Before the start of my freshman year, Hopkins sent its incoming students a book to read over the summer: Tal Ben-Shahar’s Happier, a guide to emotional enrichment and achieving lasting happiness in our everyday lives. Claiming to have stood the test of the scientific method, Happier aims to help readers balance their present lives with their future ambitions, the ultimate result being a happy, satisfied individual with a renewed sense of fulfillment.
More than anything, Happier is but another reminder of our culture’s preoccupation with emotional comfort and spiritual wellbeing. With a growing number of books, seminars, CDs, and websites dedicated to self-help, we are part of a therapeutic society that values—even idolizes—emotional health. The foundational beliefs of each resource may vary, but the end goal is the same: to provide emotional prosperity and heighten self-esteem while blocking out any negative emotions that may be a hindrance.
This does not come as a surprise. Everything we do, in one way or another, is emotional: we are happy when entertained by friends, sad when attending a funeral, angry at our parents, and tired during class. We often describe our lives in terms of how we feel, with the emotions we experience often dictating our perceptions of a particular moment or time.
For these reasons it is natural that the importance of emotions is recognized in religious spheres as well. Speaking from within the Christian tradition, Theologian Gregory S. Clapper argues:
The ‘emotions’ are a crucial part of human existence; some would even say they are the defining aspect of human life. Because of this, theology—the Church’s reflections on God and humanity—must, in every generation, come to grips with affectivity.1
As Clapper would be quick to reference, the Bible often displays, and even commands, emotions. Indeed, since the beginning of creation God has endowed us with emotions, intended to—as we are image bearers of God—reflect His goodness and perfection through humanity. The goal of this piece, then, is to present a Christian perspective on emotions and, through the Scriptures, paint a picture of how emotion interact with another aspect of the self: our intellect. I hope to show that reason and faith are not two separate faculties but are interdependent. It is in no way comprehensive, but it aims to show why emotions are important in our faith for three reasons: first, because the Bible speaks into emotions, it is imperative that we understand what biblical emotions look like; second, because emotions figure prominently in our everyday lives; and third, if Christ, who is the bridge between God and man, displayed emotions, then we must pay attention. Emotions, in one capacity or another, have a role to play in our Christian discipleship.
II. A (Working) Definition of Emotion
The Bible does not provide us with a clear-cut definition of what emotion is, but it does provide us with enough information to discern the moral quality of certain emotions. This quality is principally found within their source. For starters, if emotions are unrelated to any cognitive processes and are mere deterministic physiological responses to different situations, then we need not worry about being responsible for how we feel--emotions become a matter of is and not ought. This perspective implies that we cannot control our emotions but are subject to them—we feel happy and sad simply because the chemicals in our brain are sending signals as such, randomly and out of our control.
Triumphing over this mechanistic determinism, the Bible commands us to feel certain emotions. In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus points out the greatest commandments in Scripture: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The nature of these commands is worth further reflection. This duty implies that cognition—our ideas, beliefs, and judgments—items within our own agency—are the things that gives rise to different feelings. As this agency is a product of our individual intellect and will, then it follows that emotion should flow from proper thought. No longer are our emotions mere physiological impulses; they are indicative of what we know and value.2 The happiness we feel when seeing a newborn child is built from our knowledge of the opportunity tucked in the occasion; an act of injustice inspires anger in us because it is reasonable to desire a world in which evil is punished and goodness prevails.
Theologian and New Testament scholar Matthew Elliott encapsulates this rational causality when he says:
Emotions are not primitive impulses, but cognitive judgments or construals that tell us about ourselves and our world. In this understanding, destructive emotions can be changed, beneficial emotions can be cultivated, and emotions are a crucial part of morality. Emotions also help us to work efficiently, assist our learning, correct faulty logic, and help us build relationships with others.3
As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate: He came down to earth fully human, yet still fully God. While He experienced the full spectrum of humanity, one aspect separated Him from the rest of the world: His sinless perfection. Because of this, we can look to Him as an example of someone who perfectly displayed the full range of human emotions, experiencing joy and even—as we will soon discover—more melancholy emotions such as anger and sorrow. As Christians, conforming to the image of Christ is our ultimate call, so His emotional life should be the standard by which we cultivate our own emotions.
In Luke 10, we witness perhaps the most prominent example of a joyful Christ. Earlier Jesus had sent out seventy-two of his followers to preach the Gospel and restore the lost; upon their return, Jesus, filled with gratitude, turns his attention heavenward:
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. (Luke 10:21).
We find Jesus in a state of complete ecstasy, overflowing with joy. What was the occasion? God had chosen to reveal Himself and the mysteries of salvation to those who were outcasts of society: the despised, the sinners, the children. Jesus rejoices because of God’s great redemptive plan for His creation, which he loves and values as His own.
In fact, the greatest act of love in history—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was made possible because Jesus found joy in God’s plan for salvation: the joy of being exalted in heaven and on earth in the assembly of His redeemed people.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. (Hebrews 12:2).
In the life of Jesus, there is a stark contrast in what drives his emotional experiences: He rejoices in what He knows is good and right, yet expresses anger and sorrow at the state of the current world.
In Ephesians 4:26, Paul writes, “In your anger do not sin.” There are a few noteworthy points to consider here, the most important being that not all anger seems to be sinful; that is, the anger that Christians experience does not have to be rooted in pride or selfishness, which in and of themselves are sins.
Unlike Happier or new age spirituality, Christianity acknowledges that anger is in fact a prominent emotion in our everyday lives. Since the Christian walk involves pursuing godliness, there must be a kind of anger that stems not from our selfish desires, but from our regenerated, Spirit-led nature. If anger is a part of our spiritual walk, then it follows that there are some things that should make us righteously angry.
But what is righteous anger, and what does it look like? The Bible is clear that righteous anger is being angry at the things that anger God. Because God is fundamentally holy and righteous, the anger He feels then must be righteous by nature. More often than not, God is angered by things that pervert what he intended for good; that is, the twisting of things that He originally created to be right. The Gospel of Mark provides a vivid picture of such a moment in chapter 11:
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there…And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:15-17).4
Jesus was angered because Israel had forsaken their worship to God, choosing to valuing money over Him. He reacted because Israel’s actions did not align with the commands God had given to honor His temple and to uphold it as a house of prayer. In short, Jesus felt anger for the right reasons; his emotional reactions are clearly caused by a cognitive understanding of what ought to be in contrast to what actually was.
Anger is not the only way Jesus responded to a broken world. In Mark 3:1-6, Jesus—in response to those that were accusing Him of wrongdoing by healing on the Sabbath—was angered by the sinfulness of those around Him, yet was grieved because of their stubbornness of heart. We see that in Jesus, His anger was deeply intermingled with His sorrow; they stemmed from the same source: that what was made good had been perverted by evil. One of the most prominent examples of this comes from Matthew 23, when Jesus grieves over Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
Jesus grieved over the rebelliousness of Israel. They were His people, whom He loved dearly, yet they did not actually know God. He longed for Israel to be reconciled to Him, to show her mercy, yet also knew the reality of sin and the toll that it had taken.
However, we see that Jesus’ sorrow was something deeply personal as well. In Matthew 14:13, Jesus, when he heard the news about John the Baptist’s execution, went to a desolate place alone to grieve. Similarly, in John 11:35, Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, such that the onlookers declared, “See how he loved him!” Jesus’ grief is clearly linked to his cognition; his emotions reflected the truths he loved and valued.
It is a great resource to know that Jesus is not emotionally distant, but shares in the deep emotional complexities of our daily lives. We celebrate, we are angry, we grieve, and Jesus empathizes with us every step of the way. Yet Jesus also demonstrates that how one feels should not be an instinctive reaction, but a result of a cognitive assessment of the Truth. His emotions reflect what is good and what ought to be good but isn’t, and acts as an example for us in our own emotional lives.
IV. A Transforming of Our Minds
As already alluded to, a Christian worldview demands that we take captive our emotions to the will of God. The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).” In other words, we must be able to obey commands to feel or change certain emotions by our own will. Thus, as an indication of that will, having the right emotions is crucial in Christianity because our willful emotional life is to be built on a foundation of truth, and this can often be difficult.
So how can we begin to change our emotions? In Romans 12:1-2, the Apostle Paul reveals that only by renewing our minds can we begin to transform: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.” He also exhorts the believers in his epistle to the Philippians: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).”
This then begs the question, how can this renewal happen? First and foremost, renewal is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. Our efforts can only follow his enabling; it is God who changes hearts, not man. On a more practical level, we can turn to 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This is how we can begin to renew our minds—by fixing our focus on the glory of God.
For us to do this, we must expose ourselves to the Truth. That is, we must strive to understand and remind ourselves of the Gospel, to meditate on Scripture, and to pray without ceasing, always keeping in mind the Word of God. In fact, Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that Satan “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they cannot see the the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Perhaps this is because to see the Truth for what it really is will renew the mind and begin a transformative work in our lives.
You see, by means of Paul’s letters and other sources in scripture, the Bible does not provide a division between thinking and feeling, as so many imagine. They do not operate on separate faculties, but are seemingly connected, overlapping in many areas and constantly influencing each other. As Brian Borgman argues, right thinking should produce right feeling, and right feeling produce right actions.5
As we have also seen in the life of Jesus, knowledge of the truth is the proper basis to elicit emotions, not a whimsical desire to be comfortable or happier. In fact, we have seen that this knowledge sometimes lands an individual in an entirely proper place of sorrow and discontent with the current status of the world.
Throughout the Bible we find commands to love, to rejoice, to not be anxious, to not fear—but can emotions really be commanded? Pastor John Piper answers in the affirmative when he writes, “The reason affections can be commanded is not that they are in our ultimate control but because, given the nature of reality, some affections ought to exist toward God and man and some ought not. To know that a certain affection ought to exist is a sufficient condition for being the object of a reasonable command to experience that affection.”6 Standing on the bridge between proper Christian theology and a transformation of the emotions, we call to mind a quote from American minister and evangelist John Wesley, who questioned, “Hast thou found happiness in God? Is he the desire of thine eyes, the joy of thy heart? If not, thou hast other gods before him.”7
V. Final Thoughts
The Bible clearly views emotions as an integral part of who we were made to be as a people for God—as a people created in His image. Matthew Elliott even argues, “Christian emotions should be the most intense, the most vibrant, and the most pervasive things we feel as they are based on the most important things in life: our relationship to God and his great love for us; our eternal future; and the work of Christ.”8 Our emotions are intended show the reality and truth of our faith hidden within us, and their stagnation or transformation is indicative of our own maturity as believers. Emotions play a central role in the Christian life and are therefore critical to understand for a fuller grasp of the Christian faith. After all, love is its greatest commandment, and joy is perhaps just as frequently commanded, hope called upon, and fear reprimanded.
Our emotions provide a connection with God that we otherwise may not have. When a grieved mother cries out to Him, we witness His mercy and His gentle compassion. When we lift our hands in adoration and worship, He responds with gladness and love. When we begin to believe and live out His Word, the fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—become manifest in our lives, a beautiful melting pot of emotions intended to help us live according to God’s will.9 Philosopher and theologian Robert C. Roberts puts it aptly when he says:
The emotions have a pre-eminent place in the Christian virtues-system because they are the most immediate way in which the gospel at the foundation of the Christian life makes its mark on the human soul and draws into fellowship with God…the Christian emotions determine the distinctive character of the whole range of Christian virtues.10
My prayer is that you too will experience and know the love of Jesus Christ, and that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
1 Gregory S. Clapper, John Wesley on Religious Affections: His Views on Experience and Emotion and Their Role in the Christian Life and Theology (London: Scarecrow, 1989): 1.
2 Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009): 26.
3 Matthew A. Elliott, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotions in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2006): 54.
4 A similar event is recorded in John 2:13-23.
5 Borgman, Feelings and Faith, 169
6 Piper, ‘Hope as the Motivation for Love: 1 Peter 3:9–12,’ p. 216.
7 Quoted in Elliott, Faithful Feelings, 255.
8 Ibid., 264.
9 Galatians 5:22-23.
10 Robert C. Roberts, “Willpower and the Virtues,” The Philosophical Review 93, no. 2 (1984): 61.