Podcast: What We Often Get Wrong about Our Emotions (J. Alasdair Groves)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
What Does the Bible Say about our Emotions?
Alasdair Groves, author of Untangling Emotions, explains the importance of emotions, and what the Bible teaches about them. He highlights how our emotions relate to our reason, ways we tend to over- or under-emphasize emotions, the role modern medications should play in managing our emotional life, and why negative emotions aren’t always a bad thing.
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J. Alasdair Groves, Winston T. Smith
This book sets forth a holistic view of emotions rooted in the Bible, offering a practical approach to engaging with both positive and negative emotions in a God-honoring way.
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Alisdair, thank you so much for being on The Crossway Podcast with us today.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Why Jesus Wept
In the first chapter of your new book Untangling Emotions you ask, “Why on earth would Jesus weep at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus when he’s just about to do an amazing miracle and fix the problem?” So namely you’re referring to resurrecting Lazarus from the dead. And I think your answer is even more fascinating. You write: “Because Jesus is perfect. Jesus wept because he’s perfect.” Explain that. What do you mean by that? Because that just, that was surprising to me. But I think it says a lot about what you’re trying to do in your book.
You know, let me back up a moment before I explain what I mean by “Jesus is perfect, and that’s why he wept.” I think it is instructive for us to slow down at that moment where he’s standing there at the tomb of Lazarus and ask really what is going on and I think what I find both challenging, convicting, and helpful is to ask the question of “How would I have responded if I had been asked to counsel Jesus in that moment?” How would I have been a friend to him? What would I have been wanting for him? I think if I’m honest, my approach, my counsel would have probably gone something like this. “Jesus, I can see that you’re upset. You know, it’s obvious to me that you’re really bothered about this whole thing, and okay, maybe there’s a sense of that, but not to be hard on you Jesus, but can we just get on with it? In ten minutes everyone is going to be rejoicing, but right now they’re weeping. Don’t you care for these people? Don’t you have faith in your own Father? Why are you not leaping into action to go to the resurrection of your friend? All the signs point to: this is a time to be confident and hopeful and redemptive. What are you doing weeping?” And I’m being obviously a bit tongue in cheek here. But there’s a sense in which it is really strange that Jesus would do this.
So why is he doing it? Why is he weeping at his friend’s tomb when he’s about to fix the problem? I give the answer, “He’s perfect.” Another way to say it is that “He is love.” And because he’s perfect, because he is love, it means that he will not refuse to enter into our pain even if it’s for ten minutes. Because he’s just talked to Martha and she said, “Yes, I know you’re the resurrection and the life. I know there is going to be this coming day.” And you can hear kind of this glum acceptance in her voice of “Yeah well, you know someday in the far future, we’ll be raised from the dead.” And the reality is whether it’s eight minutes or 80 years from now, there is this truth that Jesus will make all things well, and he sees that from beyond time, from beyond the creation of the world. I mean for him, the length of time isn’t really a huge problem. And so I love this micro moment where we see Jesus saying, “"You know what? Yes. And in ten minutes, in five minutes, I am going to resolve this in a way that will bring utter joy. And yet your pain right now, and again, whether it’s five minutes or 80 years, is so deeply engraved on my heart, that I weep with you. I weep for you. And actually the word in Greek used for weeping is the word used for a horse. If it were used of a horse, it would be of a horse stomping and pawing and snorting with anger. There’s this fury in Jesus at what has been done to his people by death and sin and destruction, so I find that very reorienting that Jesus would slow down and weep with me knowing he’s about to fix things.
Jesus’s Humanity in Expressing Emotion
Now why do you think it is that so often we struggle with the idea that Jesus would be truly grieved by this in light of what’s coming. I think of another explanation I’ve heard for this moment is that Christ was less weeping over the death of Lazarus and more over perhaps the lack of faith that other people around him were displaying at his death in light of what was coming. Why do we struggle to accept that Jesus could be weeping because he’s with us in that moment?
You know, a couple thoughts on that one. I think the first would be: God gives us Romans 12:15 for a reason. It says, “Weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn.” Either he’s telling us something weird that he doesn’t actually do or want to do. He’s giving us an instruction that he himself can’t live up to or doesn’t choose to live up to, or we’re meant to do that because he is a God who does that, that we are meant to reflect him. Part of beautiful fully human image bearing in a redeemed way is actually to grieve with those who grieve.
So I think the starting point here is I think sometimes we are uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus grieving because it doesn’t feel like that’s what God should be doing, right? God is perfectly satisfied. God’s glory is uncompromised. There is nothing that can diminish the fullness of everything going according to his will, so why would he ever be sad? Why would he ever grieve, right? And those are complicated questions, but for the moment I would just say, we have emotions because God has emotions. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a problem for us to see Jesus weeping in sorrow and in sadness for the death itself.
So I think then coming back to your question. How would you respond? What about those who would say weeping for the lack of faith? You certainly see Jesus bothered by a lack of faith in a lot of situations. You more often probably see frustration or anger than weeping, but I don’t think it’s hard to see Jesus being sad at a lack of faith as well as frustrated at a lack of faith in response of something obvious of his power that he’s just shown. I just don’t see a conflict. It seems to me that this is a both/and moment. And in fact, I think there’s even a third piece at play. I think certainly there can be a grief over a lack of faith, although in this particular moment he hasn’t done anything yet. His frustration with you who are of little faith or you who are slow to believe tends to be after he has given many evidences to a specific group like the disciples or in a specific situation where someone has seen a miracle and still doesn’t believe. So you’ve got the faith thing, you’ve got the much more pressing obvious answer of yeah, he’s sorrowful at his friend’s death, and he’s watching especially Mary and Martha grieve.
And then I think you also have a lot of cues, especially in the book of John, you know, his hour is coming He sees in this death of Lazarus, bringing Lazarus out from behind a stone is a pretty vivid picture of what he’s going to be doing in reverse in the not-too-distant future, and the whole scene is being set up with him moving toward Jerusalem, and his disciples are like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to go die with you.” Right? There’s this sense of: he’s on his way to something awful, and certainly anticipating that, that the enemy is coming for him is a portion of the anger and the weeping as well. So there’s complexity to it, but at the center and the core of all of those pieces, the faith and the mourning with and the grieving his own and anger at his own coming experience of pain is the reality that this is a broken and fallen world, and his people are in it, and he’s here to redeem them. There’s this thing where he’s radically identifying with us, and that’s true and his choice to do what Paul instructs us to do in Romans 12:15, that he is mourning with those who mourn, really on all three levels when you get down to it.
Tension of Jesus’s Humanity and Sovereignty
Yeah, I think a lot of us, when we think about Jesus’s life and you mentioned that already here there’s a trajectory towards the cross, and we kind of get to that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane before the cross, and we see Jesus. The text describes him as really in agony, emotional turmoil, and I think a lot of us, maybe the tendency is to sort of downplay the significance of that or the reality of that because it just is hard to make sense of the fact that he is God and sovereign and all of the things that he’s about to experience are ultimately according to his will and these aren’t things that are being done to him as much as things that he is willingly giving himself to out of love, and so it can be hard to wrap our minds around the idea that he would truly be feeling some of these emotions that we would expect to feel. And yet he’s in control over the whole situation. Do you think there’s a sense in which we can’t understand fully that dynamic between him truly experiencing these emotions and yet being ultimately sovereign over all this, or what counsel would you give us as we try to wrestle through those two things?
Well, my first counsel is: man, if there is every a mystery, if you ever feel the two natures of Christ and think How do I understand what’s going on here? The Garden of Gethsemane is about as high on my list of mysteries as it gets. So no, I have no perfect answer here, but I will say this. As I’ve thought specifically about the Garden of Gethsemane and even tried to name: what is it that Jesus is feeling in that moment? And I have a word that does the best job I know of for capturing it, and that word is dread. And I appreciate the way that that instinctively makes me a bit uncomfortable because I suspect for most of us the idea of Jesus feeling sorrow and mourning with those who mourn and mourning in the face of death and weeping, that may be hard for us to get our heads around, but there’s a certain level of Okay, I can handle that but dread seems to push into this category of Wait a minute, how could Jesus dread anything if he knows it’s coming? Doesn’t that kind of get into this fear that’s sinful? Isn’t that distrusting of the Lord’s plan, of his Father’s plan? And I think the best way I know of to put it would just be something like this. I think what’s going on in the garden is Jesus feeling dread, not because he doesn’t know what’s coming, not because he’s anxious and uncertain about what the future holds, but rather because he knows exactly what it’s going to be. And the appropriate godly natural human righteous response to some coming awfulness is indeed an awareness that it’s going to be awful.
I think of something for example like, the pain of labor and childbirth. You don’t know exactly what day it’s coming unless you have a scheduled C-section or something like that, but you have a sense of: this really painful event is coming into my life, and I’m not looking forward to that. It is going to hurt. Right now there’s this happy sense that on the far side of that there’s going to be this joy, and there’s all kinds of ways that you can prepare for that, but the bottom line is that you’re facing something that you know is going to be hard, and especially if it’s your second or third child, and you’ve been through the pain before, you have a sense of what is coming, and it’s not inappropriate for you to say, “I am really not looking forward to that.”
Now what Jesus faced is unimaginably more horrific than anything any human aside from him in history is ever going to face, and so I think his dread is this deep awareness of the certainly physical torture that he’s going to go through, but also of that unimaginable unfathomable darkness of the Father’s face and experience of wrath of all hell breaking loose upon him. That he would willingly embrace that, it’s unimaginable. And I think for him to dread it is simply for him to look into the future and to see and know what’s coming and to have an appropriate response of saying, “This is utterly dismaying to me, body, soul, and spirit.” So long story short, why are we uncomfortable? We’re uncomfortable because we downplay it because we just, we don’t like the idea of Jesus not being satisfied in the outworking of his will, and we feel like we’re in danger. I think for most of us, the healthiest reason to be troubled by this doctrine, by this idea, is that we feel like we might be compromising the sovereignty of God. We feel like we might be undercutting the idea that God really is in control. And that’s just not the case. That’s not a sacrifice we’re making. This isn’t a battle between either “Jesus really was dreading” or “God is sovereign and Jesus really did submit himself to the Father’s will fully.” This is a both/and. It is appropriate to be utterly distressed by what is distressing, and to do that in utter faithfulness and submission and awareness of the Father’s plan and control, just as Jesus does, just as any pastor does when he goes to a hard congregational meeting knowing that there’s going to be hard things said about him or against him or a faction within the church. Just as Paul does time and time again as he anticipates the difficulty of false teachers coming among the flock. Just as parents do when they watch their children yet again fall into certain paths of temptation. There’s just many things that we can anticipate, saying, “Yeah, this is going to be painful.” That’s not a faithless thought pattern. It easily in human beings who are sinful leads to faithless responses, but in and of itself, to anticipate, “This is going to be hard, this is going to be painful,” is not a faithless thing to do, and that’s why we can have utter comfort with the fact that Jesus does it on our behalf.
I think sometimes we have this view of affirming God’s sovereignty, those who would stand strong on that idea can sometimes let that sort of dictate how they feel and respond emotionally to hard things and it can lead us to think that we need to exhibit some kind of stoicism in the face of God’s sovereignty. But it sounds like you’re saying that Christ didn’t do it like that, and we also don’t need to think that way. That’s actually not a biblical way to approach God’s sovereignty.
Perfectly said. Yeah, we are not called by the Bible to be stoics. And the Psalms are the, if you want a proof text, the book of Psalms is one long look at, there is ecstasy, and there is anguish, and they’re experienced in full, and it’s actually the awareness of God’s sovereignty, it’s the awareness of his goodness and his ability to rescue and make things right that actually turns up the volume on the anguish. Our goal is not to check out, it’s, “Wait, but God, you are good. Why is this happening? Wait, but God, you are faithful and yet we are suffering. We are your people, and yet we are downcast and oppressed.” And that reality of God’s sovereignty, if anything makes it all the more highlighted for the Christian to live not a stoic reality but a deeply emotional reality, and if you’re going to be a Christian, you’re going to have to feel deep pain because God loves this world, and this world is broken. So if you love this, in the best sense, this world. If you love his people, his kingdom, his purposes, you will be grieved by the things that go wrong. You will be concerned for the things that could go wrong. You’ll hate the things that God hates, and you’ll feel those things passionately and uncomfortably.
A Favorite Emotion
So to take a step back a little bit. You’ve spent a lot of time, you and your co-author, Winston Smith, have been thinking about emotions, you’ve been studying emotions in the Bible and also in the context of actual counseling of people. Do you have a favorite emotion that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about or discussing with other people?
Compassion would be way up there. And the reason compassion has jumped out at me is because it’s a place that I’ve just found myself so personally instinctively weak over the years. From the time when I was a little kid, I think I had this sort of sensitivity to the stories of other people’s suffering that just made me not want to go there and not want to hear about it like I didn’t know what to do with it. I remember there was this specific time when, I don’t know if I was, I was probably twelve or something like that, and my youth group did one of those 30-hour famine things where you don’t eat for 30 hours, you raise money, and the money is going to go to World Vision or Food for the Hungry or I don’t remember exactly which group, but I remember thinking this is a cool thing, and I did it, and it was really hard to not eat for that long, but the part that was most difficult for me was at the end of it, we were all going to come together and break our fast together, and there is going to be some time with the person from the organization coming in to talk about what’s happening with the money, and I said, “I don’t want to go. I do not want to be a part of that meeting,” and it was hard for me to even put words on it. I remember my mom being like, “You’ve got to go to this thing. You’re doing this. This is part of it.” And I was like, “I know.” Finally what came out of my mouth was, “I know that they’re going to show a video about the starving children in Africa, and I just, I don’t even want to see it. It’s just going to be too hard for me to watch.”
So all that to say, I think that compassion is this interesting emotion where you are saying, “I’m actually going to take down some of my walls. I’m going to invite discomfort in on behalf of other people. I’m actually going to let other people’s situation affect me.” And man, it is hard to live in any significant experience of the emotion of compassion over any extended period. I mean, it’s grueling. It’s exhausting. We talk about compassion fatigue. I think most of us experience compassion fatigue pretty quickly. It’s not a muscle that most of us have that’s very strong. It’s certainly been the case for me, so I think for me compassion has been the most paradigmatic, or it’s been the best capturing of how I’ve shifted in my paradigm of thinking about emotions and saying, “Okay, Lord, you’re asking me to do the hard emotional work of being uncomfortable on behalf of those who are suffering, and I need to enter into their situation more regardless of how well I am able to fix or help or support or encourage.” I’ve got to open my heart better and more, and that’s been a slow growth for me.
What Evangelicalism Gets Wrong
As you look at American evangelicalism broadly, what do we often get wrong about our emotions?
Two things. And they’re pretty understandable things to get wrong. The first is one you mentioned moments ago, the stoicism. It is so hard for us not to be stoic. The reason it’s so hard for us not to be stoic though is because the dominant cultural narrative, the dominant way we approach emotions without even thinking about it, at least anyone younger than a Baby Boomer I think is buying into the culture’s narrative that your emotions define you, that they are the most important thing about you. I think before writing this book I would have said that our culture was obsessed with emotions in that whatever you feel is right and good. And everyone just needs to accept that. I would probably temper that a little bit. I don’t think our culture is saying that whatever you feel is right and good. I do think that our culture would say that feeling good, feeling right, feeling authentic, feeling genuine, whatever, is the most important pursuit in life. Therefore, if there is something you don’t like about how you feel, the most important thing you can do is try to change it. The most important thing about you is aligning your life with your emotions or finding a way to live in a way that feels right to you. So given that that’s there, and given that that has infiltrated us as a church, even an evangelical church, all over the place, right? It’s the water around us that we don’t even notice, and so, so many different ways and times, I see that creeping in. I think it’s at the heart of something like the, you know this famous line that religion across the spectrum amongst the younger generations today is moralistic therapeutic deism. That therapeutic word: the idea that religion is meant to make us feel good. It’s meant to make us feel right and affirmed and accepted and that the very point of all that God has done is sort of an emotional uplift for us. That’s poisonous. That’s terrible. That’s not true. Yes, there’s a million, you can call it, therapeutic effects of faith in a living God and in Jesus Christ, but that is not the point. That is the glorious overflow of the glory of God and his wonderful work in redemption.
So all that to say, given that that’s out there and given that we are so easily sucked in and tempted and unconsciously buying into that narrative that we should put our emotions at center stage even as Christians, it makes sense that there’s been a huge knee jerk reaction of stoicism, of just having to shut your emotions down. There’s an A-list of emotions like peace and joy and contentment. And there’s a B-list of emotions like sadness and hate and anger and fear and so on and so forth. And we just forget that there’s all kinds of times when it’s bad to feel peace, and it’s bad to feel joy, and it’s bad to feel contentment. And the easiest example is think about a man who’s addicted to heroin or having an affair. He may be feeling very peaceful when he’s high. He may be feeling quite content that he’s got another fix. He may be feeling very joyful that he’s getting away with it, and his wife doesn’t know about it. Those are terrible joys and peaces and contentments to feel. We wish instead he would feel sorrow and grief and anguish. We wish that he were feeling hatred of the things he’s feeling. We wish that, to put it in the words of Jeremiah, that he wasn’t hearing a message of “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” but rather that he were responding to shame and guilt and running therefore to redemption, so stoicism and emotions at center stage-ism, or emotialatry, as I sometimes like to call it, those are the big things that we’re in danger of.
A Favorite Emotion
Is it right to say that our emotions, while important as you’ve argued here, should always be kept in check by our reason? Is it appropriate to kind of pit emotions and our intellect or and our reason against each other like that where there’s one that’s subordinate to the other? Or would you say that’s an unhelpful way to frame the conversation even to begin with?
I like that way of framing the conversation, but I come down on a slightly different place than I think a lot of people instinctively have over the years. There has in the history of philosophy, there’s been sort of this battle between our emotions, fundamentally sort of these physical things or are they fundamentally responding to, are they the caboose on the train of our reason? And I prefer actually to think about a three-way system of checks and balances that I think is, all three are good God-given gifts, and none is actually intended to totally rule the others. And I would see it as reason, emotion, and action, or behavior, would sort of be the three categories. And if you think about it, if something is going, if you’re convinced of something, that will tend to have an impact on how you feel and what you do. On the flip side, if you are in the habit of doing something that will tend to shape how you think and how you feel, and if you feel something that can have an impact on your thoughts and on your actions.
So while it is I think pretty intuitive to most of us that there are important times when you need to do what is right, what you know to be good, even when you don’t feel like it. There’s plenty of time, there’s lots out there in the social media world, there’s lots of Christian writing that talks about look, you can’t always believe everything you feel. In fact you need to tell your emotions what’s true and not listen to them. That’s absolutely an important and valid category, and I’m glad that God has given us an ability to have a rational mind that can overcall our emotions, but something that struck me in actually reading John Frame’s Systematic Theology was talking about how it’s really important that our emotions can overcall our cognition sometimes. And I would, I’ll use his example which is just, think about how easy it is to rationalize things that you know deep down are wrong. That’s a time when you need to be listening to your gut. You should be listening to your conscience, to the emotion of “I just don’t feel good about this” rather than your rationalizations of like “Oh, well here’s how I can convince myself that I’m really not doing anything wrong if you think about it,” and I think that discomfort over rationalization is an extremely important characteristic and something that probably needs to be tapped into often.
And then you’ve got actions, right? I just think about how many times you hear people saying, “Fake it til you make it. It’s actually a really important part of living well.” I don’t really like that phrase, because the idea of faking it I think probably puts it on a negative footing that I prefer something that’s closer to, it’s less catchy, but more of a “Yeah, there’s a right way to do something that you know to be good and to let your actions lead your emotions, and sometimes even lead your thinking. Sometimes you know something is the right thing to do, but you don’t really know why. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. You know that it’s important to pray, but it seems like God is just going to do what he’s going to do anyway, and why does he really need me to pray? And I don’t really feel like praying, but sometimes I need to get into the rhythm of being a person who prays, and over time, that may actually teach me some of the underlying Ah okay, I’m beginning to grasp now the reasons why this is good, right, important, and godly.” And perhaps as I do it more, I come to understand, there’s a refreshment here, there’s an intimacy here, and I may have known that intellectually, but I taste it now, and that actually drives the behavior forward, so they’re meant to all three enforce each other in a positive cycle. When any one of the three or even two of the three are out of whack, walking righteously in the third can have this really helpful check and balance impact.
Controlling Negative Emotions
So there may be someone listening to us talk about this right now who struggles with some of the quote unquote bad emotions that just tend to dominate his or her life. I’m thinking of someone who maybe deals with severe depression or anxiety or grief, and they hear what you’re saying that perhaps there is a proper place for every emotion, and they’re not bad necessarily, but what would you say to the person like that who just feels trapped by his or her emotions, feels dominated by them, and has a hard time controlling them in any meaningful sense?
Sure, a couple things. First off, whether it’s anger or whether it’s grief or whether it’s anxiety, or whether it’s depression, I think there can be a right way to say, “Wow, this is something that may have a good seed, a good possible place, a good core to it,” but any emotion just really easily in our sinful fallen world given our sinful nature tends to go south and especially our negative emotions tend to go south and pull us away from the Lord, and that’s one of our great temptations and so I don’t think there’s some easy answer. So thought number one is: there’s a category here of being driven and being dominated by something primarily because it feels like “If I just did the right thing, I would stop feeling this, and I would be a better Christian,” when I would prefer a response of “You know, at the end of the day, I’m actually, I’m not sure how much your emotional experience in this particular way will change. What I want for you even more than emotional relief, although I certainly want that, is for you to know more deeply than possible if you weren’t going through this, just how close the Lord is and will be and wants to be and can be walking with you.”
Second, I think you can’t talk about something like this without getting into the medications question. I know there’s a lot of views out there on psychoactive medications, and I’ve actually just been spending some time thinking about psychoactive medications, and the history of psychiatry. I’ve been listening to a very fascinating book on the history of psychiatry, but long story short, I do not believe that taking out medications is sinful. I think it’s easy to again get swept up in a cultural narrative that probably claims more for the effectiveness of those medications than is fair in most cases, but go see your doctor if there’s an unrelenting negative emotion that doesn’t seem to be responding to your efforts to bring your emotions to the Lord and to other people and seek counsel. You know, certainly, other medications could be a piece of helping you, even being in a better place to bring your emotions and your concerns and your heart to the Lord.
Thirdly, I think there’s also a category of emotion, words, that describe things that really have no righteousness to them. And I would, what I would basically say is we have words in the English language that aren’t, that are very specific portions of an emotional spectrum, and I’ll give an example of part of the anger spectrum is called bitterness. Bitterness is not all of anger, but it’s a subcompartment within anger, and I don’t think there’s a godly place for bitterness. Or cruelty is a special subset of the emotion of joy. It’s finding delight in causing pain. I don’t think there’s any good godly place for the emotion of cruelty. So bitterness and cruelty are emotions that are purely bad, not because there’s some emotions that are bad and some that are good. It’s rather that they are subsets of emotions that can be good or can be bad, right? Joy can be good. Joy can be bad. Anger can be good. Anger can be righteous. Anger can be negative and faithless. So there are times and places where I think you could say, “Okay, I am here in an emotion that I need to run from and repent of.” And I suspect that for many, hearing that, you go “Okay well, which is it? Which am I in?” And I think that would be a call for a conversation with someone you trust, someone who’s going to give you helpful thoughtful counsel on “Okay, what exactly are you dealing with here? And which category does that fall into?”
Alisdair, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and share your own experience, both as a reader of God’s Word and as a counselor helping us understand our emotions a little bit better.
My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me on.
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