A Theology of Emotions, Part II
"Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler."-Friedrich Nietzsche-
Google “scripture” and “emotions” and notice what shows up:
What does the Bible say about controlling emotions? 10 verses on controlling emotions How to get rid of bad emotions How to not be controlled by your emotions
What’s the theme here? Emotions are something that are volatile, dangerous, and untamed.
And to be fair - a lot of these results are an honest attempt to deal with the reality of our sinful natures. Given “over to our shameful lusts” as Paul writes in Romans 1 looks like indulging every feeling we have - hoping to satisfy the longings of our hearts by following our hearts desires.
But as I wrote last month, this has created a dangerous dynamic in the Church. We immediately associate all talk of emotions as being negative. They are something to be controlled rather than something given to us by God for his glory. They are something to be feared rather than something to use as a tool to understand ourselves and the nature of God.
A God Who Feels Much of the philosophical debate over the emotions of God in the early church centered on distinguishing how He was different from pagan gods. The traditional Greek or Roman stories of gods included horrific descriptions of all-powerful beings who were controlled by their lusts and inflamed by passion for power and vengeance. Emotions for the ancient gods were something that fueled their mingling in the world of humans.
But the God of Israel was different right? He was not acting on lust and passion in a way that was uncontrolled. We know God felt emotion in the Old Testament but what was the purpose of this emotion?
Our Ancient Roadmap The following will contain a good amount of musing. I want to preface this because it will make some of you uncomfortable - wondering what an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly holy God might be feeling. But in doing this, I want us to become more familiar that emotions are more than just something to be controlled - they serve a unique purpose that brings us closer to God.
What was it like in the garden before sin entered the world? We know from Genesis 1-3 that there was a lot of good happening. I am no ancient languages scholar - (I’m not even a novice…) but looking through an interlinear Bible we can gain some basic understanding of what God (and Adam and Eve) must have been experiencing emotionally in the Garden pre-sin. We hear God proclaim that everything is ‘good’ - the Hebrew word being ‘to-wb’ (or, at times, a derivative of ‘to-wb’). This word implies the object is something that is pleasing to the eye - it feels good to look at it! We intuitively know and would agree that there was a lot of joy and happiness and good emotions in the garden, but what purpose did they serve then?
God instructs Adam to eat from any tree but the one that contains fruit which provides knowledge of good and evil (notice it’s ‘knowledge of’ implying that it is there, just outside of Adam’s created knowledge). What would God be feeling as he gave this instruction to Adam? Philosophical debate has been waged in this territory - the implications of free-will in a pre-sin world...the plausible created world that did not even have a garden to tempt Adam and Eve...but instead of wondering why it was done this way, I am more interested in what God must have been feeling and thinking as he gave Adam this instruction. He would not be surprised when they disobeyed the instruction in the next chapter, but he still gave them the opportunity to be trusted. What do you feel when you give someone this trust? A mixture of love, hope, longing, fear? What did a perfect God feel - a God who knows all that is about to come, including an action that would lead to the death of his only son?
What was happening when God saw that it was not good that man was alone? That feeling, at least in part, implies that there was longing for something more. There was a sense of incompleteness. Have you ever felt that? Would you describe it as a good feeling or a bad feeling? Kind of both right? The God of the universe just created huge mountains and oceans filled with whales...and yet He felt a longing for Adam to experience something more complete. Did that longing contain sorrow or sadness? Probably not. But to only think of the emotional landscape of the pre-sin garden as monochromatic misses the beauty of how nuanced our feelings are created to be.
Again, I’m not suggesting that because you know what it feels like to trust someone that could let you down or long for something better, that’s exactly what God was feeling in the garden in Genesis 2. If we assume we know God because of our own emotions first - we start to head back toward Greek mythology territory! But it is important to understand there are roots to even our tainted, sinful emotions - there is a complexity that comes from the author of all good things.
Our Earthly Example Jesus explains to Philip in John 14:9 that “anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.” The disciples kept asking to see God and Jesus responded each time with - “look at me and you will know him!” If we look at Jesus and his emotions, we can have a more complete picture of the Father and how our emotions were intended to function. I will further explore Jesus’ specific emotions in a future post, but we know from the Gospels he expressed a wide range of emotions: compassion, joy, love, grief, anger, annoyance, sadness, agony, sorrow, distress, surprise, amazement.
It would be easy to categorize Jesus’ emotional expression as only being a function of his humanity. But we know that even in his humanity he was still perfectly reflecting the nature of his Father. Jesus’ emotional expression, then, should teach us something about how God expresses emotion and why he created us to do the same.
One way to consider Jesus’ emotions is to see them as a gauge - they revealed the moments he felt closer to his Father, and the moments where the chasm between holiness and sin became greater. The things that angered Jesus were further away from God, the things that brought him to compassion or joy were drawing nearer to his Father’s heart.
The emotions themselves were not the end goal, but they served a purpose of bringing Jesus into closer communion with his Father. What were those quiet mornings like when he removed himself from his disciples to commune with his Father (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16)? Were they moments when Jesus expressed to the Father his longing to be united, having served his purpose on earth? Did he express the sadness he felt as he wept over Jerusalem, seeing how broken his created world had become (Luke 19:41)? The point of this thought exercise is not to precisely identify what Jesus was feeling - but that he felt and it was not just something to control and master - it was a key part of his experience with his Father.
C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend his own thoughts about what emotions Jesus felt and why he felt them:
“God could, had He pleased, have been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape Him. Of His great humility He chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane. Otherwise we should have missed the great lesson that it is by his will alone that a man is good or bad, and that feelings are not, in themselves, of any importance. We should also have missed that all important help of knowing that He faced all that the weakest of us face, has shared not only the strength of our nature but every weakness of it except sin.If He had been incarnate in a man of immense natural courage, that would have been for many of us almost the same as His not being incarnate at all.”
It is precisely in witnessing the emotional expressions of Jesus that we capture a glimpse of a full and rich life - one we were created to live. He did not come with “iron nerves” or a steel resolve, able to power through the most difficult situation without feeling - he interacted with his emotions and expressed them in accordance with God’s desires for him.
Our emotions are poisoned by sin just like every other part of our nature. We cannot escape the DNA level of brokenness that exists in our emotions. But just like we would not throw away our minds because they are filled with sin, so we should not treat our emotions as something to cast off or avoid.
Our relationship with our emotions needs reorienting. We need to begin the practice of identifying them properly and learning to use them as a gauge for where we are with ourselves, others, and God. The end goal is not to perfectly locate why every emotion happens and how God is using it to show you something...but at the root of our feelings we have an opportunity to become more like Christ and through that increase our communion with God.
Becoming more like Christ implies that we can begin thinking about how we respond to our emotions more intentionally. This is certainly a huge step in the process, but before we get there, I want to explore more how we can more adequately identify our emotions and learn to express them. It is a journey that is difficult and takes a lot of focused effort and changing patterns that have long been established, but through it I believe we can come to know God better.