July 2007 - Vol. 10

Christ in Gethsemane - painting by Michael O'Brien

Emotions: Resources for
the Christian Life

How can emotions contribute to our growth in holiness and service of God?

by Steve Clark

Like us, Jesus could get excited about good news. St Luke tells of an occasion when the disciples returned from a mission and reported that evil spirits had been cast out and people had been healed. When he heard this, Jesus “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, and said, ‘I offer you praise, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children.” (Luke 10:21).

Jesus did not turn to his disciples with a wise, understanding look on his face and say calmly, “Yes, that’s very good news.” Instead he did something a little undignified—he rejoiced. The Greek word means literally “He leapt for joy.”

The fact that Jesus is God did not put him above human emotions. He was “true God and true man,” and as a man, he experienced everything that is part of being human, including emotions. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we see him responding with real feeling to the situations he was in.

Bad news as well as good news, made an impression on him. After Lazarus’ death he came to Bethany and was met by Lazarus’ sister Mary. “When Jesus saw her weeping, he was troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Lord come and see,’ they said. Jesus began to weep” (John 11: 33-35).

He knew about the resurrection—fact, he was just about to raise Lazarus from the dead. But instead of commanding everyone to stop crying and rejoice, Jesus was moved with sorrow and cried. He responded in the right human way to a close friend’s death and the family’s grief.

Jesus’ response to the rich young man also showed real human warmth. When the young man told the Lord that he had kept the commandments all his life, “Jesus looked at him with love and told him’... come and follow me’” (Mark 10:21).

The Lord even experienced fear; the same kind of fear that we sometimes do. In the garden of Gethsemane, “Jesus went down on his knees and prayed in these words; ‘Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.’ And an angel appeared to him from heaven to strengthen him. In his anguish he prayed with all the greater intensity, “and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to he ground” (Luke 22:42-44).

Despite his fear, however, he chose to lay down his life out of love. Emotions were a part of Jesus’ spiritual life, but they didn’t rule him. He was able to obey God regardless of how his emotions were going at any given moment. What determines how he did things was not how he felt but his love for God and his neighbor.

The Lord wants us to have the same mastery that he had, the same ability to handle our emotions in the circumstances of our lives. While most of us could probably look back over the last several hours and find good evidence that we are not yet like the Lord  Jesus, this means simply that we are eligible for salvation. God gives grace to us in our need because it is his desire that the life and character of Jesus be formed in us.

The key to getting our emotions to work positively as they did in Jesus’ life is to approach them as neither our enemies, nor our masters, but as our servants.

Tiger in the Basement
A farfetched little story illustrates one wrong way to relate to our emotions—regarding them as enemies. Suppose you were to come home one day and discover a tiger in your basement. You would probably be afraid; you would close the basement door and get a dresser against it as soon as you could. But that would not solve the problem. The tiger would begin to roar, and you would think; “Oh oh, what will the neighbors think? They’re going to want me out of the neighborhood as sure as anything if they find out I have a tiger in the basement.” So if the lady next door asked about the roaring, you would probably reply, “Roaring? What roaring?” Meanwhile, your fear of the tiger would grow worse. “If it ever gets out,” you would think, “it’s going to tear up the house.”

We sometimes take this “tiger in the basement” approach to our emotions. Perhaps we have a problem of uncontrollable anger; maybe sexual feelings make us feel guilty, or bitter about the way our marriage is going. Whatever the emotional reaction might be, it seems dangerous to us, and we want to close the door on it and hope nobody notices it. If somebody asks us, “Why are you so anxious all of a sudden?” or, “Why don’t you want to talk about your husband?” we tend to deny there is any problem.

Needless to say, repression does not work. When tigers are hungry they roar; so do repressed emotions. They can show up in hostility toward people, in an inability to get along with certain types of people, in. bitter or anxious humor, in feelings of depression or frustration.

Stern Disciplinarian
A second way we can treat our emotions as enemies is the “stern disciplinarian” approach. We distrust our emotions, we suspect that they are up to no good, so we, take a very strong hand with them. We clamp down on them. We’re determined not to let them move an inch.

What happens if you’re a strict disciplinarian in the classroom? To a certain extent you may be able to establish order. But sooner or later you will find yourself with some rebel kids. In fact, stern disciplinarians often have the worst discipline problems because they provoke a kind of rebellion. Often, if we relate to our emotions simply in terms of willpower and strict control, our emotions will rebel. Things can get worse rather than better.

The opposite approach—letting emotions be our masters—is very popular in American society today. One way this happens is through the “driftwood” attitude. It goes like this: “Yesterday I felt pretty happy . . . this morning I woke up depressed . . . there isn’t very much I can do about it. . . maybe it will go away later on. . . maybe if I take a drink it will help. . . possibly some¬thing good will happen and I’ll feel much better. . .”

A person with this attitude tends to be subject to moodiness and depression, to outbursts of temper, to fits of irritability, or other such things.

Amateur Psychotherapist
A second, more subtle way to let emotions run your life might be termed the “amateur psychotherapist” approach. “I don’t understand what’s going on inside of me,” a person says to himself. “All these emotions are erupting within me. Why, I was driving along this morning and I saw this parking place and another car pulled in front of me—and I got furious. Why did I get furious? Is there some hidden, awful thing in my life that I haven’t discovered? How can I possibly handle missing a parking place until I’ve uncovered the real dynamics of my psyche?”

This approach has a “spiritual” variation. “What I need before I can live a Christian life is inner healing. If only somebody would pray over me, I’m sure I’d be able to see somebody get a parking place and it wouldn’t bother me at all.” The person looks for inner healing as the one thing that will get his life straightened out.

Clearly, introspection can sometimes be very good. Sometimes a psychological counselor can be a great help. Certainly, inner healing can sometimes be exactly what a person needs. But we do not need to act as though some sort of psychotherapy or inner healing process were the only key to our spiritual progress. If we take this approach, we become passive and are always looking for something to happen to us to remove our problems.

The Lord wants us to approach emotions with the knowledge that they are meant to be—and can be—our servants. He did not give us our emotions so that we could have emotional problems. Nor did he create emotions for our own entertainment. He gave us emotions to enable us to live and serve him as human beings.

Emotions are natural ways our bodies mobilize for action. Fear, for instance, is given us so that we will avoid danger. If we were without fear we might get into some big trouble. Anger can be very helpful—it moves us to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of what is right, it helps us overcome difficulties we have in doing what God wants.

For most of us there are ways emotions are not our servants: we get fearful at all the wrong times, our anger is irrational, our desires sometimes help us, but sometimes are our greatest difficulties. But the Lord wants to teach us how to bring our emotions to obedience.

Our emotions will never be perfectly willing servants. But emotions can be changed so that they generally support us and obey us.

In a lot of ways, emotions are like animals; in themselves they are not rational. A wild animal does only what it wants to do, and therefore is almost useless to a human being. A whole stable full of wild horses will not make a farm operate any better.

But wild horses can become servants, they can be brought to obedience. They can be tamed. Taming does not mean taking the life out of them. An animal can be tamed while preserving all its vigor and strength. But once it is brought to obedience, it can serve.

Even tame horses have to be handled; a person needs some lessons in controlling them. But there is a big difference between controlling something that has been tamed and something that is still wild—whether horses, or emotions.

What can we do to get our emotions to function as servants in our Christian lives? The starting point is deciding to put the loving response first in each situation. The basis on which we act must be: What is the loving thing to do? We need to trust that God has given us the power to respond in a loving way. If we do this, our feelings will come along. Emotions become supportive when we do not put them first. When we do put them first, we find they do not move our Christian life forward.

Therefore, part of learning to deal with our emotions  is learning how to handle the different relationships and situations in our lives. We need to learn what the loving response is in any given situation, so that we can make it the basis of our actions. We need to receive a great deal of the Lord’s wisdom.

The corollary of deciding to act in love is recognizing ways that we are not yet doing so. We need to call sin, sin.

Someone who is touchy and reacts badly to things he does not like, we sometimes describe as “very sensitive.” We avoid looking at his behavior as sinful. We say of someone who loses his temper easily that “he is freer to express his emotions than other people are.” We might excuse the behavior of someone who gets up grumpy in the morning by saying, “that person just has a harder time starting the day.”

But wrong actions and emotions will not change so long as we excuse them. The Lord wants us to acknowledge wrongdoing for what it is.

Scripture tells us in different ways that we must take an active approach to our Christian lives rather than pa¬sively waiting for everything to get better. We need to put off the old man and put on the new man, to walk in the new path, to crucify the flesh and its desires (see Galatians 5, Colossians 3). We ourselves must do some things if our emotions are to become supportive of our lives as Christians. When we see something wrong in our lives, we need to say to ourselves, “I don’t want that to be there, and from now on I dedicate myself to seeing that it ceases to be a part of me.”

When we are at a “safe distance” from a problem, we might assume that we want to change. But when we come face to face with a particular fear or desire, we can discover within ourselves a resistance to change. Therefore an important step toward freedom is wanting to be free and deciding that the problem must change.

Finally, we need to learn how to exercise authority over our emotions.

St. Paul writes, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24-25). Sometimes we talk about putting to death the old man as something which should happen in the future. In a certain way that is true. But St. Paul says that those who belong to Jesus Christ have already crucified the flesh with its passion and desires. There has been a fundamental change. We have become new creatures.

Before us are two options: we can approach our Christian life knowing that there has been a fundamental change, that we have received the power to live the Christian life; or we can approach our lives as if we have not become new creatures, as if the power isn’t there.

Probably most of us have some problems handling our desires and emotional reactions such as guilt, anger, and fear. Some of these difficulties will be fairly easy to handle; some may have a very strong grip on us and will require special counseling from another person. But almost all of us have at least one problem that is “in between”—something fairly serious that we will have to struggle with for some time, but which will not call for special counseling.

We may be afraid of such a problem. We may be afraid to talk to anyone about it, or even to let ourselves be conscious of it. We may want to keep the tiger down in the basement. But the Lord wants to give us enough faith to look at something wrong in our lives and to say peacefully, “I have a serious problem. But Jesus is Lord and I belong to him. He has made me a new creature. He will enable me to handle it.”

This faith in the Lord is the key to solving the difficulties we have with our emotions. As we can probably tell from our experience, we do not become like the Lord mainly through our own efforts but through living in a relationship with him and with his people. We need a faith approach, not a willpower approach, to getting our emotions to serve our Christian lives. We need to center on the Lord and what he will do for us, not on our own striving.

It is important for us to do the right things—to receive the Lord’s wisdom, to repent of sin, to learn to exercise authority over our emotions. But these do not amount to a formula for self-change. Rather they are ways that we cooperate with the Lord, and his transforming power in our lives

[Steve Clark is President of The Sword of the Spirit. This article was originally published in New Covenant Magazine, December, 1976.]

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