A fool vents all his feelings, But a wise man holds them back. (Proverbs 29:11 NKJV)
What Kind of Emotions Should Christians Have?
While God is emotional there are some emotions that God never has. God is never envious, lustful, greedy, bitter with selfish ambition, small-minded, or petty. Neither is he anxious or fretful but dwells in perfect peace. His emotions are positive, holy, noble and appropriate. God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. Since we are called to be “in the image of God”, then whatever else that means, it means that at the end of our Christian maturity, our emotions should in some measure share these divine qualities. We should be “walking in the light”.
Thus godliness means forsaking some emotions and embracing others. We should be utterly free from unholy and fleshly emotions and moving toward mature and holy emotional responses. The mature saint of God is filled with love and utterly free from bitter envy and selfish ambition. (James 3:15-18). Petty covetous worldly longings are replaced by the love of the Father (1 John 2:15-17) and perfect love casts out fear so that we dwell in quietness, peace and confidence (1 John 4:18; Isaiah 26:3). Holy people do not easily fly into rages or engage in back-biting and quarrelling, rather they are centered people full of love, joy and peace (Galatians 5:19-23). There is thus a grand and holy emotional authenticity that accompanies maturity in Christ.
Generally speaking, our emotions can be broken down into three classes:
Holy Emotions – those experienced by God such as compassion, joy, and holy indignation and those that accompany life in the Spirit such as praise, worship and adoration. These emotions are derived from the kingdom of light and the Sprit (Ephesians 5:18-21; Colossians 3:16-17; Galatians 5:22,23) and are in agreement with true wisdom (James 3:17,18) They are the emotions of Christ in us. They are not necessarily religious or pious emotions. Admiring a flower or delighting in beautiful music or focusing on the beautiful and the good can be just as holy as going to church (Philippians 4:8).
Human Emotions – based in our human situation and the created order and shared by Jesus during His time on earth. This includes emotions such
as grief, pain, fear, abandonment, sadness and sorrow, anxiety, stress, anguish and vulnerability. These emotions are well chronicled in the Psalms. For the Christian they are temporary and in eternity there shall be no more crying or sadness or pain (Revelation 21:4). While these emotions may feel bad they are not evil or toxic. They can be painful but they are not poisonous.
Fleshly Emotions – are poisonous and destructive and include toxic emotions such as malice, envy, selfish ambition, sensuality, bitterness, overpowering lusts and murderous hatred. They are closely tied to the works of the flesh and with evil deeds. Their outcome is spiritual death. These emotions were not part of mankind at Creation and are not “natural human reactions” (For instance grief is a natural human reaction but bitterness is fleshly. One can have “good grief” without a trace of bitterness. Bitterness is not natural to the human condition.) Rather these emotions are derived from the kingdom of darkness and have their source in a dark wisdom (James 3:14-16).
This classification helps us see the relative value of our emotional responses and to use the techniques described in the succeeding chapters to assist with our sanctification. It also puts the lie to the old humanist rubric “there are no right or wrong emotions.” All emotions are not equal. Some are of much higher value than others and some emotions and impulses are positively wrong. This classification also goes a bit beyond the black and white classification of emotions as “spiritual” or “unspiritual” that causes so much pain in traditional missionary circles. When pain and disappointment are seen as “unspiritual” we simply add to the burden the person is carrying. Hurt, disappointment, pain and frustration are valid human emotions stemming from our creatureliness encountering a fallen world. Human beings were created good but mortal and it is as we explore this mortality that we find out many useful things about ourselves. The above simple classification also saves us from the error of stopping there with our human emotions and being content simply to explore ourselves at that level. It tells us there is something higher, something beyond our mortality and that it is as we focus on our immortality in Christ that we develop the highest and noblest parts of our being.
We are thus called to participate in the holy emotions so that they
transcend the human emotions and overcome the fleshly emotions. By
this I mean that we must choose our emotional level and which emotions we will be gripped by. When disappointment strikes we can choose to respond with holy emotions and pray through until we trust God and can praise Him as the Psalmist did or we can respond at the human level and sit down disconsolate in human misery and gradually see it through or we can respond from fleshly emotions and lash out in anger, bitterness, distrust and revenge. Consider Paul in jail in Philippi in Acts 16. He praised God, sang psalms and rejoiced thus transcending the human emotions of pain and discomfort and effectively banishing any fleshly emotions such as bitterness or desire for revenge. Thus Paul participated in holy emotions so that they transcended the human emotions and overcame the fleshly emotions. The human emotions are not denied or seen as wrong rather they are acknowledged but not focused on. They are transcended. The saint focuses on and deliberately chooses to move toward the holy emotions. Prayer, fasting, praise and worship, reading Scripture, meditating on good teaching and doing good works are all helpful in this process. However above and beyond these things we need the work of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit responds differently to each of these three categories of emotion. The Holy Spirit rejoices and assists us when we engage in holy responses. He produces them within us so they can justly be called “the fruit of the Spirit” (Romans chapters 8 & 12, and Galatians 5). On the other hand the Holy Spirit comforts us when the human emotions, such as grief, overwhelm us (see 2 Corinthians 1). Finally He is determined to break the grip of fleshly emotions such as hatred, lust and revenge. In fact the Spirit wars against such impulses so that we cannot fully give way to our worst desires (Galatians 5:16-18). Thus the Holy Spirit produces holy emotions, comforts overwhelming human emotions and wars against fleshly emotions. However, we have a choice in the matter. We can heed the Spirit’s promptings or we can discard them in fleshly rebellion. This leads Paul to say that the mind set on the flesh and its fractious emotions “is death” but the mind set on the Spirit with His holy emotions is “life and peace” (Romans 8:5,6).
As we will see in other chapters, the Spirit renews the mind with its personal perspective and belief structure. The renewed mind becomes centered on God and can be validly called “the mind of Christ”
(1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Thus as the mind is redeemed, renewed and
set on the Spirit, life and peace result. This life and peace that results from a well disciplined and renewed mind is the aim of this book. This
classification of emotions will be vastly expanded as the complexities and subtleties of the emotional life of the Christian life are explored. Our emotions need redemption if they are to become holy and the focus of all redemption is Jesus Christ who will be our model and pattern for biblical EQ.
Why Do Christians Seem To Stop Changing Emotionally After Few Years?
Massive early transformation followed by accommodation to religious sub-cultural norms is a fairly common pattern among Christians from an emotionally damaged childhood. Church life provides many little nooks and crannies where we can hide from the Holy Spirit and the hard work of emotional transformation. In many cases painful emotions are not understood by the clergy and even by some Christian counselors and damage is done. This book will seek to bring wisdom and balance to the Christian handling of emotions. However all is not the fault of the clergy, church culture or inadequate theological and counseling training. Much is our own fault. Each of us has defense mechanisms against change such as rationalization, projection, and denial. We avoid dealing with God and with change.
I believe one of the greatest obstacles to emotional health in Christian circles is that we simply don’t understand our emotions or we lack proper mechanisms for dealing with them. Many Christians are ignorant of Scriptural teaching on emotional life and so are left stranded with a few basic techniques that barely scratch the surface of the problem. In a puzzling, almost paradoxical way, we also take our emotions too seriously and make them the source of our spiritual self-esteem. When we feel holy and good and positive we judge ourselves as being “up” spiritually and when we are feeling distant or depressed we judge ourselves as being “down” spiritually. In fact the connection between emotions and spirituality is fairly loose. Some very happy optimistic people are carnal and worldly, while some serious gloomy types are deeply spiritual – and the reverse applies as well. While it is certainly preferable to feel good and to “rejoice in the
Lord always” even the apostle Paul admits to times of intense pressure and discouragement. We see this particularly in his letters to the Corinthians. And, of course, Jesus was known as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”. Even tempting emotions need not be sinful. Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin”. Yet there is indeed a deep connection between our emotions and our character.
Are Emotions Important? Do They Build Christian Character And Ethics?
The common observation of philosophers and theologians as diverse as Aristotle and C.S. Lewis has been that right affections and emotions form the basis for right morality. If we love the good and abhor the evil we are far more likely to be good. And if we hate bribes and value integrity we are far more likely to be honest.
Ethics is not a purely intellectual exercise. From antiquity it has involved feeling, thinking and acting rightly. True agape love has emotions that are ethical. “Love does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth”
(1 Corinthians 13:6). Being horrified by certain sins is a good and moral thing. Rejoicing in the truth is a right emotional response for the disciple. Our emotional valuation of life should be in agreement with our ethical stance. In biblical terms the person who is right emotionally loves good and hates evil. In their emotions they value what God values. The emotionally perfected Christian is not just “together” or integrated in the secular sense rather they are righteous, just, holy and perfectly loving. Their emotions agree with their ethics which agree with the Scriptures which agree with God.
What we like and dislike gradually shapes the course of our life and character. This is why TV and advertising can have such a profound effect. It teaches us to like a certain lifestyle filled with material things and to value being sexy and attractive. It teaches us, ever so gradually, not to dislike fornication and adultery. Rarely does it blatantly say “adultery is good” – it just teaches people to like the idea of being attractive to many people and to being quietly thrilled by the notion of perhaps having many sexual partners. Thus, over time their ethical resolve is weakened, the emotions that drive holiness are eroded and thousands of Christians fall into sin they would not have contemplated a few years ago. What we like and dislike, what we value and esteem, is critical to what we will eventually become.
Unfortunately we have divorced emotions from ethics. We see ethics as “our opinion” about things not our reaction to things. At times we even train ourselves to think one way and feel another. We ask people to be righteous and biblical yet feel embarrassed at our fellow Christian who get genuinely angry over sin and moral decay. By doing this we say it’s alright to just have notions not emotions. That Christianity is best kept in the head not in the heart. Then we wonder why they do not give and why they do not commit to discipleship! We teach Christian young people to be sexy, sophisticated and emotionally unshockable, then expect them to value chastity. We are asking the impossible.
Our emotions reflect what we value and cherish, admire and love and they also reflect what we dislike, loath and reject. Our emotions undergird our choices and our choices form the foundations for our character and destiny. If our emotions are askew our choices and destiny will surely follow suite. During my university years I often tutored high school students in calculus. The biggest obstacle was nearly always emotional rather than intellectual. It was moving the student past emotional valuations such as “I hate math” and “homework is horrible”. Because they had been taught by parents and peers that mathematics was odious and loathsome and homework was dull they were not doing their work. Because they were not doing their work they were failing mathematics. If they failed mathematics they would not get into university in Australia or into a decent career. Their emotional attitude, learned from others, was affecting their entire future.
The ability to delay gratification is fundamental to the development of good character. An experiment was set up where small children were given a choice: one marshmallow now, or two in ten minutes time. To get two marshmallows they had to delay gratification – a basic skill in managing and discipling their emotions. When the children were then followed up in a longitudinal study the difference between the “grabbers” and the “patient” was incredible. The most impatient and impulsive achieved less and got into trouble more
while the most patient were more successful in practically every sphere of life. In fact this test proved more predictive of success at school and in life than IQ tests or any other social variable. This simple act of emotional management was a key to later success in life.
Thus right emotions are an important part of right character and right ethics and right emotions undergird right choices and right destiny. To emotionally rejoice in truth, to celebrate justice, to delight in noble actions and to embrace compassion and mercy is to have emotions that complement our faith. On the other hand confused emotions can destabilize us and create conflicts. Finally, the presence of strong lustful and evil emotions can drive us to sin and blind us to truth. Thus sorting ourselves out emotionally is much more than just getting our act together. It is getting our heart in line with our faith and with our God.
But which way is up? How can we know which emotions are right, which are wrong and which are neutral? How can we get an idea of what an emotionally healthy and righteous and holy Christian looks like? As in everything, Jesus is our model and that is the subject of the next chapter.
1. What have you learned from this chapter?
2. What are the differences between holy emotions, human emotions and fleshly emotions?
3. How do emotions fit into the Christian life?
- What would the Christian life be like without emotions?
- Are people in your church generally threatened by emotional change or generally comfortable with emotional change?
- Are extroverts more spiritual than introverts, or vice versa or does it matter?