A Theology of Emotions
“Strange how complicated we can make things just to avoid showing what we feel!" -Erich Maria Remarque-
“...but I shouldn’t feel this way.”
I have heard it, and even said it myself, very often. There is some emotion inside of me that lurks, feeling uncontrolled, like I can’t get rid of it...can’t make sense of it...so I tell myself the only answer is that it’s not supposed to be there.
Emotions can be difficult. Difficult to understand...difficult to express...difficult to explain. Even though we intuitively know that every person around us has emotions, we live as if ours are some strange phenomenon. Surely nobody else would understand what I’m feeling.
For some people, emotions are a common currency - coming and going at the drop of a hat. Expressing emotion comes easy, too easy in some situations, and the emotion seems to be misunderstood - or something that escapes with little understanding of what it means or where it is coming from.
In either scenario, we can begin to view our emotions as more of a problem than a reflection of a God who feels.
If emotions are a reflection of God, we should take on the difficult task of understanding why we have them and what purpose they serve. I say this is a difficult task because I think it involves a lot of uncomfortable ambiguity. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I sit with people who experience a lot of pain and distance from God due to emotions that run deep inside of who they are. So I want to spend the next few months drawing out a theology of emotions. This will, by no means, be a definitive defense of what the Bible says about our emotions, but I do hope it provides context to change the way we think about and experience our feelings.
Why I Am Writing About This As an individual gets more comfortable in a counseling dynamic, a lot of the horrific stuff from the past can surface. Abuse, trauma, loss, illness, addiction...things that tear lives apart. The common complaint I hear about what therapists are always saying is the simple question: “...but how do you feel about it?”
Out of context this question may sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. But I think in the midst of this question is something really valuable. Something that the church needs.
In my experience growing up in the church, and working with Christians who have experienced a lot of pain in life - there are three common responses to emotions that get in the way:
1. Avoidance 2. Rationalization 3. Classification
These are by no means endemic to the Church alone, but I have noticed a trend in which we use a lot of spiritual lingo to hide that we are actually engaging in one of these three.
Avoidance We have become so fearful of what our emotions say about us, and what they can do to us, that we have actually given them more power by avoiding them. In an effort to not be controlled by our emotions, we end up running from them. But here’s the problem that I point to in almost everything I write because I believe it is that important: the emotions are still there.
I can say that I am not mad about something because I have chosen to ignore the event, or “successfully” put aside my anger...but without really understanding the emotion of anger that I feel, I run the risk of thinking it is gone, when in reality it sits untouched somewhere deep inside me.
Avoiding emotions can look like not acknowledging something has happened or that it evoked feeling (“Yeah it was frustrating but I’m totally fine”) Avoiding serves a purpose - it allows us to experience situations with more control. If I do not acknowledge the deep feeling inside of me, or allow it to come out, then I can manage/control/exert force over the situation I am facing. This is soothing to the anxious mind and heart.
Rationalization When I ask people to give me a feeling word to describe how they are feeling, I often hand them a large “feeling wheel.” The reason I do this is because most often (especially when working with adolescents) I get answers like “tired.” When we use our minds to understand our emotions we end up doing something that is less helpful in some ways - we move away from the actual emotion and into our thoughts about the emotion.
When we confuse our thoughts for our emotions we can end up in the same place as those avoiding their emotions but for completely different reasons. For example, if someone is experiencing abandonment from a spouse or parental figure and begins talking about it - they may say “I feel abandoned.” It might sound like semantics to point out that this is not a feeling but a concept - or a state of being. But it is important. While you may think that you have been abandoned what does knowing that you have been abandoned bring up in you as an emotion? Some might say ‘anger’ or ‘hurt.’ Subtle, but important, and this will be explored more.
Classification Growing up we are educated on emotions in very simple terms - ‘good’ ones and ‘bad’ ones. The good emotions are the ones we are supposed to feel - happiness, joy, excitement (but not too much), hope, etc. The bad emotions are the ones we want to go away as fast as possible - sadness, anger, jealousy, etc.
Maybe your parents did not sit you down and map it out so black-and-white, but how many of us grew up being told something was not worth crying over? Or how many of us were told that the situation did not warrant that kind of anger? Before you stop reading because it seems like I’m advocating for some kind of free-range-feel-all-emotions-with-no-regret-parenting don’t miss what this classifying can end up teaching us if we aren’t careful...
If we learn that emotions are only either good or bad, to be experienced or be avoided - then as we grow up and continue to feel the emotions we learned were bad or to be avoided we will have very little way to explain them and this will lead to internalized shame. This is what brings out the I shouldn’t feel this response when something bubbles up underneath the surface. Maybe in that moment the emotion we are feeling comes from a sinful place, but simply telling ourselves to “stop it” or that we “shouldn’t feel it” does not help us move toward a place of understanding and health.
Why the Church Needs A Better Understanding of Emotions The Bible does not have a clear and definitive treatise on handling our emotions. Scripture has a lot of warnings about our feelings. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that our hearts, above all else, are “deceitful” and desperately sick. In Proverbs 4:23 we find that all life flows out of our hearts. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 15 that from our hearts come all kinds of evil “thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality…”
Left to the devices of our hearts, we’re in trouble. But there is a difference in being controlled by our emotions, and allowing our emotions to exist. Too often we jump to trying to explain the depth of our emotions in order to assess which parts of our feelings are sinful and coming from the parts of our hearts mentioned in those passages. We miss out on what our emotions may be telling us about ourselves and about God because we take so little time to actually feel them and acknowledge they are there.
This is messy work. It means we are going to head into the “deceitful” core of our being and attempt to allow it to move around a little bit. This sounds crazy - shouldn’t we work harder at shutting it up? My desire is for us, the body of Christ, to reflect the character and nature of God more by being willing to acknowledge the hard, difficult parts of ourselves and how God designed them to glorify him. Even though they are broken and sinful, I believe our emotions are intended to do that. We have lost the way in favor of a better appearance, a deeper sense of control, and a false sense of security.
In exploring a theology of emotions, my hope is that we can come to a better sense of how to allow our feelings to be what they are - without judgment - before moving into reacting to them in a way that is Christ-like. I want to see the Church develop a willingness to engage in this kind of depth of understanding so we can better engage with a hurting world who has been told that the Church is a place for their pain. I think when we do this better, we begin to express a compassion that comes from experience - one that is born out of a willingness to explore the emotions inside of us.