The enigma of the Christian emotional life
How does one be sorrowful but always rejoicing?
Emotions are integral to the human experience and Christian life. Understanding how emotions are processed and how they dictate our actions are the keys to getting a better grasp on our lives and interpreting issues of mental health. The first step towards understanding is to confront the underlying assumptions that we make about emotions.
People typically interpret happiness and excitement as good and anger and sadness as bad. There is a lot of truth to this basic assumption, but it needs to be parsed more comprehensively. Emotions, for the most part, are not inherently good or bad***. Fits of rage and a lack of self-control are inappropriate and dangerous. However, righteous anger that is pained about the things God hates is good. This same righteous anger borders on pride. This is the nuance of emotions. It is not the emotion itself that we try to label as good or bad even though these emotions do not feel good or bad. It is the reason why we feel one emotion versus another that we label as good or bad.
If I feel happy that someone got away with a crime, God is grieved by that even though I feel happy. It is knowing and loving God that allows us to consider how we ought to feel in any scenario. If God is not upset, why should I be upset? If God is angry, should I not be angry? The first step to practicing this divine empathy is to be in the Word and to know who God is.
This is not an exhortation for people to practice a lack of self-control or pride. God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. His timeline is eternity, and he knows who will receive their due reward in Jesus Christ and who will be eternally separated. He is in no rush. Likewise, our anger with sin in the world needs to be evenly measured with forgiveness but desperation for the gospel to be known. As God is grieved at the suffering of the world, despite the certainty of his sovereignty, we empathize with the heart of God and strive to make Christ’s name known and to alleviate suffering. Anger quickly turns to sadness, sadness turns to Jesus, Jesus turns us to hope and trust, and then we act accordingly.
This leads us to seek the fruits of the Spirit as a self-care strategy. We are called to abide in Christ and those who abide in Christ bear fruit. Fruit can be defined as ministry success and the turning of many from death to life. Fruit can also be defined as the self-transformation sanctification of the individual. It is the moment by money bearing of the fruits of the Spirt: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Any non-Christian can possess these traits and emotional states, but it is the Christian who abides in Christ that should expect to have these and be equipped to deal with any season or trial.
Does that mean the person who is an emotional wreck is “less Christian” or being unfaithful? No. Our hearts are so deceitful that we fall into emotions that are motivated by hopelessness and mistrust rather than surrender and love. However, it is the Christian who has spent their waking hours abiding in Christ who will find themselves transformed in the renewal of their minds and able to more violently and quickly able to turn from the emotions that they know are not from God and surrender everything at the foot of the cross. This person’s eyes are so fixed on eternity and they are constantly enamored by the savior who spilled His blood so that this person may be saved, that this Christian’s only natural response is to be sorrowful but always rejoicing. There is not earthly shaking or power of Hell that disturbs this person too deeply because they had done the prep work of abiding in Christ.
Accepting that it is not okay to feel a certain way is a hard pill to swallow. It is an impossible task not to sin if that is the case. That is exactly the point. By our nature, we are led astray by an impulse or external factor. Even if we do not believe in God, it is clear that scientific thinking and rationality are not natural modes of being for mankind. We have to try really hard to control our emotions and even then, it seems that we are hopelessly out of control.
Good thing that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. When we are in tumultuous times, we can pause and say, “it actually totally makes sense for me to feel this way, but is it good and how can I stop?” God has given us a way out of sin by his Spirit and through meditation on his word. No one should feel defensive about this truth. Your feelings are sensible but the moment that you acknowledge your emotions, it is time to turn back to the cross. You will certainly fail repeatedly but you will be equipped to bring God glory in your life by enjoying Christ and through your worship.
This is also not an idea that should lead us to judge others who are in less control of our emotions. We too were once dead in our sin. But God showed his own love towards us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. How evil it would be for us to judge others for the very thing that separated us from God rather than pointing others towards a more complete way of living. There is no difference between us in worth but there will be a difference in how fully we live our lives on earth and worship God.
***Quick caveat: there are probably emotions that are always bad. These include anxiety (not fear), jealousy, lust, and probably some others. Many prominent preachers will give a case about how it is sometimes okay to be anxious because Jesus was anxious. This does not make sense because the example they use is Jesus being distressed in the garden of Gethsemane. This may not be the same as anxiety. Even if it is anxiety, Jesus is the only Christian who rightly knows they will experience the full wrath of God, whereas, we know for certain that we will not. Therefore, Jesus is the only Christian with a valid reason for being anxious. Also, Jesus is God and is allowed to feel anything he wants. The Bible speaks of God being jealous but there are probably zero examples of when it is not sinful to be jealous.