written by Grace Trinh
Too often, I’ve realized, I follow my emotions more carefully than I follow Christ.
I’d flit between states of happiness, regret, excitement, and discouragement in the span of a few hours. Frustration would lead to lashing out, indignation to bitterness against others, sorrow to hopeless unproductivity. Sometimes, I struggle tremendously just to smile.
Fighting to reign in my own emotions often exhausts me. But an improper handling of them leads easily to sin, both against God and against others. So how can we feel, display, and respond to our affections in ways that please the Lord?
How should we feel about feelings?
When it comes to our emotions, we might veer towards one of two extremes (or teeter unstably between both).
On one end, we might desire to be stoic and ultra-composed, repressing our burdensome emotions and all outward displays of them — perhaps because we believe they expose us vulnerably before others, or signify spiritual immaturity, or compromise our appearance of cool put-togetherness.
But Jesus wept. After Lazarus died, our Savior — a man of sorrows, no stranger to grief (Isaiah 53:3) — cried out of such grief for a fallen, sin-entangled world (John 11:35). Better than anyone else, Christ understood how to feel, display, and use his emotions to the glory of the Father. Therefore, emotions in and of themselves are not sinful.
On the other end, we might be inclined to go wherever our emotions point us, regardless of how irrational or unstable they tend to be. But though feelings may fluctuate, our spiritual lives should never — we Christians should be grounded in the immutable, unshakeable reality portrayed in Scripture, all of God’s promises, and the hope of the Gospel.
If our emotions, ingrained inextricably into our sinful flesh, enslave us and dictate us, then we risk losing sight of eternally significant things (and of Christ). “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11).
The inside affects the outside.
So don’t be fooled — our deepest, innermost feelings can very easily and quickly manifest in visible, outward reactions. Remember Cain, whose envious hatred prompted him to murder his own brother (Genesis 4)? Or Peter, whose fear of persecution led him to deny Jesus three times (Luke 22)? If we allow our emotions to dictate us, then we offer Satan an obvious means by which to manipulate us.
On the other hand, if we can train ourselves to respond swiftly, reflexively, and rightly to our affections, we can glorify God through both how we feel and how we respond to how we feel. After all, our emotions can reveal our heart (because they’re wired into what we value and believe). Consider David, whose exceeding gladness of heart inspired him in his lyrical worship of God (Psalm 16). Godly desires, coupled with godly beliefs, lead naturally to godly affections.
The end goal is worship.
Jesus commanded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
Our God’s gloriousness demands even more than outward obedience. It demands an internal engagement of the whole heart/soul/mind — in other words, the Christian must be consistently worshipful, inside and out.
Therefore, our emotions cannot be divorced from our worship of God. Rather, they should accompany us in our praise of Him! 1 Peter 1:8-9 describes worship with a “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” Romans 12:9-12 commands us to love others, abhor evil, rejoice in hope, and be fervent in spirit.
Jonathan Edwards puts it this way: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
But too frequently, the emotions we feel inside rebel against what we know we ought to feel. How then do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, when you’re just… not feeling it? In other words, what do you do when you know what you should feel, and yet you don’t?
Preach to yourself.
Edwards further says, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth.” That’s part of the job of a preacher — to stir up in his congregation godly emotions and inclinations towards God, based on truths about God.
But that’s also what we must be doing for ourselves — we must preach to ourselves. In the words of Paul Tripp, “no one is more influential in your life than you are because no one talks to you more than you do.”
However, it’s not the mere act of preaching that can ground a troubled soul but the content of that which is preached — all the motivational quotes and positive aphorisms in the world could not work in the heart like Truth does, and only by the work of the Spirit. Thus, prayer is profoundly important, as we remember and live out our utter dependence on God to orient our hearts/minds/souls to love Him.
Let your emotions then be a response not to positive thinking, but to Truth.
Where can truth be found?
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
The Word of God is our source of Truth. In particular, the book of Psalm, a God-inspired collection of spiritual hymns and songs, captures brilliantly the breadth and depth of raw, human emotion — the grief-stricken contrition of a sinner (Psalm 51), the passionate longing of the heaven-bound (Psalm 84), the jubilant thankfulness of a worshipper (Psalm 100).
See the example of the Psalmist in Psalm 42, who first asks himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” and then reminds himself, “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me,” and then commands himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Do you also battle anxiety by recalling past displays of God’s sovereign kindness? Do you confront fear about the future by meditating deeply on His promises? Do you kill insecurity by reflecting on the grace of the Gospel?
Putting all this together, biblical protocol to handling emotions might look something like this:
- Ask, what are you feeling and why? Is this emotion God-honoring or flesh-gratifying?
- Remind yourself of Truth about God’s character and His promises, again and again.
- Command your heart to trust and obey.
- Wait in the Lord.
Overall, God grants us our emotions as a gift. In response to each one, we must cling to Truth and the Savior whom we follow, lest we get tossed to and fro in our highs and lows.
Handled rightly, our affections have great purpose in our sanctification, engaging our hearts, minds, and souls in fervent worship, and ultimately, exciting us for the inexpressible joy and worship of heaven to come.