I recently came across this tweet by Josh McDowell:
This is just one example of the many naïve ways folks misunderstand emotions as they relate to the spiritual life.
The belief that emotions are counter or harmful to our life in Christ permeates much of the American church. For some reason, and I’m honestly not at all sure why, the American church has felt scared of emotions for a very long time. Over the last century it seems as if there was a crusade against feelings. Of course, the irony is that this crusade is fueled by feeling afraid. Here are four common misunderstandings about emotions in the American dogma that I see, read and hear regularly:
- The belief that emotions and thoughts are separate entities within a person. Many seem to think that there is distance between the way we think about something and the way we feel about it, as if the two are separated by some sort of firewall.
- The belief that emotions are less important or valuable than one’s thoughts. Rational thinking has been so elevated that many seem to believe it is of a higher order in the spiritual life than emotion.
- The belief that emotions are tainted or malicious, but thoughts are of a purer form. I have consistently heard warnings about trusting one’s feelings while simultaneously encouraged to trust one’s thoughts, as if our thinking is less susceptible to sin than our feeling.
- The belief that emotions oppose a spiritual life. I remember being taught the notion that as you progressed spiritually you would become more rational and less emotional. Of course, no one said this explicitly, but the model of the highest spiritual man was one of stoicism and emotional detachment. In which case Spock would have made a great elder in the church.
- The belief that emotions are primarily a feminine quality. Somehow, someway, the notion that the female makeup is more emotional than the male makeup has taken hold of majority thought. I've heard this in books, sermons, jokes (usually lame ones at that), conferences, etc.
Thankfully, to follow Christ does not require a lobotomy. In fact, to truly follow him means you will feel a fuller range of emotions, rather than just happy or sad you will experience joy and sorrow. See my post on the full life of Jesus for more on that. Below are five responses to the misunderstandings listed above.
- Throughout Scripture, we are taught the principle of unity; of God, man and church. The Triune God displays perfect unity in separate persons (Father, Son, Spirit). Mankind being made in this Triune image, must be a unified being himself. The mind and heart are never considered separate things, but are almost always mentioned as parallels. For instance, Psalm 26:2, “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.” Heart and mind in this passage represent far more than emotions and thinking, but desire, affections, understanding, etc. There is no separation in Scripture of emotion and thought.
- The problem with treating emotion and cognition as separate and detached units of a person’s being, is that you will always move to elevate one over the other. We were given them both to work in tandem, designed in such a way that we necessarily need them simultaneously. For example, the person who believes they can live by relying primarily on their conscious thoughts, with little regard to their emotions, only goes on to live through both, but with little understanding of what they feel. Meaning, you are always being influenced by your emotions, it’s just a matter of whether or not you understand how you are being influenced. And vice-a-versa, your emotions are always being influenced by what you believe.
- In Ezekiel 36:26 God promises to give a new heart, as well as a new spirit. Within this new heart, we find that the Spirit of God dwells (2 Cor. 1:22). Your heart, when regenerated by the Spirit and redeemed by Christ, has been renewed by God. It is now good, although it is still susceptible to the accusations of the evil one and the skewed understanding that comes by living in a fallen world. Your emotions, just as with your thinking, need to be constantly washed and rinsed of the deceits of sin (James 4:8).
- Your emotions do not oppose your spiritual life, but serve to enhance it. Emotion assigns value, which means that if you think of something detached from emotions, it holds little worth to you. Look at the emotional life of Jesus for your example. His erupting anger showed his value for the holiness of God’s presence (Matt. 21). His mourning, heartbreak and grief showed his value for friendship and life (John 11). His anxiety and anguish showed his value for intimacy with the Father and the pain of separation (John 18). His delight, happiness and joy showed just how much he values faith in and trust of the Father (Matt. 8:5-13).
- Masculinity is just as 'emotional' as femininity. Culturally, males (at least older ones) may have been taught to be less emotive, but our minds hold the same capacities and functions as females when it comes to feelings. Besides being inconsistent with biological and neurological research, this misunderstanding of male emotion spits in the face of masculinity as portrayed in Scripture. David may possibly be the most emotive man I have ever read about. Solomon swooned. Jesus wept. Paul was overjoyed. Moses was afraid. Adam was ashamed. Peter was embarrassed or scared or something.
Your emotions are never meant to be kept separate from your spiritual life, but are designed to enhance, deepen, and expand it. Do not give into the naive thinking that how you feel about something has less merit than what you think about it, but rather see that how you feel about something clues you into just how much you value it. Your feelings may not be a good measuring stick to judge the truths of God, but they are great at revealing how much worth the truths of God hold for you.