A Brief Theology of Emotions

We all have emotions. How often do we consider emotions from a biblical perspective though?… Yet, what better place to turn than God’s word! So, what does the Bible say about emotions?

Emotions are part of God’s good design

First, it is important to realize that “Our emotional capacities are part of our nature as personal beings created in the image and likeness of God.”[1] Second, Emotions are part of God’s good design.[2] Third, We often don’t think about it but we are actually commanded to be emotional. For example, Psalm 2:11 says “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” And there’s a bunch of other examples (Deut. 28:47-48; Ps. 51:17; 97:10; 100:2; Matt. 6:25-34; Rom. 12:9, 15; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:15).

So, Jay Adams says:

“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.”[3]

You may have heard: “Don’t follow your emotions” or “don’t let your feelings get the best of you,” or “use your head.” But emotions are not bad in themselves. God created us with emotions.

Even our negative emotions are not always wrong. It’s not always bad to feel bad. Sometimes feeling sad and angry is good and right. It’s important to realize that in the Psalms the genre of lament is most dominant.[4] It is also important to remember that there is no book of Joys but there is a book of Lamentations.[5] We don’t always have just “good” feelings and that’s okay. On the other hand, God made us at least in part to experience profound joy and to experience this forever, Psalm 16:11 says. So, our first take away is for us to realize that emotions are not bad in themselves.

But what’s wrong with emotions? Or, why is it that sometimes we can’t or shouldn’t trust our emotions? Because…

Emotions are broken by sin

A lot of us remember the (true) story of Adam and Eve. John Frame has said, “the fall… was rebellion of the whole person—intellect as much as emotions, perception, and will—against God.”[6] After looking at Genesis 3:1-6 (notice the highlighting) we can agree with what Frame says:

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

How did the Fall happen? The serpent was very crafty (the blue highlighting shows how the serpent was crafty) and tempted Eve. But how did it happen? There are three things involved that I want us to see…

Thinking…

What did Eve think when Satan tempted her (the green highlighting hints at how Eve was thinking)?

First, perhaps Eve is beginning to think God is unreasonable because she adds to what God said. God never said that they were not allowed to touch the tree. He said, “you shall not eat” (Gen. 2:17). Second, it seems that Eve believes something that is false. Satan said, “You won’t die and your eyes will be open.” And so Eve looked at the tree in a different way, she looked at it with the fog of deception. Third, Eve begins to make value judgments that are not in line with God’s Word. God said that the tree was not good for food, in fact, God said when you eat of it you will die. So the tree was surely “not good for food.” Although, it looked like it was. Remember Satan is crafty. He is the father of lies and he seeks to deceive and destroy, and he is quite effective at it.

Feeling

What did Eve feel when Satan tempted her (the purple highlighting shows us what Eve was feeling)? 

First, Eve felt a sense of delight. It was delight based on deception, it was a poison pill covered in chocolate, but she felt delight nonetheless. Second, she felt desire. James tells us how desires can lead us astray: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14).[7] Desires not in line with God’s will destroy.

Doing…

What did Eve do when Satan tempted her (the red highlighting shows what Eve did)?

First, Eve “saw” or looked at the tree differently, she as we said above, looked at the tree with sinful desire. Therefore, second, she “took,”[8] “ate,” and “gave.” James tells us the end result of deceptive desires: “desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15). As we said above, desire not in line with God’s will destroys.

The problem is not emotions. Actually, one of the things we need to see here is the problem is not just thinking, or just feeling, or just doing. Nope. Thinking, feeling, and doing were each involved in the Fall of humanity. It is the whole of who we are that is fallen. There was not just one culprit. Our whole heart is sick (Is. 1:5; cf. Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10-18). Not just one aspect of it. 

The main problem that leads us astray is our idolatrous in.[9] We fail to listen to the Lord and follow Him as we should and we run after other so-called gods. That’s what gets us in trouble. Not our feeling, thinking, or doing on their own.

And in fact, our emotions are complex and there is a very close relationship between our thinking, feeling, and doing.[10] Here’s a helpful diagram from Jeremy Pierre’s helpful book, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Lifeshowing how our hearts work:[11]

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 12.44.27 AM

In the Fall of humanity, Adam and Eve failed to love God as they were supposed to. We are called to love the LORD our God with all we are. Everything. All our heart,[12] soul, strength, and mind (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37; Lk. 10:27). But we fail to do that and so all sorts of problems are the result. We carve out a chaotic character and that impacts all of society . The following diagram illustrates this…

Screen Shot 2018-05-20 at 12.50.41 AM

We may feel like no one likes us or loves us, for example, but that is simply not true. The Bible says God loves us, loves us so much that He gave His Son… So, our feeling must be informed by God’s truth. I agree with what W. Robert Godfrey says here: “Emotions must be properly channeled and directed. They must be governed by the sanctified intellect and will of the Christian.”[13] 

So, our emotions, though not inherently bad, are certainly not perfect. We are sinful (Eccl. 9:3; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3; etc.). Our cognition (thinking), volition (acting), and emotion (feeling) are all fallen. “No aspect of human functioning escapes the influence of sin.”[14]

It is important that we realize the extent of the problem and not just blame it on emotionalism. Emotions can cause us to do evil things but emotions are not the only culprit involved. 

As we saw above from Genesis 3, we often desire the wrong things and this has dire consequences when we act on our deceptive desires. We need God’s word to guide us. Emotions are not inherently bad but when informed by wrong thinking they can trap and take control and lead us down a bad course. Emotions can lie and cloud our judgment.

It is also important to realize that though emotions are not perfect, they can reveal a lot. Emotions can be a helpful gauge. They can tell us what we love and desire. 

We can say we don’t care about something—a girl or guy, a job, a grade on a test, or something else—but our emotions will reveal where our heart really is.[15] So, “Emotions… serve as the gauge of desire.”[16] Notice, however, that the emotions, in this case, are not really the problem, the emotions rather are revealing a potential problem, a potential idol. We may have made too much of the girl or guy, the job, or the grade on a test, or maybe not. Maybe it is right for us to be upset. Whatever the case, our emotions are showing us where we are regarding something. Of course, our emotions may lead us to think that a certain response is warranted that is not.

For example, if we are really angry with our poor test score we may think we should get even with the teacher. However, that is clearly wrong and we should not do that. So, just because we feel one way does not mean that we should listen and follow our every feeling… God’s Word is our guide.

Jon Bloom says that “God designed your emotions to be gauges, not guides. They’re meant to report to you, not dictate.”[17]

So, it seems that emotions can go haywire and not reflect reality but that does not mean they are always bad.[18] Emotions serve an important purpose—or at least they can. It seems the problem is not just emotion vs. thinking (as people often seem to think), it seems the problem has to do with something else.

What seems to matter then is what leads us. The problem is not that there should be a dichotomy between thinking and feeling. The problem is that our thinking, feeling, and doing need realigned. We are messed up, the whole of who we are–what we think, feel, and do. We need to follow what is true, we need to follow the Lord with all we are: heart, soul, mind, and strength; with our emotion, violation, and cognition.

So, is there any hope? What can we do about our emotions?

Emotions can be fixed by Christ

We don’t have a lot of space but it is helpful to think about the example of Christ. We see through Scripture that Christ experienced the whole range of emotions. As just one example, remember that Jesus was “deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled” and He wept (Jn. 11:33–35). Christ had a perfect hold of His emotions. He was tempted to give in but never did. Jesus wept and grieved but He trusted. Jesus was angry but His anger was righteous.

Jesus experienced emotions in every way that we do and yet He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). So Jesus is able to provide salvation for us who so often go astray with our emotions. We are called to follow Jesus but we fail and so we see our need to fall at His feet for mercy and help. And–praise God!–He provides both.

We can be hopeful because Jesus can give us the help we need. He provides salvation and He sent the Helper! Jesus sent the Holy Spirit! And the Holy Spirit is able to recreate our hearts; hearts that beat with love for Him and not deceptive desires. Remember, the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control are not from a seed we planted. Those fruits are from the Spirit! It’s good to remember that. It’s encouraging because it means there is hope. God can do what we cannot do! 

God fixes our emotions.[19] He reorders them. And He does so through a variety of means. One of the ways He does it is through words. “Words are powerful. Words that you read and hear shape your perspective.”[20] It may be very subtle but it’s true. “Every last word in the Bible bids to change you—to change how you think, and how you feel about the world around you.”[21] Thus, we see the power of biblically informed music. Music shapes, teaches, and directs our desire in powerful ways (see my post here).[22] 

We must fill our lives with conscious choices to turn the highs, the lows, and even the mundane moments of our daily lives into opportunities for engaging the Lord[23] (as we see demonstrated in the Psalms). We need to listen to and be shaped by the authoritative word of God. 

It is important, however, to realize that we can’t always quickly change our emotions. Emotions are not emojis that we can just select. It is also important to realize, as we said above, that negative emotions are not always bad or wrong even though they may not be desirable. They might be completely warranted (again, remember Lamentations and all the laments in the Psalms).[24]

It is encouraging to remember that as we make use of the means God has given us “Our emotions can begin to accurately reflect the emotions of our Creator, and our feelings won’t lead us to believe things that aren’t true. Positive emotions can be brilliant reflections of enjoying God, and redeemed negative emotions can be catalysts to help us recalibrate our desires and experience greater joy.”[25]

We can be realigned. Retuned to sing God’s praise. Colossians 3:2 tells us to set our mind on things above and Joshua 1:8 tells us to meditate on God’s word day and night. When we do that it changes us. It changes our desires and it changes our emotions…

What we desire pulls us—all of us, our emotion, will, intellect—along. The great practical theologian John Owen said, “It is vain to contend with anything that hath the power of our affections in its disposal; it will prevail at the last.” “Emotions, at their essence, overflow from what we love.”[26]

“For[27] where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Jesus teaches us that whatever we treasure pulls along our heart (our affections and the whole of who we are).[28] And notice how important this is because it’s from out of our hearts that our life comes (see Prov. 4:23; Matt. 15:18-20; 23:26; Lk. 12:33-35). So this passage really speaks to the process of sanctification or how we are made holy. We don’t often think of this text as a text related to sanctification but it is. Our affections and actions and attitudes flow from our heart. And this passage says that where we put our treasure takes our heart along… If our hearts are rightly aligned then so will be our emotions and actions and thoughts… (see “Are You Mindful of Your Mind?” on the importance of thinking). 

God is the Lord of the universe may He ever be Lord of our hearts as well!

________________________

[1] Sam Williams, “Toward a Theology of Emotion,” p. 65. There are debates on the subject of whether or not God has emotions but I believe that He does (though it is mysterious and I am not claiming to fully understand. See. Deut. 29:29).

[2] “The capacity for emotional response is part of God’s original pre-fall design, which was declared ‘very good” by the Lord” (Williams, “Toward a Theology of Emotion,” p. 65).

[3] Jay Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manuel, p. 349.

[4] Ryken’s Bible Handbook says “Lament psalms are the most numerous category in the Psalter, composing approximately a third of the book” (p. 242). And regarding Psalms see Worship by the Book, p. 83. 

[5] J. Alasdair Groves, “Nourishing Your Emotional Life,” p. 53.

[6] John Frame, DKG, p. 337.

[7] “The desires of people’s hearts are… of monumental importance to the trajectory of their lives” (Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, p. 20-21).

[8] “It’s the littlest decisions that shape our lives. Stray off course by just two millimeters, and your trajectory changes; what seemed like a tiny, inconsequential decision then can become a mammoth miscalculation now” (“Special Message from Anthony Robbins” in The Compound Effect).

[9] Van Til said, “It is sometimes argued that unless one asserts the primacy of the intellect, one may justly follow any or every sort of emotion. But this would be true only in the non-Christian concept of the nature of man. Only in the non-Christian concept of man are the emotions inherently unruly; they have become unruly only because of sin. But, when sin has entered into the mind of man, the intellect is as unruly as are the affections. The whole man refuses to subject itself to the rule of God. When a saved sinner learns to control his passions, the reason is not primarily that he has understood the meaning of the primacy of the intellect as a psychological truth, but the primary reason is that in the whole of his being he is born of God” (Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 34 as quoted in Williams, “Toward a Theology of Emotion,” p. 68).

[10] “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” (John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth, p. 78).

[11] From Jeremy Pierre’s helpful book, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, p. 17.

[12] “The Old Testament attributes feelings and emotions to the heart. The New Testament follows suit here as well: desire and passion reside in the heart, and the heart generates emotions” (Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, p. 20).

[13] W. Robert Godfrey, “Worship and the Emotions,” p. 368 in Give Praise to God.

[14] Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, p. 60.

[15] “Emotions are the surface expression of deeper desires and values” (Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, p. 41).

[16] Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, p. 41.

[17] Jon Bloom, “Your Emotions Are a Gauge, Not a Guide.”

[18] Sam Williams said, “my thoughts, decisions, and actions have caused me a lot more trouble than my emotions ever have” (Williams, “Toward a Theology of Emotion,” p. 69).

[19] “Regeneration and sanctification don’t necessarily make us any more emotional, although they certainly are intended to renew our emotions and kindle and redirect the affections so that, in increasing measures, the new man is able to love God and neighbor more wholeheartedly and to hate evil and sin” (Williams, “Toward a Theology of Emotion,” p. 70). He also says, “God’s Word and 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.” Thus, “‘Christian’ versions of the popular admonition that ‘one should never follow feelings’ fail to take into account the effect of both sin and redemption upon the whole man, upon each and every one of our capacities or faculties” (Ibid., p. 69).

[20] Groves, “Nourishing Your Emotional Life,” p. 50.

[21] Ibid., p. 51.

[22] Andy Crouch says, “Singing may be the one human activity that most perfectly combines heart, mind, soul, and strength. Almost everything else we do requires at least one of these fundamental human faculties: the heart, the seat of the emotion and the will; the mind, with which we explore and explain the world, the soul, the heart of human dignity and personhood; and strength, our bodies ability to bring about change in the world. But singing (and maybe only singing) combines them all. When we sing in worship, our minds are engaged with the text and what it says about us and God, our hearts are moved and express a range of emotions, our bodily strength is required, and—if we sing with ‘soul’—we reach down into the depths of our beings to do justice to the joy and heartbreak of human life” (Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family).

[23] Ibid., p. 61.

[24] “In fact, nagging “negative” emotions such as despair, guilt, shame, and fear best reflected my true condition and kindled a return to God’s Word as the source of truth and Christ as my only hope” (Williams, “Toward a Theology of Emotion”).

[25] Amy Baker, “Managing Your Emotions,” p. 19.

[26] Groves, “Nourishing Your Emotional Life,” p. 48. Jonathan Edwards book, The Religious Affections, is very helpful on this point. 

[27] “For” [Greek: Υαρ] is a conjunction that can be translated as “for” or “indeed” and it can be used to express explanation, inference, cause, or continuation. Thus part of the reason we are told to invest in heaven is because where we invest our resources pulls along our heart.

[28] “The things we treasure actually govern our lives. What we value tugs at our minds and emotions; it consumes our time with planning, day-dreaming, and effort to achieve” (D.A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 77). “The treasure and the heart ‘act and react upon one another; where are treasure is, there will our hearts be; and where our hearts are, there is our treasure” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 153n68).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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