Emotional health is the goal for many people, and it is frequently seen as crucial for attaining success. From our culture’s perspective, we love emotions, even when they seem to be tossing us around like a Ping-Pong ball in a windstorm. We also blame emotions as those villainous feelings that cause us pain.
“Feelings, nothings more than feelings,” so sang Perry Como. For my wife’s sake, I’ll throw in the Bees Gees as well: “It’s just emotion that’s taken me over.” We could go on—and on. In our pop culture, emotions are really nothing more than strong feelings we basically cannot control. On the other hand, they are often presented as the best part of life. Yes, “I’m hooked on a feeling.” “Hooked on a feeling…” That that sounds good, I think. Nevertheless, our culture also recognizes the toxicity of emotions (Emotions Anonymous is actually a real organization).
Emotional health is the goal for many people, and it is frequently seen as crucial for attaining success. From our culture’s perspective, we love emotions, even when they seem to be tossing us around like a Ping-Pong ball in a windstorm. We also blame emotions as those villainous feelings that cause us pain. Frankly, since nothing helpful emerges here, perhaps the church can provide some helpful perspective on the emotions.
Unfortunately, what the church has often said about emotions isn’t much better or more helpful than what culture says. When I was a new believer in the early 1980s, it seemed I was in a constant tug-of-war. I read and heard that emotions are just the caboose; the engine is fact. The coal car is faith, and the caboose is feelings. The train will run fine on fact and faith; feelings are optional. But feelings never felt optional. On the other side of the rope, emotions were a requirement. If you were “touched by God,” you would feel it. And you should want to feel it. You were supposed to feel God’s presence and power. After all, we would sing, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place; I can feel his mighty power and grace.” Even more amazing: “I hear the brush of angel’s wings; I see glory on each face”! Doctrine and the mind were on one side; emotions and experience were on the other.
To say I was confused is an understatement. If my emotions could not be trusted, if they were optional, nonessential to faith, and yet God’s presence could be, indeed should be felt, then what was I to do? Faith needed to be felt. After all, wasn’t assurance simply feeling saved? Most certainly, a feeling-driven faith proves unstable, and “feeling saved” is no foundation for full assurance. But then again, a Joe Friday intellectualism that focuses only on “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” falls short of a robust Christianity filled with gratitude, fear, joy, peace, and love. The ultimate answer to the role of emotions in the Christian life needs to be searched out in God’s word. If the Bible addresses the whole person, then the Bible can at least give us a framework for understanding the emotions.
Feelings, Emotions, Affections
There are a few words in the Bible that can convey the concept of “feelings.” For instance, in the Song of Solomon: “My beloved extended his hand through the opening, and my feelings were aroused for him” (5:4 NASB). The Hebrew word mēĕh generally means “belly, stomach, entrails, intestines, or more figuratively, the inner being (seat of the emotions).”1 There is a similar concept with the Hebrew word kilyāh, meaning the “kidneys; or as the innermost, the most secret part of man.”2 An example of this usage is found in Jeremiah 11:20, “But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tried the feelings and the heart.” The ESV says, “Who tests the heart and mind.”
The New Testament also has words that convey similar ideas. Feelings or emotions are sometimes expressed in visceral terms. Jesus “felt compassion [Greek, splanchnizomai]” on the crowds (Matt. 9:36), and Paul longed for the Philippians with “the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Although these are helpful, the Bible does not give us a clinical definition of emotions. The Bible does, however, frequently describe emotions. Some might argue and even make distinctions between emotions and affections. For this article, I will not be maintaining these finer distinctions and will basically use the terms “emotions” and “affections” interchangeably. Matthew Elliott gives a helpful definition of the emotions:
Emotions are not primitive impulses to be controlled or ignored, but cognitive judgments or construals that tell us about ourselves and our world. In this understanding, destructive motives can be changed, beneficial emotions can be cultivated, and emotions are a crucial part of morality.3
Emotions are cognitive: they reflect our values and judgments, and they are vital in relationships. Far from being merely the caboose, emotions appear to be more important than an optional feature to our humanity. But how do we go about understanding them? This is where good, biblical theology can help us.
Emotions and the Image of God
A good biblical anthropology will not allow us to simply relegate emotions to the baser part of our nature. Rather, a biblical anthropology will give us a framework for looking at emotions: first as seen in God himself, and then as seen in the Son of God in the incarnation. We are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26–28), and our emotions should be viewed as a part of that image of God in us. In Scripture, God has and expresses perfect, holy emotions: God grieves over sin (Gen. 6:5–6), God hates certain things (Prov. 6:16–19), God delights in his Son (Isa. 42:1), and God takes joy in his people (Zeph. 3:17). While there are hundreds of examples, these are sufficient to make our point.
Some people immediately object because the Westminster Confession says that God is “without passions.”4 It is beyond the scope of this article to explore in depth the heated debate regarding the doctrine of divine impassibility (i.e., God is without passions). However, affection in God is not inconsistent with “without passions.” God is never subject to emotions. He cannot “feel blue.” God’s affections are never out of control. He never “loses it.” In a word, when we speak of God’s emotions or affections, we are not referring to them in the same way as our own human emotions. As Michael Horton notes,
God is the transcendent Lord of the covenant who is never a passive victim but is always the active judge and justifier. Even if God is revealed in Scripture (analogically) as responding to the world and especially to human beings in a covenantal relationship, it is not in the same way we respond to each other.5
As Horton and others have pointed out, however, to say that God is not subject to emotions, or that he doesn’t experience them as humans do, doesn’t mean that God does not have real affections, such as love, joy, wrath, compassion, and so on. God’s affections are not only pure, holy, and perfect, but they are also eternal and immutable. They are real affections, but eternal and immutable because ultimately the delight and joy he has is in himself. The wrath he manifests is ultimately rooted in his unchanging holiness. Horton again notes,
God does feel, but not as one who depends on the world for his joy. God responds to our sorrows with compassion, to our sin with anger, and to our obedience with delight. Yet he does so as a generous rather than a needy lover.6
Jonathan Edwards helps us here. Edwards brings together God’s eternality and immutability and his real affections exercised toward his creatures in time, by stating that the real pleasure God receives from his creatures is simply the pleasure he already has in himself:
God may delight with true and great pleasure in beholding that beauty which is an image and communication of his own beauty, an expression and manifestation of his own loveliness. And this is so far from himself, that ’tis an evidence that he is happy in himself, or delights and has pleasure in his own beauty.7