Hi! What role do my emotions have in my [spiritual] life? I know my emotions don’t change who God is to me, or my responsibilities in living out my life for Him. However, when it comes to making decisions and daily living, it seems that emotions often get cast aside as a non-factor. God has made us to be emotional beings, yet how do we embrace our emotions without being naive or blinded by our feelings?
This is a great question and your balanced approach is very good. Let’s start from the ground-up and see why God gave us these pesky colorful shades of feeling, then see if we can draw some left-right boundaries. This is sort of a mega-post, so please feel free to skip around.
1) Emotions subjectively point us to an objective reality.
If you are one of the four younger people who has read The Abolition of Man, then you’ll remember C.S. Lewis describes how a sunset evokes a certain reaction. The same with a child’s laugh, the screech of a chalkboard, the sight of blood, the smell of ice cream. Somehow, our experiences tell us that everything has its own value that stirs something in our soul.
Unfortunately, it’s also the current trend to rip the value out of things so that nothing is really sacred or worthy of awe. Essentially we learn in school that stars are merely observable bodies of gas and people are just a fleshy globs of molecules; that’s not necessarily wrong, but it devalues the wonder of the world. Logic is a great thing until you’re scorching the human heart into a wasteland.
Emotions harken back to an original design, where G-major makes sense with E-minor, where waterfalls enchant you, where two humans are not merely in transaction but sharing real life together. To ignore emotions is to ignore our humanity.
2) Emotions don’t always make a great engine, but do make a good catalyst.
I remember learning in social psychology that emotions have a biological directive, much like pain: it tells us to move. When you put your hand on a stove, your body feels pain to prevent physical damage: it says “Yo man your flesh be burning.”
Happiness says something is good; grief says not good; confusion says find answers; frustration says find another way; even depression is pushing you towards something better. God wired us with feelings for positive action.
In general, the principle is that emotions are not necessarily good motives or purposes for any of your goals, but they can push the process along. If your only goal to get married is for total blissful happiness, you’ll be even less happy, but it’s definitely a good thing to fight for happiness in marriage everyday by doing what makes you happy together. This a very fluid truth: at times we persevere in spite of our feelings, and other times our feelings remind us exactly why we persevere.
A little sidenote: I’ve also noticed that usually action leads to feelings, so that if you just love on someone regardless of their response, you’ll soon develop actual loving feelings towards them. These feelings will then be the catalyst for more action. It doesn’t usually happen the other way around; I can’t always muster enough feelings to go do things.
C.S. Lewis helps again here: Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.
3) It’s okay to feel your feelings. They can just happen.
This is where we get hung up the most. Feeling your feelings is not wrong and does not make you a bad person. The Bible is full of gritty, perverse, unglossy, non-Photoshopped crazy people that complain, throw things, and never hestitate to make a slobbering scene by tearing their clothes and putting sackcloth on their heads. Read the book of Lamentations or any two of the Psalms — no one is “normal” in the Bible.
Some of us think if we’re depressed, then something’s wrong with us. That somehow anger, anxiety, or grief points to some horribly deep trauma — and while that can be true, it doesn’t help to numb that with a bottle of pills or one-night stands or a pat on the back.
Nearly every life-stage is marked by some emotional change, and it’s okay. People are just a raging bag of hormones, childhood trauma, mental dysfunctions, menopause, neurotic quirks, and mid-quarter-life-crises. In between that are seasonal, monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly moods. We are all a mess and some of us are barely hanging on. We got to take the good with the bad. The sooner we can embrace the insanity, the better we can tackle our haywire feelings.
4) Christians: it’s also okay to be happy.
Some Christians think that “happiness” is wrong somehow, as if our entire emotional state of bliss can only be wrapped up in God and church and that twelve minute window when the praise team plays the latest generic hits.
But if I ever win the Lottery, you know what I’m doing? I’m gonna shake what God gave me hollering at the top of my lungs giving high fives to random strangers up and down the street. I’m taking those feelings all the way to the bank.
I remember a long time ago during a Jackie Chan movie at the theater, I was laughing my head off at the outtakes, and my friend leaned over and said, “Hey would you quiet down, people are looking.” I was honestly kind of pissed. Can a brother just have fun and laugh real loud? But I did what he asked. Today, I would not. Let me laugh, bro.
Inversely, if one of my family members passed away, I don’t care how many times you say, “It’ll be okay” — it’s not okay. Let me be not-okay, okay? We don’t need a billion people saying, “Be strong, keep your head up, look on the bright side.” Sometimes I just want to say, “This sucks” and totally let God handle that one.
You can’t help having some feelings, so instead of dismissing them, it’s better to find healthy ways to handle them. A truly embraced anger says, “I’m going to talk this out with God and a close friend and a mentor and be honest about my craziness and see what I actually want.” Which brings us to the last point.
5) God has a plan for your emotions.
God ultimately made emotions because it’s what makes us entirely human. We get to feel the whole spectrum of every crazy intense passion in the world. The hottest volcano churning out molten lava doesn’t ever compare to a woman scorned.
The trick is not really to harness all your emotions and dumb them down, but to redline them the right direction. God is totally okay with how you feel in the amounts you feel them, and He has a plan for all that.
We all know the person who follows their feelings way too much with zero thought, like when a girl thinks every cute boy that walks in the room is instant marriage material. The emotion itself is not wrong, but God wants to take us somewhere good with them: and it’s not going to be towards every hot person in a five foot radius.
King David is always the perfect example of a bipolar dude. On one hand he feels so much respect for Saul, who’s trying to kill him, that David doesn’t touch him when he’s given the chance. On the other hand, David sees Bathsheba naked on a roof and has her baby, tries to pin it on her husband, and then kills the husband.
Since people are in that broken condition called sin, sometimes we work through our emotions in illegitimate ways (that’s putting it mildly for David). So instead of working rightly through our anger by honesty and prayer and healthy counseling, we tend to numb all that in drugs or “vent” it by fighting and throwing fits. Instead of divinely designating our sexual urges into the God-ordained plan of marriage, we can get carried away by our lust into empty meaningless flings.
The best I can tell you here is to be thankful you feel anything, to bring those crazy feelings to God in total honesty, and remember that feelings do not always determine truth but they can sometimes tell you what’s true. You are not your feelings, but they’re still a part of you. I’ve always said to prioritize truth over what you feel, but let me also add that part of truth is the emotional element, and we should surrender both sides of that to God’s authority. You might be surprised how often God will say, “It’s okay: I feel you on that one, too. My Son knows everything you’re going through, and He’s right alongside you.”
“Don’t bother too much about your feelings. When they are humble, loving, brave, give thanks for them; when they are conceited, selfish, cowardly, ask to have them altered. In neither case are they you, but only a thing that happens to you. What matters is your intentions and your behavior.”
— C.S. Lewis