Thinking about emotions


I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions recently. This, of course, may be precisely my problem. I shouldn’t be thinking about emotions; I should just be feeling them.

At least that’s what people tell me. Emotions, I am assured, are an important part of who we are as humans created by God, and so Christian faith should also be emotional in some way. It’s not enough just to think and to do; there’s something a bit wrong with us if we don’t also feel.

It’s hard to argue with this, and so I have begun to rummage around in my soul to see if I can rustle up some emotions. And you’ll be glad to know that I’ve managed to find some.

For example, when things are difficult at home with moody teenagers, an overly packed diary, the car breaking down, and Ali and I getting snappish with each other, I feel a definite detectable sense of frustration and weariness. Not major depressive despair, you understand; more a kind of low-grade, hang-dog unhappiness. Will this ever end? Can someone just give me a break? Why is nothing ever simple? That sort of thing.

But then I go to church and commiserate with a brother who is having almost precisely the same experience of 40-something life, and finish the conversation feeling much more upbeat. The emotion is a kind of eye-rolling, almost cheerful, you-can’t-win-can-you resignation.

The sermon on this day happens to be about the Lordship of Jesus in Luke 6, which includes the challenging words, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (v. 47). It evokes in me a feeling very similar to the one I used to get driving home for holidays to our family farm, some 800 kilometres north of Sydney. After the long, wearying drive, I’d crest the top of the hill, and Eltham valley would open up in front of me, with our homestead on top of one of the spurs jutting out of the surrounding hills. The satisfaction of being home—so familiar and yet new again—would begin to fill inside me, like a warm drink. This was what the pleasant shock of recognition felt like in Luke 6. Yes, Jesus really is Lord, and life is really all about pleasing him, doing what he tells me, and building my life on him and his words. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, you pillock. Get on with living with Jesus as Lord.

This is good. Definitely some positive emotion happening.

But then the church meeting goes impossibly long because there are just too many announcements and interviews and extras packed in, and my feelings of uplift from the sermon start to deflate with irritation. Why can’t these people get it right?

And on it goes. Different emotions, ebbing and flowing, responding to a variety of stimuli, some an expression of godly attitudes, some not.

Now, I feel like a bit stupid for not realizing this sooner, but this constantly varying stream of feelings seems to be the kind of emotional life the Bible would lead to me expect as a Christian. The Psalms, after all, give you the full gamut—from almost suicidal despair through to cymbal-bashing, lyre-strumming exaltation. And if you used the New Testament as an emotional guide, you’d expect the godly Christian to feel a very wide range of things—sorrow and joy, anxiety and peace, anguish and relief, thankfulness and pride, jealousy and affection, hatred and fear, kindness and indignation, and so on (Rom 15:13; 1 Cor 15:31; 2 Cor 2:4, 7:9, 11; 11:2, 28; Phil 1:8; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 3:7-8; 1 Pet 1:8; Rev 2:6).

This does not include the ungodly versions of many of these same emotions, which we also should expect to struggle with in our sinfulness. There is godly sorrow that leads to repentance, and worldly sorrow that leads to despair (2 Cor 7:10).

So what is the call for a more emotional Evangelicalism really asking for?

I might be wrong about this, but I don’t think it’s a call for this broad range of authentic emotion, which we each experience differently in our createdness—depending on our circumstances, our culture and upbringing, and on the different emotional make-up God has given us. I rather suspect that what is being sought is a particular set of charged emotions—things like passionate intensity, joyous celebration and sweet victory. And the assumption seems to be that experiencing these emotions is an indicator of, or even a path to, spiritual maturity and intimacy with God.

I don’t agree. But to explain why, I’d like to discuss the difference between ‘affections’ and ‘emotions’, and that will need to wait until part 2 of this post.

18 thoughts on “Thinking about emotions

  1. Hey Tony,

    Great to hear evangelicals talking about emotions! I love it….all power to you brother.

    In Him,

    Sarah Balogh

  2. Tony, I think the call for more emotional evangelicalism is often based on a flawed understanding of how emotions, rational thinking and faith in the Lord are related.  The mistake comes when people seek to sheer emotions off rational thinking.

    For example, if I confess what I believe based on the Bible’s teaching then I am using ‘head knowledge’.  But that is not enough; I should also express emotionally my love for God or how I feel about his love for me as a separate activity.  But is this right?  I don’t think so!

    Surely emotional responses and facts go together.  I remember recently in church a man being overcome with emotion as prayed a congregational prayer of confession.  He did this as he confessed the fact of his sinfulness and the extraordinary mercy of God. The facts he was confessing led to his emotional response. I have known others (me included) to become emotional when teaching the truths of the Bible from time to time. 

    The problem comes, though, when we are told we must express certain emotions to be authentic in our response to God, especially when I am encouraged to feel in a certain way uninformed by the wonderful truths of the Bible.  Emotion based on nothing, or a wrong understanding of God is hardly authentic!

  3. Great topic to grapple with Tony. I feel the dilemma!

    Archie Poulos spoke recently on the emotions and affections at our AFES apprentice conference and he was very instructive. His Briefing article too was superb on this distinction: ‘Worldly passions, holy affections: How to cultivate a discerning mind’, The Briefing #366, March 2009. Well worth reading!

  4. Interesting post.

    Personally, I don’t think evangelicals have a problem with *experiencing* emotions; we have a problem with expressing them openly.

    Our meetings are relatively emotionless. Our conversations are guarded and often fail to express the depths of what we’re feeling.

    I think this perpetuates via an expectation that we should seem to be stable, well-adjusted, “normal” Christian people. Too many times, this is just a pretense we make at the expense of sharing in each others lives as we should.

    Of course I agree that the whole “victorious Christian life” emotional rubbish is exactly that. But I wonder if we’re a bunch of recluses too.

  5. *So what is the call for a more emotional Evangelicalism really asking for?*

    Good question. For me, I think it’s a case of having emotional experience validated in some way. So being able to say, “You know, I feel really far from God at the moment” without having someone jump in and say, “It doesn’t really matter how you *feel* though – the truth is that God has brought you near through Christ” or whatever. You want someone to show some empathy, step into your world a bit rather than rattle off a glib answer.

  6. Thanks for this Tony, and brilliant timing – I’ve just written a blog entry on a very similar topic (influenced somewhat by Tim Keller: and your article has got me thinking again. I look forward to part two, as I think the distinction between emotions and affections is not one I’ve made for simplicity’s sake, but could well be crucial.

  7. Well you’ll all have to come to our Moore College School of Theology in 2011 to find out some more! The working title of the conference is ‘True feelings’.

    I think Craig is right. There is, in our subculture, a kind of imbalanced suspicion of emotions/affections – a suspicion not shown to our rational minds, which are just as prone to sin and distortion as our feelings. The response to this i reckon is not to plunge into emotivism or to make a rearguard defence of rationalism at all costs: it is to give a proper account of the place of feelings in the Christian life. We are hoping to do that in 2011. It may be too late!

  8. Thanks for the comments all.

    Craig, what you’re asking for is very reasonable! It’s only what I think we would all want when we’re feeling low or spiritually dry; that is, to be encouraged and supported and gently restored by our brothers; to have the reality of our feelings acknowledged while being graciously pointed to the gospel as the remedy.

    I wonder though whether a bit of closer definition would also help. That is, some of the feelings I have really don’t matter very much; they are product of my circumstances, disposition, body chemistry, particular stimuli, etc. They may not be indicative of my spiritual state at all. But other feelings may be linked to my affections, to what I love or loathe—but more that in part 2.

    Michael, you’ve mentioned this idea before somewhere, and it’s intriguing—that we suspect our emotions, but fail to direct the same suspicion at our rationality. Very pomo of course, but not less insightful for being that. Or should I say no less Calvinist, because one of the differences between Catholic and Reformed anthropology is ‘total depravity’—that sin extends to all parts of our personality, including the mind.

    I suppose the difficulty is that it is only by rationality (in the sense of thought and argument) that we would be able to express such an idea, assess it, and agree or disagree. And I assume that the MTC School of Theology about ‘feelings’ would also be an exercise in rational thought (in this sense), not a feel-fest.  So would it be true to say that ‘feelings’ are a different sort of thing than ‘thoughts’, and that therefore the categories of ‘truth’ and ‘suspicion’ don’t apply in the same way to each?  (Looking forward very much to 2011!)

    Luke, seems like you’re making quite a similar point to Craig—not a wish for wild emotivism, but a degree of honesty or transparency in expressing what we’re feeling. I think the criteria here is love. We don’t have a license for dumping emotions on others just because we’re feeling them, especially if those emotional outbursts would be sinful, damaging or unhelpful for the other person! Our world highly values the Authentic Expression of Me as a good in itself; the Spirit-filled person values self-control for the sake of others as the good life. And there are plenty of occasions in which honestly sharing how we’re feeling is enormously helpful for other people (e.g. because they discover that they are not alone in their feelings).

    But you’re dead right—when it becomes a veneer of niceness and stability as a way of protecting our reputation as ‘together’ people, we’re fooling ourselves as much as others.


  9. Thanks Tony – I guess we are all ‘feeling’ our way on this.

    And yes, a School of Theology will be some thinking about feeling, but it will hopefully not be only that. I am keen to make sure that we have at least one sermon to go along with the school.

    Partly I think the problem is that we forget that our feelings are one of the instruments we use to know things. ‘Knowing’ something or someone is not merely a matter of rational thought, is it?
    So the division between thinking and feeling is often made artificially. We often start (as I think you have here!) with an intuition or a sense that something isn’t right, a ‘feeling’ if you will, and then seek rational (by which I mean more deductive) answers to complement our first felt reaction.

    Our brains our part of our flesh, after all!

    And, by the way: I’ll take Calvin over pomo thanks very much!

  10. I think TP’s question: “So what is the call for a more emotional Evangelicalism really asking for?” is a good one. And it is important not respond too cynically.

    I think part of the answer has to do with assurance – or at least, a subjective assurance to accompany the objective assurance I can point to in the cross. I remember a pastoral interaction with a young minister’s kid who said (with tears) ‘look, I know all the right answers, and I even believe them, but my heart is cold towards God’…

    What should I have said?

  11. @Tony: thanks for your thoughtful comment. I look forward to seeing part 2 smile

    @Michael: I think perhaps you are over-estimating the significance of Moore College in the oversight of these things. Why would it be “too late” for anything in 2011, unless you think we have to wait until then for it to be on some official evangelical agenda? Aren’t we all talking about it right now, in 2009?

  12. Hi all,

    I think that Michael’s point is very important. For arguing, preaching, communicating and talking to your neighbour across the back fence.

    Here’s an excellent little article on the nature of argument as the Greeks taught it 2000(ish) years ago. Good argument involves 3 things: logos, ethos and pathos. I won’t give it all away, but you can read the article here.

  13. @Luke – I think you are misunderstanding me completely. And I don’t get what you are talking about with ‘official evangelical agenda’.

    My point is exactly that the debate is going on NOW and yet the soonest we can put on the conference is in 2011,  – which is a shame in that we would like to contribute to it now. It is we at Moore who risk missing the boat.

  14. @Michael, I recall a very similar conversation with a young man a few years ago. In my experience it is important to help the person identify what is causing that feeling.  The most common I have come across are:  Guilt over a past or present sinful activity, and feeling as though knowing the Lord is simply not making a real impact on the person. 

    I wonder if there are (at least) two aspects to this whole issue.  On the one hand there can be a wrong theological emphasis on emotions, which results in elevating feelings above the truths in which we are called to believe and trust.  On the other, there is a tendency to downplay emotions as though they are not valid or shouldn’t be expressed. 

    The School of Theology on this sounds really worthwhile.

  15. I’m glad this conversation is taking place – thanks for kicking it off (or at least kicking it along!) Tony.

    I wonder if the discussion could be sharpened up by a bit more clarity on the various meanings that your word ‘expect’ (as in ‘you’d expect the godly Christian to feel a very wide range of things’) can have.

    For example, there is the complicated mixture of emotions that the Bible in its sober realism teaches me to ‘expect’ that I will experience as a frail and sinful person in a stale and weary world.

    And then there is the old-fashioned sense of ‘expect’ as something we do with the eyes of faith (as in ‘Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum’). 

    The two senses are not unrelated, of course.  It is because God knows my vulnerability to a kind of chronic, low-level middle-aged grumpiness that he commands me (over and over again!) in his word to ‘rejoice in the Lord’.  And it is because God knows how easily I settle back into a complacent, self-satisfied smugness that he commands me to ‘weep with those who weep’ and so on.

    We should not expect too much of the flesh.  But neither should we expect too little of the Spirit to give those things (including joy and zeal and so on) that he commands.  I suspect that quite often, in my emotional life, I am guilty of the latter problem.

  16. good point Dave
    I have been reading Psalm 16
    v.11 is particularly striking.
    my question is – should I not expect fullness of joy and pleasure from God now? (realised in Christ and fully consumated in the coming Kingdom yet still real now?!).

    also I find it hard to not think of the language of the heart which is both our thinking and our desires (e.g Heb 4:12);  how we interpret and explain as well as what we want and worship.

    I wonder whether the call for a wholehearted evangelicalism falls into this well and is a little more helpful than emotional evangelism.

    it is deeply felt and profoundly experimental because it is undeniable relational – and expectantly so….

  17. Yes, I do think emotional expression can become a ‘work’: there are churches where certain emotions are manufactured and others where emotions are discouraged.  But there’s also a class issue for Skips: lower-class men are less emotional than middle-class men, while lower-class women are more emotional than middle-class women (I perceive).  Note that this will affect church life and our homogeneous units!

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