preserve the divine attributes of transcendence, immutability, and aseity many of the patristic theologians believed it logically necessary to posit that God is impassible; i.e., He is incapable of experiencing passions, negative emotions or suffering…. [though Scripture ascribes emotion to God, these men simply held that] God merely represented Himself with emotion in order to communicate meaningfully to emotional human beings” (Oxford, Blackwell, 1998, p. 15). If you think this is a bit much, “The thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England” & “The Westminster Confession of Faith” described God as “without body, part, or passions.” The Professor of Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dr. D. A. Caron, says in his book “How Long O Lord?” — “[The method used to buy into the doctrine of Divine impassibility was that of] selecting certain texts of Scripture, namely those that insist on God’s sovereignty and changelessness, constructs a theological grid on the basis of those selected texts, and then uses this grid to filter out all other texts; in particular those that speak of God’s emotions” (Baker, 1990, p. 186). As Dr. Paul Fiddes, a Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford in England asserts in his work “Divine Suffering” — “nearly all Christian theologians today acknowledge that God indeed does experience emotion” (Blackwell, 1993, p. 634).
Dr. Bruce Ware, a distinguished Professor of Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a work he did on “The Doctrine of Immutability” (Jets 29/4, 1986, p. 445) states that God is unchangeable and self-determining in His holy and eternal being, and also unchangeable in His moral perfections… and that God is relationally and emotionally mutable. He states, “When rightly understood the relational changes that occur through God’s interaction with His creatures, so far from conflicting with His immutable character, actually express it… because God’s intrinsic moral nature is unchangeable it must always and without fail express itself in ways appropriate to the moral state of any given situation. Thus when the human moral state changes (e.g. from rebellion to repentance) the immutable divine nature must now reflect itself in ways that are appropriate to this new situation.” So the renowned Swiss Theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) was right when he said, “God is understood to change in his attitudes, conduct and relationships with humans in ways that both accord with His changeless intrinsic moral nature and properly confront the human moral situation.” Thus this type of change in God’s relationships with and attitudes toward His creatures would include various emotional changes. Ware concludes, “The abundance of Scrip-tural evidence of God’s expression of emotion… leads to the conclusion that the true and living God is, among other things, a genuinely emotional being.”
The ancient Stoic contention that God does not care about our feelings, but only about our holiness, can be contested on several grounds. First, our emotional capacity is part of our nature as personal beings created in the image and likeness of God. The capacity for emotional response is part of God’s original pre-fall design, which He declared “very good.” The second chapter of Genesis provides three direct references to man’s emotional capacity — note the emotional responses in verses 9, 23 and 25. Second, we are instructed to hate sin, rejoice always, delight and be glad in the Lord, weep with those who weep, grieve like those who have hope, and fear God. Particular emotions such as fear and joy and delight are essential components in fulfilling the primary purpose of our existence — serving & glorifying God. Serving God rightly requires right emotions. Our emotions were designed by God to facilitate the fulfillment of the Great Commandments: loving God with all we are and do, and loving our neighbor as we do ourselves. Says Williams, “The properly functioning Christian soul requires passions and affections that are properly trained, that cares about the things God cares about. Christian virtues and values require a mature emotional life.”
Understanding God’s design and order for emotion is an essential prerequisite for understanding “disordered emotions.” Unfortunately, much of our thinking about emotion and its proper place in our lives is derived from our experience with our “fallen emotions” — it is here where secular mental health professionals fail to emotional problems… because they are in the wilderness when it comes to man’s fallenness; as such, they ignore God’s recipe for emotional well-being. It goes without saying that a prerequisite for “defining a disorder” is a prior apprehension of “the proper order” — in order to understand what is disordered, one must first understand the right or ideal order. For example, from a biblical perspective, a person who experiences no fear of God and no anxiety about their eternal destiny is more disordered than a person who has panic attacks subsequent to conviction that they are guilty before a Holy and Just God and bound for hell outside of Christ. As Sam Williams states, “When emotions are isolated from the one with whom we have to do, they are misinterpreted [and wrongly dealt with] — medicated and falsely assuaged.” A major problem with many Christian counselors is that they often focus on “healing emotions” rather than “addressing the heart” which produces the emotion. The biblical diagnosis is not that we have wounded or damaged emotions, it is that we have “me problems.” According to Scripture, our hearts are disordered and are full of evil (cf. Ecc 9:3; Jer 17:9; Ps 51:10). One of the premiere voices on “Christian Counseling,” Dr. Jay Adams, states, “The fact is that there are no damaging or destructive emotions per se. Our emotional makeup is totally from God. All emotions of which He made us capable are constructive when used properly (i.e., in accordance with biblical principles)… All emotions, however, can become destructive when we fail to express them in harmony with biblical limitations and structures” (The Christian Counselor’s Manual, Zondervan, 1973, p. 349).
As Dr. Sam Williams states, “This is where the rub lies.” A biblical view of emotion, while maintaining that the capacity for emotion is good, must account for sin. The fallen human heart is evil, deceptive, and rebellious; therefore, its products are tainted with the stain of sin. Sin infects our whole being and every capacity or faculty has been tilted away from God. Our emotions are no longer naturally oriented in such a way that they contribute to honoring, loving, and obeying God. Instead, our emotions have become self-serving, our affections idolatrous, and our passion is for our own glory rather than God’s. We tend to seek happiness in what cannot last, delight in evil, fear that which God forbids, become angry when we should be patient, grieve hopelessly, and hate that which is good. Holistic depravity means that we not only choose and think the wrong things, but that our emotions, but for grace, are wrongly oriented. Fallen emotions appear very quickly in human history — not long after creation, Adam and Eve’s emotions are incited and directed against God rather than for Him. Satan’s lie was big enough to reinterpret their life, and dynamic enough to redirect the flow of their affection — to be as God is a very intoxicating construct of thought… by embracing that didactic Adam and Eve ultimately became ashamed, worried, anxious and fearful… and soon after that, the first murder was committed in a context of ungodly emotion (Cain’s sinful envy of Abel and unrighteous anger). A biblical view of emotion must reckon with the fall and the pervasive effects of sin upon the whole of man (body and soul). Our emotions, intended to function in concert with all of other faculties for the glory of God, fall short because of sin.
Fortunately, the fall is not the end of our story. Because of God’s grace and His redemp-tive purposes realized in Christ, the pervasive effects of sin upon the image of God in man are not irreversible. Though each and every one of our capacities or faculties has been corrupted, likewise they can be restored. As Sam Williams says, in Christ we find hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge and truth (Cf. Col 2:3; 3:10; Eph 4:21), thus the good of reason is restored. In Christ our conscience is renewed (cf. Heb 5:11-14; 9:8-14; 10:22; 1 Pet 3:21). In Christ we are empowered to choose that which is good (cf. Eph 2:10; Titus 2:14; 3:18; Heb 9:14), because our volition is renewed. In Christ our emotions and affections become allies in loving God and others; they have been redeemed (cf. Phil 1:7-8; 2:1-5; Col 3:5- 12; 1 Th2:7-8). In addition, Jesus Christ can restore the harmonious interaction of reason, conscience, volition and emotion, which disintegrated in the fall. God’s Word and the Holy Spirit address the whole man so that the intellect is challenged to think truly, the emotions are kindled toward God, and the will is stimulated to act in ways that please God — remember, “those in Christ are new creatures; old things have passed away… new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). Writes the reformed theologian John Frame, “It is best to think of intellect, will, and emotions as interdependent; each affects the others, and none can function properly apart from the others — when we try to employ one without the others, the result is distorted understanding, choices, and feelings” (Worship in Spirit and Truth; P & R, 1996, p. 78). Sometime, Frame says, “reason saves us from emotional craziness… but the goal is a satisfying analysis that we actually feel good about” (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, P & R, 1987, p. 336).
Feelings are a powerful influence on reason. The great philosopher-theologian yet to grace the American scene, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), emphasized the crucial role of affections in authentic Christian experience. In his work “Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections,” he says there must be something else besides affection in true religion; yet affections do play a very significant role in true religion; in short, “there is no true religion where there is no religious affection — if the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart…. God has given to mankind affections… that they might be subservient to man’s chief end, and the great business for which God has created him” (a genuine relationship with his Creator). John Owen (1616-1683), an English theologian and an academic administrator at the University of Oxford, recog-nized the power that affections can exert over the believer’s life — “It is vain to contend with anything that hath the power of our affections in its disposal; it will prevail at the last” (The Works of John Owen, vol. VII, Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, p. 397). Keeping the foregoing in mind, the redemptive activity of God begins with the Spirit’s regeneration of our hearts and the birth of a new nature, which gives us new affections and renewed emotions. A transformed life requires that we acknowledge, accept and trust in His Lordship, His loving presence with us, His power and authority over us, and His wise and sovereign control over our lives and circumstances — it is His loving compassionate presence with us, by His Word and Spirit, that allays our anxieties, comforts us in our afflictions, and gives us hope when we grieve… and it is our response to Him as “Lord” that mediates personal transformation, including our emotions and affections.
Even though we cannot command and direct our emotions in the same way that we can our thoughts or actions, God doesn’t seem to have any compunction about commanding and directing the emotions and affections of His people. As Sam Williams reminds us, God commands us to rejoice and be glad (cf. Ps 100:2; Rom 12:15; Phil 4:4; 1 Th 5:16), to fear Him (cf. Lk 12:5; Rom 11:20; 1 Pet 1:17), to not fear people (Josh 1:9; Deut 31:6-8; Mt 10:28), to not fear persecution (cf. Lk 12:4-5), to not worry about circumstances (cf. Mt 6:25-34; Mk 4:40), to grieve and mourn with others and for our sin (cf. Ps 51:17; Rom 12:15; Jam 4:9), to let peace rule in our hearts (cf. Col 3:15), to be kind and tender-hearted and compassionate toward others (cf. Eph 4:32; Col 3:12), to hate evil (cf. Ps 97:10; Amos 5:15), but to not hate our brother (cf. Lev 19:17; 1 Jn 2:9, 11; 3:15). The long and short of it is this: our emotions and affections are properly effected when our thinking is aligned with divine truth (cf. Phil 4:6-9) — when we trust and rest in the sovereignty of God, we are enabled to orient our emotions and affections to the praise of His glory. God’s aim is not simply to establish His Lordship over our actions & thoughts, but also over our emotions, affections, and feelings. Our emotional states are windows into our souls, revealing the allegiance of our hearts. The question is, “Is God the source of our joy and happiness? Is He Lord over our emotions or do they rule us? What is the chief end of our affections?” Let us endeavor to think God’s thoughts after Him… conform our actions to His Word, and experience emotions that exalt Him as Love over all.
HEARTFELT FEELINGS & EMOTIONS
Feelings and Emotions are extremely critical issues in the believer’s life, yet there is so little written on it in Christian theology. Dr. Bob Kellemen, Chair of the Biblical Counseling Dept. at Crossroads Bible College, states it this way: “When it comes to emotions, we seem prone to extremes, even in the Christian world. Some act as if emotions are a result of the Fall; thus they ignore them… others act as if emotions are king and allow them to rule them. But what does the Bible teach? If we are to live godly lives then we need God’s perspective on emotions.” Sadly, “in many Christian circles, emotions are viewed as “the black sheep” of the image bearing family. We accept that God created us with a soul to relate, with a mind to think, and with a will to choose… but somehow we act as if emotions were not God’s idea. We often see emotions more as a curse than a blessing… more harmful than good… as such, we suppress them and try to ignore them. If emotions are perplexing and distressing, then why did God create us with feelings? (www.rpmministries.org). Remember, when God reflected upon His image bearers on the day He created them, he concluded it was “very good.” Feelings were God’s idea. Since we were made in His image, God is also an emotional being. God the Father experiences anger… God the Son weeps… God the Spirit grieves. So emotions are God-given; they are not satanic. Adam had them prior to the Fall… in and of themselves they are not sinful; they are beneficial. The Psalmist David understood this; in his classic passage on creation, emotionality is the one aspect of our inner personality specifically referenced. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139: 13) — “inmost being” is translated “kidneys” in the King James Bible; the same word is used to mean grieved and embittered (Psalm 73:21), and in Proverbs the kidneys are the place of rejoicing and gladness (Prov 23:16). The theologian and Hebrew language expert, Hans Wolf, notes that the Semitic languages used terms for kidneys, stomach, bowels and womb to describe “the feeling states.” It is our feelings that the Psalmist highlights as being fearfully and wonderfully made — God created our inmost being.
Regretably, emotions are an ignored reality in much of the Evangelical Church, but it is not so in the Bible. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit not only manifests rich emotions Himself, but He is given to the believer to profoundly influence his or her emotional life. According to Dr. David Eckman, a professor of theology at Western Seminary & Golden Gate Seminary, “The health of our emotions is a critical category of our spiritual life” (The Holy Spirit & Our Emotions; https://Bible.org). He goes on to say that “they define the inner world and give us continual commentary on the outer world”… that awareness of life starts with emotions; that life demands an understanding of emotions. He goes on to say that most believers struggle with their emotions, that it is the force of the emotions with which we become preoccupied — since we cannot flee from our feelings, we must deal with them. Managing our emotions is critical to the spiritual life; since the doorway to the inner life is the experience of emotions, emotions is where the counselor begins. Though emotions do not authenticate truth (they cannot verify the historicity of Christ or other theological realities), emotions do authenticate our under-standing of the truth. As Eckman says, “A happy heart is the greatest evidence of the apprehension of spiritual truth. In the Bible, truth is supposed to strike the life with positive emotional force; truth without effect is an unknown in Scripture.” So the Holy Spirit plays a fundamental role in the emotional life of the Christian. We feel and want not only because we are made in the image of God, but because of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. As believers, we must learn how to cooperate with Him for our emotional well being.
The long and short of it is, “feelings are the bane and blessing of our existence” — they can create profound joy in us as we look upon our children… or terrible bane as we experience times of grief and loss. At the various intersections of life our emotions match the delights and disasters of life; the ability to feel comes from our being made in the image of God. God not only has the ability to think and will, but also to feel — the Lord told His people, “Your new moon festivals and feasts, My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me. I am weary of putting up with them” (Is 1:14). Later on He said, “Behold, My slave whom I am holding fast, My chosen one. My soul delights in him. I have placed My Spirit upon him” (Is 42:1). Notice the terms are found around the word “soul” — they are emotionally rich terms like delight, hate, burden, weary. God as the archetype of personhood is therefore the source of emotions — writes Eckman, “At the center of all reality is a being who feels & thinks; since the Bible says that we are made in His image (Gen 1:26-28), we too feel & think. Being made in His image is the reason for our emotions and our thoughts…. we are a reflection of the divine” (https://Bible.org). Since the Godhead possesses emotions and feels emotion, it is simple deductive logic that the Holy Spirit has emotions… and He is the primary agent of personal interaction with us as human beings (that makes our emotional life even more significant). The Holy Spirit is the one who effectuates God’s ministry to our inner life… He is the one who is “conforming our character to that of Christ;” and such character has a richly emotional com-ponent. Consider His personal reactions —
1. Our sin Grieves Him — In Ephesians four (vv. 25-32) Paul addresses the issue of effective and godly communication, and the abandonment of poor patterns of communication. In this passage he teaches how to deal with strong and powerful emotions… and a part of that long list of things to do is “not grieving the Holy Spirit;” i.e., not paining Him. The Spirit is pained when Christians negatively communicate with each other and when they refuse to forgive each other. Paul uses the term “lupeo” to describe the “deep pain” the Holy Spirit experiences in response to our sinful behavior. This term also appears in Christ’s suffering in the Garden when He became “anguished” and distressed (cf. Mt 26:37).
2. Jealousy Desires us — In James four Jesus’ brother contrasts the life lived for the flesh and the life that is to be lived for God. In verse 4, James forcefully told believers that “friendship with the world is a form of adultery;” as such, the Spirit who dwells within us “jealously desires us” (v. 5) — the Holy Spirit has a strong longing to control the believer’s life; He experiences jealousy as He sees how the believer is caught up with the world. Jealousy is an intensely painful and powerful emotion. Even though the Spirit is present in our lives, we sometimes go into the dark world of the flesh far from His fellowship.
3. Unutterable Groaning — In Romans eight Paul expands upon the Trinity’s ministry within a believer. He describes the spiritual life as that which bares the believers through the weakness and sorrow of a fallen world. The mature believer is identified by his or her ability to respond to the prompting of the Spirit (v. 14); this prompting might be emotional inclinations and insights. Over time the believer learns to surrender calmly and expectantly to these impressions. After describing that aspect of maturity, Paul goes on to describe how believers have to “endure sufferings” in this life. A large part of maturity will be the challenge of going on in the face of the hurts, harms, and damage caused by others. In doing this Paul points out that a vast network of affliction is going on and the Spirit is involved in this symphony of expectant pain. “The whole creation groans” (v. 22)… “we ourselves groan” (v. 23)… “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words” (v. 26). One of our weaknesses as believers is that we do not know how to pray, so to help us out the Spirit intercedes for us — this intercession is unspoken because the Spirit is in deep pain; the same term is used for the children of Israel groaning under the oppression of the Egyptians (cf. Acts 7:34); with great emotion, He who is among us suffers because of us.
Since the presence of the Spirit is internal, the work of the Spirit of God is “emotional” — To illustrate this point, as the believer is involved in the exercise of faith, the Spirit is the one who supplies joy and peace to the believer’s heart (joy and peace are corollaries of believing the truth — “the God of hope fills the believer’s heart with joy and peace in the process of believing” (cf. Rom 15:13). As believers, we are not just believing a bunch of sterile, forensic truths that have no emotional significance to our lives; dynamic divine truths effect us internally and emotionally! And this work is done in us by the inherent power of the Holy Spirit; He alone can generate these emotions in our hearts. Galatians five is a longer example of the same reality that the Holy Spirit is involved in a ministry to our emotional life — as the believer’s life is organized around the Spirit, he will also be positively prompted by these qualities (cf. Gal 5:18); when these qualities are followed they will produce wonderfully positive emotions and inner abilities in life… the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness & self-control; cf. Gal 5:22-23) — the fruits of the Spirit are deeply embedded in heart-felt emotion. Spirituality is a life dominated by “primary emotions” — note how the fruits of the Spirit each have an emotional connotation… and how they differ from the fruits of the flesh (cf. Gal 5:19-21); hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissen-sions, factions & envying. The result is that the fruit of the Spirit replaces an emotionally pow-erful set of opposites. You’ll notice, when we are “filled with the Spirit” it results in singing and gratitude and mutual submission — all of which are profoundly emotional (cf. Eph 5:18-19).
MANAGING OUR EMOTIONS
The management of our emotions involves our imagination (i.e., our reckoning – cf. Rom 6:11), our mind (i.e., how we set our perspective – cf. Rom 8:5-7), and our ego or self (i.e., how we relate to God and people). Dr. Eckman expresses it this way: “How we relate to people and to God is based on how we imagine the world to be and God to be, and how we analyze what life presents to us…. Character, the proper use of emotions and our inner life, are the product of a healthy set of spiritual processes.” Eckman goes on to say, in order to maintain spiritual health —
- We have to recognize what is going on in our emotional life and in the management of our appetites (cf. Gal 5:16-24). This helps us identify where we are starting from — either with spirituality or carnality.
- We have to understand how God views us; remember, we control our imagining — reckoning what indeed is true becomes the basis of our relationship to God as our Father.
- We have to set our minds on our relationships above; again, we control our thinking (cf. Rom 8:1-6; Col 3:13), and a proper perspective is critical to spiritual health.
- We have to relate to God personally instead of to our appetites (cf. Rom 6:11-12). Sadly, our fleshly appetites frequently have far more impact on us than God does. The “focus” of our inner person has to be God, and our identity found in Christ, and not on our inward desires. If you don’t have a solid understanding of your identify in Christ, you need to study that issue.
- We have to take the positive blessings God brings into our lives and use them as our personal definition and assumption as to what reality is. Often the fearful and anxious person selectively takes from experience only those things that he can link to some trauma or dread.
The clearest example of the interplay between our emotions & our identity with Christ in the New Testament is found in Colossians 3:1-12. You’ll notice in the construction of the passage, Paul uses some “transitional words and phrases” that show that the four sections are interconnected and interdependent — “therefore” in verse 5; “but now” in verse 8; and “therefore” in verse 12. Each new section’s application is dependent upon the practice of the preceding principles, with the result that the commands of the third and fourth sections are based upon the practice of everything that precedes it. The entire discourse starts with a picture of the believer’s identity with Christ (cf. Col 1:13-14, 20, 22; 2:6-10, 19) — God has delivered from the domain of darkness, and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son… in whom we have redemption, and the forgiveness of sin… in Him we were reconciled to God; as such we now have peace with God… in Him we have been made complete… and are encouraged to hold fast to Christ.
- Section One: Verses 1-4 — This first section addresses the need to pursue a perspective that is built around the heavenly realities and relationships that were listed in the preceding paragraph… we are to set our perspective around these realities because we have been identified with Christ. Though our identity has been hidden from the world, a day will come when Christ is revealed to the world, and we shall be revealed with Him (v. 4). What is to control our perspective is the picture that God has of us. Because Paul states this in the present tense in Greek, this is to be “the continual pursuit of the believer” — we are not to allow this exercise to slack. As we do this, a door will be opened to the management of our inner life.
- Section Two: Verses 5-7 — As the relationship with the Father is pursued, we can deal with the moods and desires that are an ever-present problem on this earth. We can only reduce their impact on as we pursue our heavenly relationships. We do this by taking the mood or appetite into the Father’s presence, and relating the feelings within to him (cf. Ps 32; Ps 51). In doing this we can transition from unbridled appetite to self-control. We can go from significant anxiety to significant peace. Our identity in Christ gives us permission to be richly transparent and personal concerning our internal struggle — seeking the things above deeply affects the way we perceive things and therefore changes the emotions of the heart.
- Section Three: Verses 8-11 — As we deal with the compulsions within through a living relationship with God, we find the ability to deal with our relationships without. Many of our external relationships are simply lived in reaction to what is going on within. Scripture clearly teaches that if we address what is going on within, it will become the basis for changing how we are acting with people without (cf. Prv 4:23; Mt 12:34).
- Section Four: Verse 12 — As the three previous practices are learned, the heart finds peace and joy and love more and more present. With those emotions becoming the environment of the heart, the believer is free to look at people in a new way — sympathetically — and relate to them in a new way as a servant for their good. Without addressing the turbulence within, the believer would never notice the needs and problems of the people we must live among. As we manage our inner lives, we are given the opportunity to become other-directed people. With all of the foregoing in mind, Dr. Eckman outlines the maturation process this way:
Col 3:1-4 — Pursuit of God
Col 3:5-7 — Nullifying Inner Moods
Col 3:8-11 — Changing Relational Reactions
Col 3:12 — Ministering to Other People
As a believer matures he or she will spend more and more time ministering to people (v. 12). But throughout the day and at any time, the believer may find himself or herself in need of addressing any of the first three issues. The reality is, the first one should be going on all the time… so it is true that each builds on the previous. What is important to note is that each section is dependent upon the pursuit of God, the perspective set on heavenly values, and the recognition of one’s position in Christ. This interplay between our identity (who we really are)… our imagination (how we picture reality)… and our conscience (our sense of values) creates the picture and the perspective that we carry through life.
The reality is, our emotions tell us of “our spiritual state.” The emotions tell us where we are with God — Spirituality is a life essentially dominated by primary emotions… and such are encapsulated in the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:22-23). When love for others is present, along with contentment with life, and a deep sense of well-being, that implies that we are being ministered to by the Spirit of God. Carnality is a life dominated by misused emotion and appetites (cf. Gal 5:19-21). It is a choice for lust rather than God (cf. Rom 6:11-12). If confusion, addictive feeling, and discontent are present, the person’s state may certainly be carnal or non-spiritual. The reality is, we cannot be spiritually mature without a ministry to our own emotional life, and setting one’s mind on the things above (cf. Col 3:1-2) becomes the first step in the process of controlling one’s emotions. If it is true that the work of the Holy Spirit is involved with our emotions, then the work of the Spirit is “profoundly psychological.” The Holy Spirit not only functions at the confluence of our imagination, perspective and ego, but our emotions as well. As we relate to God as a father through our identity in Christ, deep change takes place through the Spirit of God. Spiritual realities are emotional realities, because emotional realities are inexorably intertwined with spiritual issues… the nature of spirituality is relational and relationships are deeply emotional as the fruit of the Spirit show. Psychology, properly understood, is filled with spiritual implications; as such, it addresses the emotional nature of humanity; thus the work of the Spirit in the soul of man is deeply emotional.
Though sometimes our emotions are grounded in truth, sometimes they are ground in falsehood because they are based upon false premises. For example, if we falsely be-lieve that God is not in control of our circumstances, we may experience the emotions of fear or despair or anger based on that false belief. It has been said over & over again, it is important that we learn to manage emotions rather than let them manage us. For example, when we feel angry, we need to acknowledge that we are angry, examine our hearts as to why we are angry, and then move in a divine direction. Foundational to what some may think, “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (Jam 1:20). Since our emotions are influenced greatly by the fall, our emotions are tainted by our sin nature, and that is why they need controlling. We are to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, not by our emotions (cf. Rom 6; Eph 5:15-18; 1 Pet 5:6-11). We must recognize our emotions and bring them to God, and allow Him to do His work in our hearts and direct our actions. The psalms are excellent examples of managing our emotions and bringing them to God; many psalms are filled with raw emotions, but the emotion is poured out to God in an attempt to seek His truth and righteousness. Obviously, allowing our emotions to control us or justify them or deny them is not the road God would have us take… since we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (cf. Rom 12:1-2) and the power of the Holy Spirit, we need daily input of scriptural principles, a desire to grow in the knowledge of God, and meditate on God’s attributes.
Most of us have developed a love-hate affair with our emotions. We recognize, at least in part, that emotions are central to what it means to simply live life and experience reality. The truth is, our feelings and emotions play an extremely important role in our lives — nearly every circumstance is accompanied with a corresponding feeling… if the circumstance is “positive,” so also will be the feeling; conversely, if the circumstance is “negative,” so will be the feeling. Many of our “thoughts” also elicit feelings, so think-ing plays a vital role in the believer’s life. Over the years we have developed “opinions” on most things — some things we have come to like, and other things dislike. When our likes are being met, we are happy; when our dislikes take center stage we are unhappy. Incidentally, our English word “happy” is a derivative of the old Norse word “happ,” from which we also get our word “happens” — when what happens to us is positive, we feel happy… when it is negative, we don’t feel happy. Hence, most of our circumstances elicit some kind of feeling — if the circumstance is perceived to be positive, we will be happy… if it is perceived to be negative, we will not be happy. Because this is true, as believers we need to carefully reassess our thinking when being confronted with “highly emotional issues” (our innate bias may be too strongly skewed). In addition to the foregoing, every thought elicits some kind of feeling… be it a signi-ficant feeling that energizes our inner core, or a fairly insignificant one that is simply processed without much emotion. If you were told that 11 + 12 = 25, you would naturally reject that claim — depending upon the significance of that error (i.e. the context), so would go your feelings. If it had to do with “pennies owed,” it wouldn’t have much effect upon your feelings… but if it had to do with “thousands of dollars owed,” your feelings would become far more significant. Regarding this matter of feelings, perhaps one could compare them to “the ongoing current that takes place in the ocean” — it is always being felt; i.e., it is always moving. It is storms that cause the current (waves) to become violent; conversely, it is the storms of life that cause us to experience strong emotional feelings — without storms, the soul is relatively calm… but when storms do come, they govern the discourse that takes place in our minds… the discourse only changes by intentionally redirecting our thinking (cf. Phil 4:6-9). Emotion starts the ball rolling in our minds… when it is rolling in a wrong direction, we must then take steps to redirect our thinking. At every intersection of life, feelings immediately govern the discourse in our minds; thus it must be the practice of our lives to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (cf. 2 Cor 10:5) — though some people think that’s making the Christian life a little much; those who draw that conclusion are minimizing the centrality of the Christian life (don’t change the rules). If the feeling or emotion we are experiencing runs counter to God’s will, the temptation to embrace the feeling makes it a sin. So if one is conscious that his feelings run counter to what God would have him think, he must immediately turn from those feelings (lusts, desires) or he will give birth to sin (Jam 1:13). The cries and demands of the soul (i.e., our flesh) are defined by intense feelings, emotions, passions, anxieties, wants, frustrations & desires. Angst in the soul and spiritual depression are often the result of disturbing thoughts and our emotional inner core — disconcerting circumstances, unanswered prayers, and a lack of peace in the soul, can cause significant disconcertion in our inner core. God’s call upon our lives is that we fight the flesh and not let it rule in our lives; we are not to let our feelings and fleshly inner core govern all that goes on in our minds (cf. Rom 6:12). Though some belie- vers may claim to never get “angry,” that is not at all possible for fallen human beings; if you make that claim, you are priding yourself in your own self-piety and are trying to delude others; you need to own up to your frailties and acknowledge the truth; it gets a little old hearing some of this self-righteous stuff from people — even GOD gets angry (Scripture identifies at least a hundred times when God got angry – cf. Ex 32:9-10; Deut 11: 16-17; Josh 7:1; Jud 2:13-14; 2 Chrn 25:14-15; Ps 78:39). Anger is simply an expression of the soul; sometimes it might be good, at other times it might be bad.
As John Calvin stated in his work “Institutes of the Christian Religion” — “We live our lives through our emotions, and it is our emotions that give our lives meaning. What interests or fascinates us, who we love, what angers us, what moves us, what bores us — all of this defines us, gives us character, and constitutes who we are” (Westminster Press, 1960, p. 39). Yet many of us see our emotions as problematic, because they impact our lives in ways we cannot control. From an early age, our society has taught us that emotions are irrational, childish, a sign of weakness, not always reliable, and can interfere with getting what we really want — obviously some of our emotions are irrational. Says Matthew Richard Schlimm, an Associate Professor of OT at The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, “Our emotions are [a strong corollary] of the mind; i.e., our feelings stem from judgments we make about the world around us… at their core, emotions involve assessments, typically regarding things that matter deeply to us and things we cannot fully control” (http://www.atthispoint.net/articles/emotions-and-faith). George Stroup, a Professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary says that “Christian theologians have long recognized that… the Christian faith is more than holding a set of intellectual beliefs; that it involves the whole person.” He goes on to say that John Calvin argued in his work, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” that “true and sound wisdom includes both knowledge of God and knowledge of self… thus faith is inextricably related to love and involves the heart at least as much as the intellect.” Schlimm makes an interesting observation by declaring that “we experience changes in our emotional life as a result of spending time in the community of faith — though we will never completely be rid of ‘negative emotions,’ we will be able to ‘imagine things in new ways’…. [ultimately] the Christian emotional life is shaped in response to God’s character.” Regarding this matter of emotion and feeling, let me identify a few of them —
Angry Sad Anxious Hurt Happy Other
Annoyed Disappointed Afraid Crushed Hopeful Bored
Stressed Discouraged Stressed Betrayed Supported Curious
Destructive Gloomy Vulnerable Injured Thankful Jealous
Bewildered Hurting Confused Shocked Calm Moody
Skeptical Miserable Impatient Deprived Content Scared
Worried Unhappy Disgusted Victimized Excited Shy
Nervous Depressed Offended Aggrieved Relieved Withdrawn
Fuming Pessimistic Cautious Tormented Elated Weak
Grumpy Dismayed Powerless Ignored Blessed Guilty
Mad Tearful Uncertain Judged Loved Self-pity
Irritated Disillusioned Melancholy Rejected Comfortable Disoriented
QUOTES ON ANXIETY, FEELING, PASSION & EMOTION
Following are a number of quotes on Anxiety, Feeling, Passion and Emotion… most of them can be found in “The Book of Religious Quotes” should you care to access more of them.
ANXIETY – The reason why our public life is so disordered and our private life so hampered by anxiety is because we will not be still and know God – A Maude Royden, “Federal Council Bulletin (Jan 1931).
ANXIETY – There is an exceeding difference between suffering and trouble of mind. Simple suffering is a purgatory; but a troubled mind is a hell. Suffering without unfaithfulness is calm and peaceful, by reason of the entire purpose of the soul to accept the pain sent by God. But trouble and anxiety are a revolt against God – Francois Fenelon, “Spiritual Letters of” (1700).
ANXIETY – Though serious anxiety may need the help of a psychiatrist because it springs from unconscious levels of the mind, for most of us there is real help in the Christian religion – Leslie D. Weatherhead, “Prescriptions for Anxiety” (1956).
FEELING – I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue – William James, “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902).
FEELING – It is an ancient insight that at least some “feelings” are unformed and inchoate cognitions. And this is the justification of the religious feelings of common men…. They are a dim vision of the eternal, appearing in the guise of feelings, or even emotions – W. T. Stace, “Religion and the Modern Mind” (1952).
FEELING – Absence of feeling cannot prevent the soul from ascending to God, nor can its presence ensure it, and when feeling is sought after and enjoyed for its own sake, it prevents it – Jean Mouroux, “Christian Experience” (1954).
FEELING – Feeling, no less than experience, can be a source of spiritual knowledge just as intuition can at times be stronger and stranger than the stubborn conclusions of the intellect – Marcus Bach, “Rotarian” (Dec, 1962).
PASSION – Passions are spiritual rebels, and raise sedition against the understanding – Ben Johnson, “Discoveries” (1641).
PASSION – Passion is a sort of Fever in the Mind, which ever leaves us weaker than it found us…. It may not unfitly be termed, the Mob of the Man, that commits a Riot upon his Reason – William Penn, “Some Fruits of Solitutde” (1693).
PASSION – A man in a passion rides a wild horse – Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanac” (1749).
PASSION – No passion or affection, with which we are born, can be in itself sinful: it becomes so, only by willful or careless indulgence – Jonathan Mayhew, “Sermons” (1755).
PASSION – Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion – G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), “Philosophy of History.”
EMOTION – No religion that ministers only to the intellect and not also to the emotions can meet the needs of men – Edwin Grant Conklin, “Man, Real and Ideal” (1940).
EMOTION – Religion is never devoid of emotion, any more than love is. It is not a defect of religion, but rather its glory, that it speaks always the language of feeling – D. E. Trueblood, “The Logic of Belief” (1942).
EMOTION – The spiritual life is not a thing without emotions. The saints weep at the thought of their own sins and the goodness of God; their hearts beat to the bursting point within them, they shout and dance for joy; they die to see God – Jean Mouroux, “Christian Exper-ience” (1954).
EMOTION – The true meaning of religion is thus not simply morality, but morality touched by emotion – Matthew Arnold, “Literature and Dogma” (1883).
EMOTION – Opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect – Herbert Spencer, “Social Statics” (1850).
EMOTION – The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect… When literature becomes too intellectual — when it begins to ignore the passions, the emotions — it becomes sterile, silly, and actually without substance – Issac Bashevis Singer, “New York Times Interview” (Dec 3, 1978).