Emotions & the Bible

As I’ve been writing this year on the Psalms, I’ve had several recurring thoughts about the place of emotions both in the Bible and in the Christian life. Certainly nowhere else in Scripture do we find the kind of dynamic and emotional language used concisely throughout the Psalms. I’ve heard it said before that just about every recognizable human emotion can be seen in the Psalms and that seems to be the case. We see in the Psalms the heights of praise and the depths of despair, the joy of fullness and the dread of emptiness. We see the full circuit of a life made available to us in the pages of our Bibles.

For all that can be said about the place of emotions in the Bible, I think a few reflections have been helpful to me when thinking about emotions and the Bible:

ONE: Emotions matter

The Psalms, far and above any other place in Scripture, show us that the gamut of human emotions is not senseless. The human experience is an emotional one. Christians rather awkwardly dance around this idea, but you can’t read the Bible or pay attention to your life and not run head long into this reality. I’m not so much concerned with talking about the nature of emotions because it’s certainly not my area of expertise; that said, we can be sure that our lives will be emotional ones and in every season, there is purpose, meaning and value. Our aim isn’t to become like the Stoics – to set aside every emotion to master ourselves; rather, we recognize that true flourishing comes when the entirety of ourselves – every thought, motivation, and emotion – are brought under submission to the Lord (2 Corinthians 10:5).

By way of example, I’ve always been fascinated with the “unrecorded” response of the first in the call to discipleship. As Jesus calls the disciples to follow him, our often stale readings fail to take into account all that must have been involved in sacrificially following him (Matthew 16:24). We probably have some issues of our own regarding the emotional response to following Jesus, but more on that another day. If we read the gospels flatly, we miss the experience of loss that faced the disciples in their call to Christ. The radical call to discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount is not an attempt to negate or ignore the nature of man and the experience of our lives, but to call us to something greater; to show that what we long for is exactly what Jesus is promising. The emotion we experience in response is not a senseless variable in the exercise of following Jesus, but is rather dealt with generously as Jesus leads us unending joy that will supersede any sense of loss in following Jesus (Philippians 3:8).

TWO: Emotions change

I spent a few years learning the ins and outs of ministry working with middle and high school students throughout my time in college. One reflection I had about that time is how invariably unequipped teenagers are at dealing with their emotions. Everything is turmoil. And when things don’t go exactly as they expect, chaos ensues. They have no range of experience on which to draw to deal with some of the curveballs life throws at them. You could set your watch by this: every summer was the peak of a teenagers spiritual life. They went to student camps, had tons of free time (some of which was used to read their Bibles), got to hang out with their friends and generally lead a pretty stress-free life. By December, you’d have thought they all were returning from a war zone. Life was pure drudgery. They weren’t equipped to handle themselves when they were stressed, expectant, anxious, heartbroken and happy all within the span of a week. They universally experienced a rhythmic existential crisis, thinking something must have been wrong with them since their experience of following Jesus wasn’t like it was in the summer. Bummer. Funny how life works.

I say all of that not to poke fun, but actually to demonstrate that many of us experience that way of being constantly. In the heights, we are praising the Lord and loving our lives. In our depths, we are filled with shame and fear, never turning our eyes to the God who was there all along. Instead of turning inwardly, David turned to God in his times of despair. In Psalm 141, he cries out to God asking for “open ears” and strength to resist evil (v.1-4). When David recognized the despair that would follow if God were not to hear him, he didn’t wallow in pity; he turned to God and appealed to his gracious character and unending promises. He believed God was one who would listen to his “request for mercy” (Psalm 28:6) and oriented himself thusly. We can learn a thing or two about life’s ups and downs from someone like David, who experienced probably higher heights and deeper depths than many of us ever will, yet expertly sought to serve God with the whole of his life – throughout every season, in every circumstance and with every emotion. Even our dread, anxiety, hopelessness and despair can be praise to our God insofar as we recognize that despite how we feel, he is our help, our sufficiency and our salvation.

THREE: Emotions can and should (NOT) rule us

I don’t mean to discount the place of emotions in our lives, leadership and work, but I certainly discern a sense in which we should handle them rightly. We don’t need a Spock-like denial of our emotions to register a level-headedness for following Jesus, but we can’t be ruled by our sinful passions, either. We can see pretty clearly that emotions can get the best of us. James 1:20 says that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”. Now, certainly it isn’t to a sin to be angry, otherwise Ephesians 4:26 would be a bit problematic (“be angry and do not sin”). Anger is a right and God-created emotion, but sin is a far-reaching plague in our being. It must be that not all anger is prideful and vengeful, but there is an anger that is. Paul orders another similar control of one’s emotions in 2 Corinthians 7:7-11, where he shows that grief over sin isn’t always Christ-honoring. There is a kind of grief that is glorified defeatism – a rejection of the grace shown to us in Christ and an inward-focused, self-flagellating, and aimless. However, there is a kind of godly grief that is a remorse over sin met by repentance; a “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) that recognizes the severity of one’s own sin, but is met with a greater righteousness as the kindness of God compels repentance (Romans 2:4).

The Bible consistently directs us to see that the way to flourishing is by control over oneself; to walk wisely (Ephesians 5:15-18), to be “sober minded” and “watchful” (1 Peter 5:6-11). To be led by our emotions is to be open to misdirection. The inner self is expertly deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), so how can we expect to walk wisely if we do not manage ourselves well? Be passionate and experience life honestly and fully, but remember the fruit of the Spirit is “self-control” (Galatians 5:23). We can’t be left to our own devices because we are often wrong. The answer is not a better handle of our emotions that we become high-EI “good people”, rather our destiny is conformity to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). We need discipline and self-control, not to the demise of our emotions, but to the flourishing of ourselves as the people of God who serve him with the whole of our lives throughout every season, in every circumstance and with every emotion.

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