Emotions have something of a checkered past in Christianity, both in church history and in current manifestations.
On one end of the spectrum are those Christians who are all about the emotions. Emotions are more spiritual than rational thought. In fact, knowledge and logic actually impede a vibrant spiritual life. Worship and prayer is evaluated on whether or not you felt something deeply. Worship services may even be deliberately designed to produce an emotional response. There is a large emphasis in this form of Christianity on having the right attitudes and feelings experienced at all times, and if someone isn’t feeling those things, it’s a red flag for their spiritual welfare.
On the other side of the spectrum is a deep distrust of emotions. Our propositional understanding of the Bible and theology is our only sure guide to truth and right action, and therefore emotions are to be mostly ignored if not automatically suspect. Things like worship and prayer are evaluated more on the basis of doing things correctly and communicating the right propositions. The emphasis of this group is on believing and proclaiming (and to an extent, practicing) correct things, and if someone doesn’t believe or teach the correct things, it’s a red flag for their spiritual welfare.
In my own reflections on emotions and where they’ve stood in my life and my spirituality, I’ve come to see certain things about them.
First, I can’t allow myself to idolize my ability to reason.
“The heart often lies, but the brain, never,” is probably an accurate summary of Western rationalism, but it is not true biologically and, consequently, in our practical, lived out experience.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn this is the case. Our brains are not built to be Objective Reality Processing Devices. They are built for survival. Obviously, perceiving reality truly is more beneficial for survival than not, but the goal of the brain is not to be a dispassionate, objective arbiter of truth: its goal is to keep you alive.
The same areas of your brain that are active in threat resolution are the same ones that are active when you hear things that you don’t agree with. In other words, when you’re having a disagreement with someone, your brain is interpreting that disagreement quite literally as a threat to your existence. Obviously, the subject matter is going to influence how much of a threat that is, but it’s interesting there’s actually a biological explanation for why disagreements can escalate so quickly and so violently. Something that threatens my framework of thought is a potential threat to my very survival, so the brain would tell me.
Not only this, but since there is a voluntary element to my thinking, I can easily construct thoughts that lead me astray. There’s some research that would indicate that we don’t even reason our way to a decision; we make the decision, then construct the justification for it after the fact. I’m not sure that’s always how it happens, but all of us have had times when we’ve rationalized our way to a very bad idea or processed logic and evidence in such a way as to support our own prejudices.
That doesn’t mean our brains should be distrusted. It just means that we have to recognize how subjective (and not objective) rational thought actually is and recognize that our rational faculties are part of a larger system of checks and balances, one of which is our emotions.
Second, I can’t idolize my emotions, either.
Emotions are biological processes designed for our survival as well, which means that they, also, will not reflect the world with accuracy.
Most people are on board with this to some extent. We all know that sometimes things that are bad make us feel good, and some things that make us feel bad are good. We all know what it’s like to feel like we can trust someone or that we love someone and discover that we were wrong. We know our emotions can be manipulated (as can our rational thought processes).
These are all good reasons not to put our emotions on a pedestal, including in the area of spirituality. Just because you don’t feel God’s presence on a particular day doesn’t mean He isn’t there. Just because you don’t feel deeply moved by a worship service doesn’t mean you didn’t get a lot of good out of it. Conversely, just because something makes you feel deeply moved doesn’t mean that it was true or good for you.
You’ve probably heard it before, “Christianity is about the heart, not the head.” I would offer this is not true. I would say, “Christianity is about engaging the whole person, all your faculties, not just your feelings or your rationality.” Less catchy, but more accurate.
The Scriptures present us with a view of “who you are” that is a unified whole, not component parts where one is more important or trustworthy than another. Our rationality, our feelings, our intuition, our gut, our five senses – all these things are like council members giving us advice. And, like council meetings, they may not all agree and they may not all be right at any given time, and sometimes they’re all wrong (which is why the counsel of other people is very important to good decisions as well). But they are all meant to keep the ship up and running.
Third, my emotions are generated for a purpose.
If you put your hand on a hot stove, you will feel pain. The reason you will feel pain is so that your body and brain will discern a threat and yank your hand away from a force that will destroy it if you do nothing. The pain does not exist just to add spice to your life; it is there to communicate something to you so that you will act.
We might think of a life free of pain to be a great idea, but in our world as it is right now, it’s a terrible idea. In fact, this is big danger for people who, through injury or disease, have lost their ability to feel pain – they can be severely injuring themselves or even bleeding to death and have no idea. They have to be constantly vigilant against this possibility because the pain doesn’t work.
Emotions can cause psychological pain, and that’s my signal that something is amiss, and I need to do something about it or I could sustain a lot of damage. It’s like a warning light on your car’s dashboard coming on.
If you’re like me, you’ll leave that warning light on your car alone for some time until you get around to looking into whatever caused it. Sometimes, whatever caused it is fairly small and you’re good to go. Other times, the little thing that turned the light on is now a huge deal, and a $200 repair became a $2000 repair over time.
When you feel emotions, especially negative emotions, it is worthwhile to ask yourself, “Why do I feel this emotion? Does this seem to match reality as the rest of me knows it? What do I need to do about this?”
What makes this difficult is that we closely associate an emotion with the event that gave rise to the emotion, and we mistake that for the cause. My child is being very loud, and I feel aggravated, ergo my child being loud is why I feel this way.
But that’s not actually true. The question is, “Why am I feeling this way when my child is loud?”
See, hot stoves do not cause you pain in your hand. Hot stoves damage your flesh with heat. It is your own body that produces pain signals in response to this event, and it produces them for a purpose – so that you can resolve the situation before more damage is done.
We might say, “My hand hurts because I put it on the stove,” but the reality is, “I put my hand on the stove, and it started to burn my skin, so my body produced pain.” You produced that pain. Not voluntarily, and it was definitely in response to your environment, but that pain is all you. And it’s good!
So we have to ask ourselves, “Why did this event cause me to respond with this emotion?” Why does my son being loud make me feel aggravated? Is it because I’m stressed about something else? Is it because I have a fear of loud noises? Is it because it’s making it hard for me to concentrate on something I really need to concentrate on? Is it because, when I was a kid, my parents were big on the “seen but not heard” philosophy of child rearing and children making noise makes me cringe inside because of how I was taught and treated?
My therapist sometimes says, “If your emotion had a voice, what would it be saying to you?”
Because our emotions, like anything else, can skew things, we do need to confirm if our emotions seem accurate to us. If I feel like the world is about to end because I spilled soda on myself on my way to a meeting, I know that emotion is at least disproportionate to the reality of the situation. I can choose to behave differently than my emotion might dictate, and this is a wise course of action in many cases. I can also consult with other people to see if the way I feel about something is distorting the issue rather than helping me get to the heart of the issue.
But even so, I rarely want to ignore that emotion entirely. I might recognize it is out of proportion with reality, but that doesn’t mean there is no helpful information there. Why did I feel so catastrophically about spilling that soda? It might mean I’m afraid of something else, like losing my job. Or maybe I have placed a lot of my self-worth in what people will think of me. Who knows? But it’s worth a listen, even if I decide that my emotions are not giving me fully accurate information.
Finally, and this is important, my emotion is a call to action.
What am I supposed to do? This is the thing that keeps us from being at the mercy of our emotions or being a victim of our circumstances.
Emotions do not exist just to add zest to life. Our body feels them for a reason, and that reason prompts us to action. The warning light on your dashboard is not just interesting information; you’re supposed to do something.
Here’s what I’m not supposed to do: nullify my emotions. Alcohol, porn, sleep, medication, even TV can all be things to turn to in order to feel something good instead of whatever I happen to be feeling right now. Not only does it leave the problem that caused my emotion unaddressed, it has a strong chance of becoming an addiction.
That’s not to say nobody should ever have a nice drink or watch a movie to have fun or blow off some steam, but there’s a difference between “taking a break to chill” and “medicating my emotional state.”
Doing those things would be like my car’s warning light coming on, so I pry open the dashboard and take the light bulb out. Warning light gone! But not only have I not fixed the problem, I’ve hampered my ability to detect problems altogether.
Here’s another thing I’m not supposed to do: nothing. If I do nothing to address what this emotion is trying to say to me, the odds are good this emotion will keep cropping up and get stronger over time. The underlying problem that gave rise to this emotion will probably get worse over time and much more difficult to address. In addition, I may start to feel like a victim of my circumstances – helpless in the face of things that happen to me. While blaming others for the way I feel may make me feel better (and, sometimes, may be correct in the sense that someone treated me wrongly), it’s a temporary feeling.
It is also true that the circumstances that birthed this emotion might be circumstances that I can’t fix. If a loved one passes away, you won’t be able to fix that circumstance. However, there are still healthy things for you to do. You can allow yourself to grieve. You can seek out the company of loved ones who care about you who can share your grief. You can pray. You can get together with other people who loved person and cry together and tell your favorite stories. Any and all of those things will help you address what your emotion is telling you and help you move through it.
For example, at this moment, my work is causing me a lot of stress and anxiety. A lot. I do not like feeling stressed and anxious, and there are all kinds of reactionary things that crop up as a result. Can I medicate those feelings? Or maybe I should just stay in bed instead of going to work, tomorrow, so I can not feel those feelings.
My stress and anxiety is trying to tell me something. “There’s a problem, here, and it will damage you unless we do something.”
So, what is that problem? Have I over-promised and created unreasonable expectations I’m supposed to meet? Do I have unreasonable expectations for myself? Have I allowed work to take too great a role in my life or sense of self-worth or well being? Have I come to the end of my career and am ready to do something different? Basically, I need to figure out why my present situation with work is causing feelings of anxiety. Why am I reacting to my circumstances with anxiety?
Then, this will suggest things that I should do to resolve my anxiety. I could pray more, always a good option with just about anything. I could have difficult conversations to reset my commitments to a reasonable level. I could have difficult conversations about conflicts I’m having. I could talk through these things with my co-workers. I could just complete the work that’s making me anxious, knowing it will be unpleasant to do so, because sometimes work just sucks and there’s no point in giving it the weight I’m giving.
There’s lots of things that could be done depending on what the issues are, but you’ll also notice most of them are unpleasant. I may have to have a talk with someone I don’t want to have. I may have to put my head down and barrel through unpleasant work. I may have to be vulnerable about the way I feel with someone and risk looking weak. But this is the only way to move through a painful emotion into happiness.
Sure, it feels great in the moment to ignore stressful emails and phone calls and decide “I don’t want to work on X today,” but none of that will actually get the dashboard light to turn off. Only doing the work to resolve the actual issue will turn that light off, and how fulfilling and freeing it will be to do so!
So, this is a model I offer for your consideration. Emotions are not more “spiritual” than thought, nor are they more capricious or prone to error, nor are they meant to be your primary guide to reality. They are not meant to be suppressed, let go, medicated, or eradicated.
They are a messaging system that could very well be communicating something your more conscious faculties are missing. They should be listened to, understood, and if appropriate, acted upon.