We respond to our life experiences through emotions. Just bang your thumb with a hammer and see if the physical pain you feel doesn’t also produce an emotional response! When you have a deadline to meet, the pressure produces an internal stress that you feel very much in your body and your emotions. Arguing with a beloved relative may lead to hurt feelings that send you onto an emotional rollercoaster.
Our Triune God expresses emotions appropriately, so emotions do have a good purpose. Negative emotions alert us that something needs to change, either in us or through us. The sinful responses we tend to blame on our emotions must be replaced by Biblical thinking that reflects the mind of Christ. Righteous thinking results in righteous behaviors that reflect the character of Christ. In our culture, many believe we have no control over our emotions but are rather held captive to them. Scripture lays a clear foundation for how to control our emotions by consistently controlling our thoughts (Phil 4:8) and behaviors (Prov 4:23), bringing them into the obedience of Christ.
“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” 2 Corinthians 10:5
Emotions and Circumstances
Our everyday experiences contribute to the emotions we feel, but we must also be quick to understand that circumstances do not CAUSE the emotions!
Your words and behavior are more formed by what’s inside of you than by what’s outside of you.
– Paul Tripp
Anger, fear, depression, shame, confusion, and loneliness are some of the negative emotions we are quick to feel and express. These emotions are not caused by the circumstance of our experience, but by the way we INTERPRET those circumstances. When we put God into the interpretation of our circumstances, our beliefs about that circumstance begin to change and we act on those beliefs in ways that honors God. Then our emotions begin to reflect the Fruit of the Spirit and experience true happiness, joy, peace, gratitude, and contentment. Positive emotions prevail even amid difficult circumstances.
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” James 1:2-4
Take David for example. The Israelite army was quaking in fear of Goliath, and their action was to run away from the dangerous circumstance. Their belief system interpreted that Goliath was too big and too dangerous; they were victims of disaster. David faced the same dangerous circumstance; Goliath was much bigger and stronger than he, equipped to battle in ways of which David knew nothing. However,
David’s belief system interpreted his God as bigger than Goliath; his God had always been faithful, helping him kill the lion and bear to protect his sheep; his God would help him kill the giant that was defying the true and living God and mocking His people. David’s actions then reflected his beliefs, and he defended God’s honor by killing Goliath.
Let’s take another example. Another driver on the road cuts you off and nearly causes an accident. You spew and sputter for 20 minutes, speeding up to cut him off and show him how it feels. You may even curse and give him a nasty look. What belief system rules you at that moment? You are angry and therefore believe you are justified in your actions that reflect your belief system. Are your emotions at that point positive or negative? Is your anger righteous (reflecting God and His glory) or is it unrighteous (reflecting your selfish desires)?
However, another day, someone else may cut you off. Same circumstance, but let’s say this time you are worshipping God as you drive, and your car reflects the sanctuary of your heart that wants to honor God. Your belief system has changed from selfishness to honoring God and others, so you slow down to allow him to safely enter, you pray for him to get home safely. Then you go right back to your praise and worship, thanking God for His tender mercies of safety toward you and others. Now what emotions are you experiencing and expressing? Emotions, then, are really a by-product of what you think about your circumstances and your God, and how you act out on those beliefs.
Re-aligning Your Heart and Emotions
Our culture has programed us to believe that feelings are the most important part of our existence. We are taught to communicate our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and personal desires by expressing how we feel about something. However, emotions are not the standard for quality of life! When emotions are exalted as supreme, a person may determine what is true and right for himself based on feelings rather than on God’s Word. How he feels about something does not make it accurate nor God-honoring, but it can give insight into his heart. Feeling good about sinful behavior does not make it right, it just indicates a heart misaligned from God’s heart.
God gave us emotions to assist us in identifying our circumstances and motivating needed changes. In Psalm 38, David identifies his symptoms of depression and its triggers, and then he was able to identify where to turn amid his troubles. In Psalm 51 we see his emotion of guilt and shame motivating him to repent and change his behaviors. Then in Psalm 73, Asaph’s emotion of jealousy assisted him to compare two lifestyles (his and the wicked), to evaluate the eternal destination of each, and to reinforce his godly lifestyle. Psalm 133 is an example of emotions assisting to enhance our lives as David expressed joy over unity with his brothers of like-mindedness.
Re-aligning your heart with God’s Word and your desires, thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors will set the stage for balanced and godly emotions.
Four Checks for Balanced Emotions
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” Luke 2:52
Luke 2:52 is the only record we have of Jesus’ development and maturity. Four spheres of life are mentioned. Jesus grew in wisdom (mind, intellect), in stature (physical), in favor with God (spiritual) and in favor with man (social). The absence of the emotional sphere does not mean that Jesus had no emotions! He certainly displayed emotions regularly as he ministered here on earth, and He was emotionally balanced!
I believe His development focused on the four spheres we are responsible to balance in our maturing process. If a person becomes out of balance in any one of the four spheres, the emotions will be affected in a negative way. Rebalancing these spheres typically rebalances the emotions.
- Physical: Physical imbalance because of disease, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, or lack of rest will experience emotional imbalance. A medical doctor may need to help correct physical problems. Diet, exercise, and rest must certainly be bought into a healthy lifestyle.
- Intellectual: Someone could be mentally (intellectually) distraught, perhaps because of unmet vocational or educational goals, or because they have not developed communication or thinking skills in healthy ways. Such a one often struggles with emotions of fear, anger, jealousy, or depression triggered by an immature belief system. Perhaps reevaluating educational or vocational goals or learning skills that allow them to grow in wisdom in healthy ways will make a big difference in mental balance and contentment.
- Social: Social imbalance from relationships out of sync with someone who should be close results in emotional imbalance. Couples who are fighting need to learn to relate to one another in God-honoring ways. Learning to get along and love one another is foundational to how they will feel about one another! Social balance can bring great joy!
- Spiritual: Spiritual imbalance can include guilt over sin, from misunderstanding and misapplying God’s Word, or from lack of a personal relationship and connection with the Lord. Confession, repentance, and then growth in sanctification are all necessary to help the person regain a healthy view of himself before God, enjoying the grace and mercy our Lord freely offers.
Emotions, then, are a by-product of what we believe and what we do in each of these spheres of life. When any one or more of these spheres are not in balance, negative emotions result. When all four are functioning in healthy and God-honoring ways, there is an emotional balance and stability that will get us through any of the trials of life we may face. That doesn’t mean we never feel a negative emotion; we do, and we will. But the negative emotions won’t dominate, because the Fruit of the Spirit will prevail in our lives. Even if difficult circumstances never change, our attitude about the circumstance will be the mind of Christ resulting in the character of Christ lived out in us for His glory.
Sherry Allchin and her husband Ron have been involved in Biblical Counseling for 50 years. They have been involved in founding two Biblical Counseling Centers, one in Chicago and another in Charleston, SC. Three years ago, Sherry and Ron sold their Charleston, SC home and bought a motorhome. They currently travel full time visiting churches that have ACBC Biblical Counseling Training Centers and still counsel virtually from their RV. Ron is an ACBC Fellow and has been on the board of ACBC from its early beginnings. Sherry has been certified since 1994 and helps with the supervision of women into ACBC Certification. They hold the distinction of being the first couple to both be ACBC Certified! Sherry and Ron have three adult children and seven grandchildren.