Americans view emotions as out of our control. Emotions are like tornadoes–the best you can do is duck and run for cover. The better your storm cellar of escapism or therapy or friends or accessible distractions, the less emotions will toss you around. But, as the popular assumption goes, no one actually controls their emotions–limiting the damage is the best you can hope for.
The Biblical view of emotions is quite different. God commands us to feel certain ways. We are to “rejoice in the Lord always” for example, to be “content in all circumstances”, to “not be anxious about anything.” Certainly these commands aren’t a restriction from feeling sad at the prospect or the pain of suffering (consider Jesus in the garden), nor an expectation that feeling joy in the Lord will be a simple act of the will, like flipping an internal switch. “Don’t worry, be happy” may be in line with the Bible’s call to those united to Christ, but its triteness guarantees its uselessness in moments of true temptation or trial.
Our own experience, and the Biblical testimony, indicates that our emotions are often more difficult to manage than our physical actions. After all, the Pharisees were able to conform to a certain type of external discipline, while their love for God was cold. And many saints in the Bible exerted great spiritual effort before they could force their emotions to line up with their beliefs. Clearly, aligning our emotions with our beliefs requires extended spiritual exertion and ultimately the power of the Spirit.
However, and here is the point for the American “we are the helpless victims of our emotions” mentality: God calls us to command our emotions. They usually obey slowly, they frequently obey our flesh rather than our new nature in Christ, but we are not free to throw up our hands and surrender to their latest spontaneous mood. Here are a few questions we can ask of our emotional state to start the process of bringing them under the control of the Spirit.
1. Am I aware of my emotions through the week? When am I angry, happy, sad, joyful, passionate, apathetic–and what is motivating me to feel these ways? (Awareness of my emotions is the first step in bringing them into alignment with Biblical truth.)
2. Do my feelings right now reflect the truths of the Bible? (In the midst of my sadness over sin or suffering, am I also feeling hope in Christ? Is my anger at God’s providence or my joy in sinful pleasures in keeping with my gospel identity?)
3. Do my feelings right now reflect the values of the Bible? (Intense emotion over the traffic or the line at the grocery store indicates that my value system is out of sync. Apathy at the preaching of God’s Word followed by exuberance over a sports game reveals the need for a reversal of passions.)
Identifying emotional variance from our beliefs should lead us to prayer–asking God to change our hearts and make us feel as we should for his glory. God made us to feel emotional. God remade us, by his Spirit, to feel emotional in ways that demonstrate the authority of His Spirit and the newness of our life in Christ.
Feeling emotional? Good–be as emotional as you can be, by the power of the Spirit, in keeping with your calling in Christ, for the glory of God.