Feelings. What on earth are my feelings for? How are feelings practical? What do they accomplish? If I feel one way, does that make me righteous? If I think another way, does that make me sinful? What exactly are these things that I can't see but can become visible to everyone around? Am I responsible for how I feel? That's a serious question. After all, in the ancient Greco-Roman world
"Emotion was sometimes considered a force beyond a person's control. Lenience could be granted to someone in a trial because their offense was committed under the influence of anger."*
I have the honor of serving as Pastor of Preaching and Theology at Redemption Church in Seattle. However, don’t think for a moment that the role implies that all I do is sit in my study with my "friends" (my mother's name for my books). In addition to study, I get to spend lots of time with our people and questions surrounding our emotions often arise. As we all know, our emotions can be extremely powerful. But are they beyond our control? The Scriptures teach us that human beings are not merely primal creatures with chemicals firing off in the brain, causing us to move in one direction or another. Instead, human beings are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). Contrary to what some believe, I don't think this is some sort of summons to ignore our biological makeup. Rather, it means that we understand that part of being in God's image is that we are emotional creatures.
Many of us tend to fall off on one side of the horse or the other when it comes to how we view our emotions. Some believe that our emotions need to be ignored or suppressed because they aren't to be trusted. “It’s not about your feelings. It’s about your faith!” This kind of remark makes sense, but it is only half-baked as we’ll see below. Others believe the opposite and choose to allow one’s emotions to have absolute rule over them throughout each day; way up one moment and way down the next and everything in between.
MOVING TO A SPACE OF TRUST
As followers of Jesus, we are to submit everything in our lives, including our feelings to him. At the Last Supper, Jesus commanded the disciples “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” So they weren’t supposed to be anxious about his departure? Where would they go? What would happen next? How can Jesus command them to personally take control of their feelings and to route them away from being “troubled”? How is peace possible when the circumstances are submerged in anxiety? The answer lies in the next statement. “You believe in God. Believe also in me" (John 14:1). It was natural to feel anxious in this situation, but Jesus calls the disciples to push past what they saw and what they felt and to move to a space of daring trust; to take him at his word that everything really will be OK. In fact, in the end, they'll be better than OK. Jesus is not saying "Ignore the pain and pretend everything's great." This is Jesus saying, "In spite of the pain, with heartache still intact, take another step closer to me."
OUR EMOTIONS TELL US WHAT WE VALUE
For me personally, this has been a big challenge throughout my life. To take ownership of my emotions and realize they are my responsibility has not come easy. It's been quite the battle. Perhaps being a 4 on the Enneagram explains it. Maybe it's biology. Perhaps it has to do with the family I was raised in or the church I grew up attending. I don't know. But like everyone, I suppose, getting a grip on the human heart hasn't come easy. I'm grateful to my therapist and good friends (both books and real people) that have helped me along the way.
As with everything, our emotions are to be stewarded just like our resources and relationships. So why did God make us emotional? One reason God made us emotional is to help us see what we value. Catch that. Our emotions tell us something about what we truly value. We sometimes value the right things and sometimes we value the wrong things. Our emotions give us a good read on what we believe to be of worth. Here’s what I mean. There are things in the news today that ought to elicit emotions such as grief and anger. Jesus himself was angry on a number of occasions, and it was right for him to be angry (Mark 3:5, for example). When injustice is done, amongst many things, anger should surface. When good deeds are done, and someone experiences grace, freedom, and success, emotions like gratitude and joy are to be expected.
EMOTIONS & VIRTUES
Before signing off, it is helpful to remember two things about our emotions and our virtues. Emotions, in and of themselves are not to be considered virtuous. They’re embedded within the individual. Thinking a good thought, though praiseworthy, (Phil. 4:8) is not the same thing as a virtuous deed. Christians are repeatedly commanded to perform good deeds (Matt. 5:16, Eph 2:10, Titus 3:8, 1 John 3:18. Or perhaps the entire book of James would be good to look at as well). And yet, these good deeds are to not to be done divorced from our feelings. Extending a helping hand, showing mercy, and seeking justice with disengaged or disingenuous hearts reduces Christianity to mere moralism, which isn’t Christianity at all. Thus, our emotions matter. Not only do our emotions matter, but they are also essential to those of us who dare to live the eternal life in the here and now.
Matthew Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament, 63.