Shaping our emotions

I’m going to muse about emotions a little.

My wife wrote a very good blog post about emotions here. She said that emotions aren’t bad, and that there are three wrong ways to handle them (stir them up, stuff them, or store them) and one good way to handle them (surrender them to God).

I agree, but I want to expand on the surrender part with another S: we need to surrender them to God so that He can shape them. We need to let God change our emotional set so that we tend more and more to feel the way He feels about things.

Shaping our feelings will apply to both positive and negative emotions. I remember someone saying once, “We need to learn to let God break our hearts with the things that break His.” That seems deeply right to me.

It must be equally true that we need to learn to share in the joy of God. (John 15:11). I asked a few weeks ago what self-pity is. Maybe this is part of the answer: self-pity is a refusal to participate in the joy of God.

The two halves of an emotion

It seems to me that emotions come in two separate pieces. One half is the feeling itself, something which more or less just happens to us. We have little control over it. The other half is our attitude toward those feelings. That’s something we do have a choice about. For example, to feel angry is not by itself sin, but to embrace it and agree with it usually is (James 1:20). It’s similar for fear, sorrow, and other negative emotions. (Note that I’m not just saying that we shouldn’t always act on what we feel. I’m saying that even when I refrain from acting, I may sin in attitude by inwardly embracing a certain feeling.)

I suppose the same thing must be true of positive emotions. Sometimes we find ourselves simply gifted with a good mood. Several years ago God delivered me from a significant portion of the depression I was struggling with by waking me up one morning feeling deeply happy for no reason I could figure out. Even when the feeling passed, the memory of it lingered and changed how I saw life. I didn’t cause that: it just happened. When these positive feelings happen, though, we need to respond to them, to assent to them somehow with our minds and wills.

I don’t always know how to do this. When I try to “work up” positive emotions, it generally creates a feeling of underlying despair in me at the same time. So I tend not to do that. Most people don’t report the same phenomenon, so maybe that’s just something wrong with the way my emotions work. I speculate that instead of stirring up positive emotions the proper response is to give praise and thanks. I’m not sure.

I think a part of it is whether I identify with my emotions or not. I feel fear frequently. There is a big difference between whether I think “This is me, feeling really afraid”, or “Here I am, created to be brave in Christ, but being assailed by fear.” (2 Tim 1:7. See also 1 Peter 2:11.)

Scripture

I think the key to shaping our emotions, or rather, letting God shape them, must be Scripture. We need to figure out how to read the Bible in such a way that it changes how we feel.

When I first got saved, a lot of believers around me kept telling me to “stop thinking so much” and trust God’s wisdom rather than man’s.  I tried for a year not to think, but I couldn’t seem to help it. Finally I prayed: “God, I’m trying, but I keep thinking about everything anyway!” I felt as though God answered back: “Kevin – don’t you think I know how much you think about everything? Don’t you think I made you that way? You don’t have to stop thinking. Just be sure you always surrender your thinking to me.”

I think emotions must be similar. God says to us, “Don’t you think I made you to feel? You don’t have to stop feeling, just be sure you always surrender your feelings to me.” Just as I want my thoughts to be increasingly conformed to the Bible, so that my world-view becomes thoroughly Christian, I also want my feelings to be increasingly Biblical. (Compare Romans 12:2 with Colossians 3:2, KJV.)

There are some great resources in the Bible for re-orienting our emotions. Do a word study of “compassion” in the gospels, for example. Look carefully at all the gushy parts of Paul’s epistles – we usually skip past those parts because they don’t have a lot of doctrine, but in them Paul expressed deep affection for those he wrote to.  Do you have a distorted view of romantic love and/or lust? Then studying Song of Solomon is probably a great way to imprint a new set of desires.

Of course, by far the best place in Scripture to learn about emotions is the Psalms. There, more than anywhere, God says to us, “Here is how a man feels when he is pursuing me.”

Furthermore, the Psalms are prayers, which is important. The best way I’ve found of shaping my emotions around a Scriptural pattern is to pray it back to God. As I do, I think about my own situation and draw on the imagery of the Psalm to pray about what is on my own heart.

When I read Scripture doctrinally, I love to look for the surprises in it. I put myself in the place of the writer and try to imagine that I am saying it. Then, when I get to something that I wouldn’t have said, I ask why. It usually signals some way in which my thinking is not completely aligned with Scripture. We can do the same thing emotionally when we pray the Psalms. As we pray them back, we can look for the phrases, or the patterns of emphasis, that jar us, that seem a little out of tune. These can be signals that our feelings are not quite lined up with God’s ideal.

Isn’t it possible that some of the Psalms hold emotional patterns that are not good for us to emulate? Some seem overly depressing in places, for example. Others seem awfully vindictive. Some Christian writers have suggested that it isn’t really spiritually safe for us to pray the imprecatory Psalms (the ones that call down judgment).

I think, though, that we don’t have to worry too much about this. Compare what I’m saying to the parallel case of doctrine. We evangelicals believe the Scripture is “truth without any mixture of error”. Although God could have communicated his truth using a Scripture with lots of errors in it, those of us who affirm inerrancy as a doctrine don’t believe He did that. At the same time, we believe that context is important. There are times when Scripture records that a certain person believed this idea or that idea, and goes on to identify that person’s belief as false. To see whether an isolated statement in the Bible is doctrinally true, we have to read on and see how the rest of the passage comments on it.

If we believe that the Scripture is doctrinally reliable, I believe we can assume that it is emotionally reliable too. Yes, Scripture shows a lot of people with lots of different emotional responses, and yes, sometimes it goes on to comment on how their responses were inappropriate. But if we are careful to take things in context, and take the whole of Scripture into account, I believe we can trust the emotional heart of the Scriptures we read. The Psalms are emotionally as well as doctrinally true, and we can safely mold our passions around Scriptural examples.

One thought on “Shaping our emotions

  1. the idea that emotions have 2 halves really hits me! especially as a woman. i’m working through “how to feel” about many things of late…thank you for this post! i sure miss you SS class :)

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