Emotions Can Be Elusive
We think the word engage best captures the balanced approach of Scripture to the unbalanced extremes the world around us suggests for dealing with our emotions. Engaging walks a deliberate, middle road between the twin pitfalls of the hyper-emotionalism that fawns over our feelings and sets them up as dictators and the stoicism that squashes negative emotions from the outset. The Bible’s model of engaging emotions means something very simple: when an emotion comes on your radar, you look at it, see what you find, and then (not before!) decide how to respond.
The beauty of engaging is that it doesn’t judge your emotions ahead of time as either good or bad. When you engage something, you move closer and explore it, preparing yourself to deal with whatever you uncover. If, as we have argued thus far, there are good negative emotions (as well as bad) and bad positive emotions (as well as good), then it is imperative that we figure out what is going on before working to shut down or amplify the feelings flowing from our hearts.
We’re more used to this kind of approach in dealing with our thoughts and actions than we are in dealing with our emotions. We all know that we all have good behavior and bad behavior, good thinking and bad thinking. But treating joy and anger as both potential threats and potential friends is less natural. How then can you engage your elusive emotions? Here are four steps:
The first step can sound so basic as to be not worth mentioning: to engage something, you need to become aware that it exists and put a name of some sort on it. This, however, is actually the hardest step for many! For obvious reasons, coming to the conscious realization that you are in fact feeling something and then putting some kind of descriptive words on that feeling is quite challenging for someone who hasn’t realized he or she is feeling anything at all. For some of us, being asked, “Why are you so upset?” or “How do you feel about that?” is like being blind and having someone ask you what color the sky is today. If this is you, turn to someone you trust and ask, “What emotions do you see in me most often? What do they look like when I show them?”
Now, when we say “name” what you are feeling, we don’t mean you need a specific label or even a name that sounds like an emotion. “I’m feeling off” or “something’s up” or “I am feeling something I can’t explain and I don’t know why” would be a perfectly valid way of identifying emotion. The point in this first step is simply to become aware that something is occurring inside you. You can only engage something effectively once you know it is there.
This is nothing magical or novel. You are simply trying to describe your reaction to the world God has put you in, using the words God has given. This is what the Bible does constantly. Thus the Gospels tell us that Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled” as his death approached (Matt. 26:37), or thankful to his Father for making the gospel accessible to even little children (Luke 10:21). And thus the psalmists tell us, “My heart is struck down like grass and has withered” (Ps. 102:4), or “I am weary with my crying out” (Ps. 69:3), or “I will be glad and exult in you” (Ps. 9:2). Gideon trembles with fear and asks for a fleece. Mary trembles too and asks why God has chosen her, and so on. Why the psalmist is sick at heart or what Jesus does with his deeply troubled spirit remains to be seen. For now, all we need to do is notice that Scripture’s first step in engaging emotions in the people it talks about is simply to identify their feelings.
Few things bring more joy to God’s heart than acts of premeditated, self-sacrificing love for each other.
Once you’ve observed that an emotion is present, the next step is not rocket science: look at it, turn it around, and see what you can learn about it. Here we pull the categories of “communicate,” “relate,” “motivate,” and “elevate” into service. Your emotions are always telling you something about what you are valuing, caring about, or loving. What are they telling you? They are always saying something about your relationships. What are they saying? They are always pressing you toward some kind of action. What are they energizing you to do? Finally, they are always influencing your relationship with God. What is their effect on your worship right now? In other words, examining emotions entails asking questions like Why am I feeling this? What am I reacting to? Why is this hitting me so hard? Why isn’t this affecting me the way it usually does? and How is this emotion making me want to behave?
Let’s look at a hypothetical example. Suppose you identify that you are feeling angry. As you examine your anger, you observe that you are mad about your wife breaking the lawn mower. When you first found out, you didn’t say anything, but you’ve been curt since and weren’t very talkative at dinner. Inside you keep thinking, She knows I always get to the lawn on Saturday; why couldn’t she just leave it alone?
What can you learn about yourself from this? Here are a few possibilities. First, your anger is leading you to pull back (talking less than normal and less warmly than normal). Second, your emotion is leading to strain between you and your wife. Third, you value efficiency and comfort. Losing (you’d probably call it “wasting”) time or money on fixing the lawn mower pulls time and money away from other things you had wanted to accomplish or enjoy. If this is true, it makes you one of about 7 billion people on the planet who value having things go smoothly! Your anger is identifying this setback as a bad thing that should not have happened. Lastly, however, the frustrated thoughts running on loop in your head suggest that right now you care more about the inconvenience to you than the good intentions your wife showed in doing something to make your life better. You’re more concerned with the outcome than with her motives.
This might seem obvious, but it’s important to recognize that the same situation could go very differently. For example, your anger at her could be from feeling insulted—she must not think you are man enough to do your own yard work. Or you could have been angry with yourself for not getting to the lawn last weekend and creating a situation where she felt she had to. You could be angry because, yet again, she didn’t ask how to do something before jumping into a project; or you could be angry with her for not asking because she always asks, and this inconvenience wouldn’t have happened if she’d stuck to the script. You could be angry at the lawn mower’s manufacturer, who designed such a fragile product.
Those are just different options for what your anger might mean, but of course your response might have been something besides anger altogether! You could have felt fear; and, instead of anger leading to annoyed withdrawal, you might have placated her because you didn’t want her to get upset with you or the situation and make life miserable. Or you could have felt joy that, after some recent conflicts between you, she took initiative and did something to bless you and didn’t ask for help because she wanted it to be a surprise. A hundred bucks at the small-engine repair shop? A small price to pay for such a gift.
The list of possible reasons for feeling angry or afraid or joyful in a situation is endless. For our purposes, as you examine yourself, you aren’t interested yet in whether what you’re seeing is good or bad; you’re just trying to understand what is going on. Whether what you see is a problem or not, you want to become as aware as possible of what you are caring about, how you are relating, and what you are doing in response.
Once you have identified that something is happening inside you and examined what is going on in that feeling, you’re ready to take the next logical step: figuring which aspects of what you are feeling are good and godly and which are destructive or selfish. This is hard to do! You will rarely find only good in your emotions or only bad. Instead, you’ll almost always find good and bad mixed together. And you have a lot at stake; you wouldn’t be feeling emotion about it if you didn’t.
How might our husband with the tall grass and the helpful-if-not-mechanically-savvy wife evaluate his anger? He certainly doesn’t need to feel bad about his desire to use his Saturday efficiently or his hope that machines will work. Part of human suffering since Adam and Eve sinned is that our labor is beset by thorny setbacks, breakdowns, and obstacles. The Bible calls this a “curse,” not a necessary part of the circle of life, and we are right to feel anger toward the broken, plan-thwarting consequences of living in a world warped by the presence of evil. God actually uses the frustrations in our work to remind us of the pervasive poisoning impact of sin and to leave us longing for the return of his Son to restore all things. Anger at a broken lawn mower can be part of a hunger and thirst for the courts of the Lord!
That said, when freedom from inconvenience is driving a man’s reaction, rather than appreciation for his wife’s efforts to help, something is off. A good desire has gone sour because it has gotten out of order in the priority scheme. When anger at a broken world turns into curt withdrawal, a punishment meted out on a well-meaning wife, it loses its Godward momentum and exacerbates the curse just a little bit more.
Our God calls us to love what he loves and hate what he hates. Few things bring more joy to God’s heart than acts of premeditated, self-sacrificing love for each other. We were made to give and receive love just as Father, Son, and Spirit treasure, honor, and glorify each other. To ignore or be unmoved by a wife’s thoughtful, personal kindness points to a self-absorbed and entitled heart. Sadly, every last one of us acts out of self-absorption and entitlement all too often.
The bottom line then in evaluating emotions is this: it’s okay to be upset about what upsets God, and glad about what makes him happy. But when you find yourself ignoring what pleases him (e.g., the wife’s intentions) and acting in ways that anger him, you need to evaluate your emotions as revealing something wrong in your heart.
When you know that you are feeling, have named what you are feeling as best you can, and have decided which aspects of the feeling are good and which are bad, you are finally ready to act. While options for action are endless, proper responses to emotions fall into two fundamental categories.
On the one hand, we want to embrace and nurture the loves of our heart and the behaviors that are good. On the other hand, we want to resist and even starve loves and actions that are bad.
Remember, this does not mean focusing primarily on changing the emotions themselves! Changing your feelings is not your biggest goal. Instead, we want to let our evaluation of our emotions drive us to act in ways that will actually have an impact on the deep loves and treasures of our hearts. Thus, we will spend the next three chapters looking at various options for nourishing or starving the good or bad loves underlying our emotions.
To give you an idea of where we are heading, let’s turn back to our angry husband one final time and think about what he should do. First, it’s completely fair for him to pray that the lawn mower will be fixed easily and cheaply. Second, it would actually be good for him to express his frustration with broken equipment to God and voice his disappointment about the negative impact on his Saturday. After that, however, his examination and evaluation should show him that his heart is in the wrong place, caring more about his comfort and convenience than about his wife’s love for him or spiritual growth. We want that realization to lead him to honest repentance in conversation with God about the problem in his heart this self-examination has uncovered.
Finally, while he may need a few minutes to cool down, he needs to talk to his wife. All the internal self-awareness in the world doesn’t help if it doesn’t lead to change in relationship and action. He needs to begin by apologizing to her for being short. He may want to reassure her that it’s going to be okay. He should surely thank her for trying to take care of something for him. There may even be a place for him to make a gentle request that she get his input on lawn equipment in the future. Looking slightly further down the road, this could actually be a great opportunity for some ongoing, targeted Bible study (seeking help from friends or a pastor if he is at a loss for where to turn in Scripture) to prod and press his heart toward valuing things that will last into eternity (his wife’s love) more than things that will pass away (money, time, and mowed lawns).
Our hope is that you don’t find this overwhelming. It certainly could be overwhelming to think of all the different meanings our feelings can have and all the different ways we might need to respond. One of the great joys of our faith, however, is that so many different practical, concrete responses to the things we find in our hearts can express faith. God has given us a shocking amount of leeway in living out our faith—there are so many right actions and right ways to nurture what is good (and starve what is bad)! The more we understand the connection between our situation, our emotions, and our loves, the better we will be able to creatively and consistently bear fruit in engaging our feelings.
This article is adapted from Untangling Emotions by Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith.
Though our faculties were corrupted by sin, all are being restored, and Christ makes peace between our minds, wills, and emotions.
When we fix our attention on God’s standard we will begin to feel peace and hope.