Recently a woman came to my office for pastoral counseling. Within moments she was sobbing and could not even talk. Eventually she was able to tell me that she had just learned that her husband had had an affair. He wanted to work things out and try to save the marriage, but she was consumed with pain and anger. As she told her story, she vacillated between talking about wanting to kill her husband and wanting to kill herself. By the end of her visit, she was considerably calmer and ready to begin the hard work of determining whether her marriage could be saved.
This story brings up some questions. Was it acceptable for this woman to have these strong negative emotions? It is understandable that she would be terribly upset by what had happened. But wouldn’t a person who was trusting God have more control over her emotions? How could she talk about killing her husband or herself?
Sometimes the church sends out confusing messages about how Christians should handle their emotions. Some seem to say that negative emotions, like fear, anger and pain, are always sinful. Anger in particular is often considered sinful. Some say that righteous anger (anger concerning an injustice) is acceptable, but all other anger is wrong. For example, being angry about abortion is all right, but being angry that you made a mistake is not. On the other hand, most Christians think that positive emotions are good. In fact, some people believe that jubilant emotions are an indicator of God’s presence. But is God’s presence only marked by positive emotions? Can He be present when we have negative emotions as well?
These are important questions to answer. All of us experience a wide range of emotions, and learning their role and function in our lives is essential. We need to understand them and learn to deal with them correctly. Let’s look at three principles concerning emotions.
Negative emotions are not evil or sinful.
When God created man, He created him in His image, and this image included emotions, both positive and negative. Scripture tells us that all God created is good (Genesis 1:31), and therefore, all emotions must be good. Another reason we cannot say that emotions we consider negative (e.g. anger, jealousy, fear) are not good is because both God Himself
(note God’s anger in Psalm 78:31,38,49,50)
and Jesus, as a man, experienced these negative emotions. And we know that God did not and cannot sin. Therefore, we must conclude that it is possible to experience negative emotions and not sin. The book of Hebrews describes Jesus experiencing powerful negative emotions:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission.
Jesus clearly felt the freedom to express his negative emotions to the Father without any fear of reprisal. In fact, the Father accepted these prayers and at one point, sent an angel to minister to Him (Luke 22:41-44).
It is important to understand that emotions, even negative ones, serve many positive roles in our lives. Emotions help us understand what is going on inside of us, and therefore, help us to identify our needs, likes, dislikes, and desires. They also help us experience intimacy. Intimacy occurs when two people connect on an emotional level. If we cannot identify and express our emotions, we cannot connect with someone else on a personal intimate level. We cannot share our life with a person without letting him know who we are or what is going on inside us.
Emotions also energize and motivate us to do whatever needs to be done. Without emotion we would live our lives without passion and conviction, like robots. For example, love compels me to sacrifice to meet the needs of those I love, while anger motivates me to fix something that is broken or energizes me to remove a blockage that is in the way.
Negative emotions serve the function of alerting us when something is wrong, telling us that something needs attention. Negative emotions are like the warning lights on the dashboard of a car. If the oil light goes on, we had better do something quickly to remedy the situation. Like the physical pain that warns us to take our hand off a hot burner, emotional pain is the warning system that sends us the message that there is a problem that we need to attend to.
We need to attend to our emotions and respond by taking appropriate action. The action may be corrective for negative emotions or repetitive for positive emotions. Our emotions may send us confusing messages, especially when we feel both positive and negative emotions at the same time. In this case, we need to sort out the positive from the negative.
Acting on our emotions may lead to sinful attitudes and behaviors.
A young man, who had a wife and small child, had a good job, but he felt he had been passed over for several promotions. He became increasingly angry and, without consulting anyone or having another job lined up, he quit his job in a fit of anger. Finding a new job was difficult, and while he was looking, he and his wife suffered financial hardships, and began fighting about his irresponsibility.
This example demonstrates that acting indiscriminately on emotions, positive or negative, may cause us to hurt others and ourselves. Though emotions are not bad or sinful in and of themselves, how we act based on our feelings may be sinful. For example, a person might feel like punching someone because he is angry. If he acts on his feelings, he may be arrested for assault. Another common mistake is to take out our frustration on a loved one who had nothing to do with the reason for the anger.
It is possible to have positive emotions when doing something wrong or have negative feelings when doing something right. A person who steals something may get a positive rush of adrenaline as a result. Or a mother who sets a limit by telling a child “no” may feel guilty even though she is acting wisely for the welfare of the child. Emotions cannot be trusted to always give a correct reflection of what is right (or wrong) in a situation.
It is wise to process our feelings before acting, to think before we act. There are many ways of processing our emotions. The simplest is to process emotions by choosing to continue feeling them until they go away. This may take quite some time— days or months with a big loss such as the death of someone close. Or it may only last for a short time when the loss is smaller.
In addition, for some people it may also be necessary for them to talk about their feelings with someone they are close to or with God. Talking with someone about our feelings tends to reduce the intensity of the feelings and allows us to make decisions and act in a calmer manner. It is important to talk about feelings and not make judgmental remarks about the person who hurt you.
Another helpful suggestion is to write about what happened and how it made you feel. Writing often enables us to sort out facts and feelings and make a wise decision about how to respond. All of these processing methods help us slow down, calm down and decide on an appropriate response.
Even though there are no emotions that are wrong, emotions can be expressed in unhealthy or sinful ways; and therefore, it is important for us to know how to process and handle them. When emotions are expressed in healthy ways the actions we take will be constructive and helpful to others.
Denying our emotions or suppressing them can lead to serious problems.
Denying or suppressing emotions are unhealthy ways of handling emotions. We often think that if we can avoid them, they will go away. They don’t. Instead, they get stored in our bodies in the form of stress. Then the emotions may be triggered (brought to the surface) by a situation similar to the original source of pain, hurt, etc. Thus, a person will overreact to a minor situation because of a past situation. After the overreaction (explosion, tirade, etc.) the person feels better, but has usually damaged his relationships significantly.
People deny their emotions by minimizing them or ignoring them. Many people seek to control their emotions by exerting their will power, but this only works temporarily. Others try to control their emotions by turning to addictions. Addictions involve exchanging an external focus (such as food, sex, work, shopping, exercise, gambling, etc. as well as drugs and alcohol) for an internal focus on the real problem (what is going on inside). Addictions also provide other functions besides distraction. They may make us feel better temporarily or they may numb our emotions.
No matter how hard we try to avoid our feelings they do not go away. They end up buried inside of us. Scripture warns us not to do this. It tells us to “not let the sun go down while you are still angry (Ephesians 4:26).” In other words, don’t suppress your anger. Rather, deal with it quickly. The same truth applies to all negative feelings.
Ephesians 4:27 states that when we do not deal with our anger in an appropriate and timely way, we give the devil a foothold in our lives. That is, we open ourselves up for attack and for provocation to act out our anger in the wrong way. Any time we allow emotions to build up inside of us we are in danger of becoming overwhelmed by the emotions and having our judgment clouded. Therefore, we need to learn how to deal with our emotions in appropriate and timely ways.
In another Pocket Principle we will discuss more about how failing to deal appropriately with negative emotions affects us. At this point, it is sufficient to understand that negative emotions are not bad or sinful. When we impulsively act on our negative emotions, without first processing them and thinking about what a godly response would be, then we are in danger of acting sinfully. If we deny or suppress our emotions we are only storing up trouble for later and opening ourselves to temptation.
Read Psalm 13
How does David deal with his emotions: positive and negative?
• How have the ideas presented in this lesson caused you to reconsider how you think about and deal with emotions?
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