Last week I made the case that the idea of so-called “feelings” is actually illusory, but rather the experience that we call negative “feelings” is our pride/ego being compromised, which leads to negative emotions. Our pride is compromised whenever we build our identity on something vulnerable, something other than Christ. According to the gospel, this is only remedied by drawing our entire sense of identity from being a redeemed child of God, understanding that we are perfect in God’s sight by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Since emotions are so powerful and can be so misguided and misleading, they are sometimes unfairly condemned by well-intentioned Christians. This week, I’m trying to offer some direction for the proper, and necessary, role of emotions in our lives.
The Danger of Emotion
Since the western world has largely lost the concept of divine authority, a vacuum has been created in our lives for authority, something that, deep down, we all know we need/crave. Upon losing a sense of the divine, the first societal impulse was to turn to “experts.” Soon, however, we learned that this doesn’t work because so many experts fundamentally disagree – they disagree on dietary habits, education theory, historical facts, religious truths, and so on – not to mention that even expert consensus tends to change every generation. The search for authority continued. As a result, people turned to what they know, something closer to home – their instincts/feelings – as chief arbiters of what is good or bad in their lives.
The problem that arises here is that the thing which we call “feelings” can change quite easily as well. I used to despise diet pop, now I drink it constantly and don’t think I could stomach a regular Coke. I used to like roller coasters, now I feel like I’m going to die on one. I used to like wearing turtlenecks. My point is that personal preferences and our accompanying emotions, our feelings, are fickle.
Even more important, faith that is based primarily on “feelings” is inevitably going to be misguided at some point. How could you ever possibly be certain that what you’re feeling is from the Lord, and not from Satan, or merely the product of your own flesh? You can’t.
I believe this is one of the reasons why Jesus so often describes spiritual development in terms of organic growth. “By their fruit you will recognize them… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. …Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matt. 7:16-20; see also Matt. 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; Luke 13:6-7) Many people measure the quality of their spiritual life by what they are currently feeling, i.e. what emotions are conjured up when considering the Bible, or church, or God. But according to Jesus’s own words here, spiritual growth is organic. Organic growth is measurable over time but generally imperceptible in the moment. Without time elapse photography, you can’t witness a plant growing. Spiritually then, you probably shouldn’t expect to feel drastically different after prayer, Communion, Bible Study, or public worship, any more than you would feel significantly healthier after a good meal or a productive workout. Such things often feel somewhat good, but not life altering, because such progress is organic.
Anyone who is putting a high premium on the emotions experienced upon the exercise of spiritual disciplines is not understanding what the Bible says about the way faith generally matures.
I’m not suggesting there will never be clear and distinct “aha!” moments from time to time in spiritual development, but that shouldn’t be the general expectation.
Emotions aren’t EVERYTHING.
The Need for Emotion
Many men, especially conservative evangelical ones, are probably with me thus far. “Yes, emotion is evil!” Not really what I’m driving at, which is the need for this second point.
Many traditional, conservative churchgoers, like many older white men, strongly dislike their emotions or any encouragement towards emotional expressiveness. For traditional churchgoers, this is likely because of some of the potential dangers of emotion cited in the previous section. For older white men, this is perhaps because they were raised hearing sentiments like “boys don’t cry.” Going back to the issue of pride, when someone challenges our manhood, especially at a young age, we are likely to accept the challenge. If the societal gauntlet thrown down was to not be emotional, we find resourceful ways of stuffing those emotions. Many traditional adult men struggle with high blood pressure, heartburn, and ulcers because they’ve never learned to externalize their emotions in productive ways. Instead, they stuff their emotions and tear themselves apart from the inside out.
Theologically, the problem is that God created us as emotive creatures. Jesus wept (John 11:35). Jesus got angry (Matt. 21:12) Paul tells us to laugh and cry, rejoice and mourn with others (Rom. 12:15). This is part of our design. Consequently, to suppress emotion is theologically inaccurate and psychologically and physically unhealthy.
Personally, I sometimes struggle when worshipping with groups who seemingly demonstrate zero emotion.
I’ve heard this dismissed as “We all have different ways of expressing our emotion.” Yes and no. It’s true that we’re all unique, individual creatures with personal dispositions. Nonetheless, it’s also true that there is such a thing as a universality of emotions. If you won a $250 million lottery and stated in monotone, “That’s nice,” we’d assume you were emotionally off. If someone was completely unaffected by a close loved one dying, we’d assume there was something emotionally wrong too. Likewise, if someone comes to publicly worship God and is inexpressive, there is something emotionally wrong happening.
I’ve also heard that worship style is cultural. And since the church body I belong to has deep ethnic roots in Germany, perhaps worshippers are simply doing what’s culturally appropriate. I’d probably be more likely to accept that explanation if we were fresh off the boat and looking for the nearest schnitzel and kraut stand. But most of us, if we have any eastern European heritage at all, are 3 or 4 or more generations American. In other words, at this point, a cultural heritage is probably an irrelevant excuse.
Interestingly, the Christian who stifles emotion because “emotions are evil” is ironically just as controlled by their emotions as the Christian who easily gets emotionally manipulated. Neither is a healthy approach.
So while emotions aren’t EVERYTHING, they’re also not NOTHING. They’re necessary and beneficial, but need a proper driver.
The Guide for Emotion
Humans were created to be emotional. And yet human emotion is easily manipulated, which means that it then sends our brains mixed signals about what is or is not good. The solution is not to suppress emotion or to unconditionally embrace emotion. The solution for a Christian is to have genuine emotion, passion that is primarily generated, filtered, and pedagogically maneuvered by God’s inspired Word.
Let me give an overly simplistic illustration of what this might look like, say, in a worship setting:
- A hymn that is theologically accurate but weighed down by a dismal tune that no one today would categorize as “beautiful” is inappropriate, not because it doesn’t proclaim truth, but because it doesn’t appropriately touch the emotion, counterintuitively dimming the theological truth.
- A praise song that many today would categorize as a “beautiful” tune but that lacks any theological depth, or, worse yet, promotes something Scripturally untrue, is inappropriate, not because it doesn’t affect the emotions, but because it primarily moves the emotions by a force other than Scriptural truth.
- A hymn/song that proclaims accurate theological truth AND, through artistic flavor, touches humans in an emotive way IS appropriate.
Worship music is just one easy example. The point is much bigger. Another simple example would be anger. It’s not wrong to get angry, so long as it is righteous anger, i.e. anger over something that God himself would be angry about. If it’s anger over my pride being hurt, then that’s merely going to lead to sinful vindictiveness. The idea is that God encourages us to embrace the emotions we experience insofar as those emotions are biblically supported.
“Feelings” aren’t completely real. Our pride/ego is very sensitive. When it is threatened, we experience strong negative emotions. This is an occasion for humility and a time to remember that our true boast/pride/identity comes from being a child of God.
Emotions themselves aren’t bad, but rather are gifts from God and therefore should not be outright suppressed. They are easily misguided, however, which means that we regularly have to seek the direction of God’s Word to make sure our emotions are properly moved.
Finally, Jesus, our greatest friend, our dearest brother, and the Lover of us, the Church, lived and died for us. That only evokes proper emotion. And to the degree that we realize we have the full acceptance of God himself through this Jesus, nothing in this life can really hurt our feelings anymore.