Emotions Make Terrible Gods
Taking Control of Our Feelings
(article by Greg Morse, Content Strategist, desiringGod.org)
When we only deal with our actions, we are left with moralism, not Christianity. Outward conformity in behavior alone is meaningless when inside we are full of emotional uncleanness (Matthew 23:27). God searches hearts (Romans 8:27). The screaming girl must at some point hear the good news that God offers her more than restraint; he offers a transformation of her heart. He commands new emotions, and by his own Spirit, he gives what he commands. This is great news: we are not left to be enslaved to our emotions.
How does he teach us to love, hate, and feel in line with godliness? He gives us at least four helps.
1. HIS SON
The often-assumed foundation for all godliness is the gospel. No reformation of emotions or resolve for restraint means anything if we stand condemned for past anger, lust, and coldness. But the good news for all who struggle with inordinate passions towards wrong (or constipated passions towards good) is the person and work of Jesus Christ, the perfect-feeler, who lived the emotional life we couldn’t and suffered the emotion-crushing wrath on our behalf, all in order to make us new down to the core of our emotions. Has there been a more emotionally distraught cry than “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)?
2. HIS SPIRIT
Furthermore, to train us, he gives himself (Romans 8:9). We do not feel alone. We, beyond all comprehension and expectation, become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), including distinctly new affections than we experienced before (2 Corinthians 5:17). God has given us his own emotion-giving-and-governing Spirit to produce affectional fruit pleasing to God (Galatians 5:22–23): love (instead of hate), joy (instead of despair), peace (instead of turmoil), patience (instead of anger), kindness (instead of severity), goodness (instead of badness), faithfulness (instead of temperamentality), gentleness (instead of harshness), self-control (instead of passions-control). He addresses our emotional lives at the source: our hearts.
3. HIS PEOPLE
God does not surround us with self-help books, daytime talk shows, or yoga classmates to balance our emotional states. He surrounds us with his people. Sanctification, never forget, is a community project. The older instructs the younger. All serve one another with their varying gifts. They hear the word. Live life together. And build each other up, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Healthy emotional states are found in healthy emotional lives found in the blood-bought community of the redeemed. We help each other towards intoxication with our God and sober-mindedness with our sentiments.
4. HIS WORD
Finally, God reveals capital “R” Reality through his word to be believed by faith (Hebrews 11:1). The peace of Christ rules in our hearts when his word dwells richly in us (Colossians 3:15–16). For example, in the span of four verses, Paul points us to one aspect of Reality that, when believed, will liberate us from anxiety and impart undauntable joy.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7)
He doesn’t merely say, “Sing in the Lord,” or, “Dance in the Lord,” or, “Smile in the Lord,” but, “Rejoice in the Lord.” And when ought we to rejoice? Always. When ought we to stop? Never. When should we be anxious? Never.Why? Because God’s reality never stops giving us reason to: The Lord is at hand. The world’s nihilistic reality says that if you are single, wronged, jilted, or oppressed, you have a right to be unhappy. Paul thinks differently, because he inhabits a different world.
He calls happy resilience in the face of suffering reasonable: “Let your reasonableness be known” (Philippians 4:5). When tragedy strikes and we have reason to despair of life itself, we have — even then — cause to feel delight before a watching world — “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He is near to hear our prayers. He is near to comfort us. Nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:37–39). When sorrows roll like sea billows, we still have cause to sing, “Even so, it is well with my soul!” Over the shoulder of every pain stands our heavenly Father.
Reality like this will change how we respond when denied whatever backpacks we hoped for in this life.
Dethrone the God of Feelings
God gives us the wonderful gift of emotions to color life. He is a feeling God, and those made in his image are not robots. But while feelings are wonderful servants, they are terrible gods. When they flow — ungoverned by God’s Spirit and God’s Reality — they make us threats both to others and to ourselves.
In a world given to untethered emotions and cold apathy, a world impassioned by trivial things and unfeeling about eternity, we have a stunning opportunity: to let our reasonableness be known. We can live for God’s glory in God’s world as citizens of the next, loving what he loves, hating what he hates, living, laughing, and crying in such a way as to reflect the highest Reality: God is. He is at hand, and he keeps those in perfect peace whose minds are stayed not on their feelings, but on him (Isaiah 26:3).
Greg Morse is a staff writer for desiringGod.org and graduate of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Abigail, live in St. Paul.