To reflect God’s image is to experience emotion. God is described at various times in the bible as being moved with compassion (Hosea 11:8), grieved (Gen. 6:6-7), happy (1 Timothy 1:11), and angry (Job 42:7). Our emotions reflect the nature of the one who created us! However, what we do with our many emotions may or may not be honoring to God.
How people handle emotions falls along a spectrum with two extremes. On one end, some of us stuff our emotions. A person who falls on this end may view emotional expression as a sign of weakness, or immaturity. They may have grown up in a home where “boys have to be tough” and crying from sadness or anger was looked down upon. Or, emotions were judged inferior to the mind – easily manipulated, and a liability to a strong faith. If you are a stoic stuffer, you may try to maintain a tough outer appearance. You tend not to communicate how you are feeling with others – even those close to you. You may downplay or deny conflict because you prefer to avoid the emotions associated with conflict. And if you do desire to communicate your feelings, you may struggle to find the vocabulary to name what you are feeling. You may –without wishing to – come across as rather cold and when others are upset, you may tend to look for solutions rather than to empathize.
As one who tends to fall on this side of the spectrum, it’s helped me to remember that Jesus himself expressed deep emotion (see John 11:35 & Luke 19:41); to be Christlike is to be emotional. Not all people will be equally expressive – some feel sadness inwardly, others wear their hearts on their sleeves – but Jesus was not stoic, and if Jesus is forming us in his image that means that he will be helping us more and more to be appropriately emotional.
On the other end of that spectrum, some of us are like Old Faithful. Something happens and reason and calm are tossed to the wayside, and a range of emotions comes pouring out as we spew tears or angry words. After you calm down, you may regret your outburst, and you may even downplay or justify yourself – “I was angry!” – and dismiss the pain that this causes others. You may have a sense that emotional expression is a part of being authentic, though you may rarely evaluate your emotions, and you may then allow your feelings to dictate your decisions – “I have to act on how I feel.” Some may be prone to wide swings of mood, and those around you may be wary of your emotions.
It's helpful for people on this end of the spectrum to remember that while emotion is a God-given gift, they can be inaccurate, and they can be manipulated or used to manipulate. We can feel overly angry about perceived slights; we can be overly happy about a relationship while ignoring red flags. We can break down in tears because we know that it will make our spouse give in to our demands, and we can follow our emotions into trouble if we aren’t careful.
To feel deeply, and to express ourselves emotionally is a mark of Christlikeness, but like all other areas of our being, our emotions can be distorted or marred by sin. What does it look like to experience emotion in a healthy way?
First, we need to identify what we are feeling. Whether locked in a conflict, feeling irritable, or upbeat, it can be helpful to imagine your emotions as though set on a shelf until needed – and your first step is to imagine yourself taking them off that shelf and holding them. Can you look beneath the surface and put a name to what you are feeling? Can you recognize any of the main emotions – fear, anger, sadness, and happiness – that you are experiencing? Remember that multiple emotions can be swirling at the same time, and that they can all vary in their intensity. Once you’ve pulled the emotion off the “shelf”, you can communicate it to others – “I’m feeling really discouraged right now.” “Our fight last night left me feeling really sad and despondent.” (It can also be helpful to practice naming the emotions that others are experiencing as a way of acknowledging what they are going through).
Remember that having emotions is neither right or wrong – we simply feel what we feel – but this doesn’t mean that our feelings are always justified. We can feel a rage that is out of proportion to what was done to us. We can be overjoyed at something that warrants sadness. Once we take our emotion off the shelf, and we’re holding it, it’s time to examine it. The Holy Spirit is named the “Counselor” (see Is. 9:6, and John 14:26) has the role, in part, to help us to understand our inner mind. So, prayerfully ask that the Holy Spirit to reveal why you are feeling what you’re feeling – are there other, hidden, factors that might be intensifying your emotions? Did that insensitive word bring up a painful experience from your past, leading you to overreact? Is your feeling a way of covering up or denying a more painful emotion that you’d rather not feel? Pay attention to the layers behind these emotions, and learn to recognize the other factors that play into your feelings. You may conclude that some of your emotions are unwarranted, or even wrong.
Once you’ve recognized the emotions you’re experiencing, and you’ve turned them around in your heart and mind to understand them better, what next? We have to decide what to do with our emotions. The answer to this can be as simple as to sit with them for a time, to allow ourselves to feel sad or discouraged. If you feel stuck in sadness, this might be a cue to seek professional help in working through your pain. Sometimes, identifying our fear can motivate us to seek God’s peace in a way that motivates us to act. As Christians, we have the greatest resource – we can prayerfully bring our emotions – in all of their complexity – to God, and we can ask that he would help us know what he would have us do. This might mean having a difficult conversation with someone who was insensitive, or it might mean that we are led to apologize to our wife for our overreaction. Again, the Holy Spirit is our guide in helping us know what to do next.
God has created you with the capacity to feel – and our emotions are a wonderful gift. Yet, they must be stewarded well. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can identify what it is that we are feeling, what is happening beneath the surface, and what to do about it.