It’s not difficult to see the gift of God-given emotions like joy and gratitude. We smile at a beautiful sunset, laugh when a puppy licks our face and feel like praising God after time spent with good friends. Yet when you think about it, even emotions sometimes deemed “negative” are there for a reason.

The Beautiful Purpose of Emotions in Our Lives

There’s a healthy fear that makes us cautious around danger. Sadness and grief are usually the result of something broken in our relationships or surroundings and can drive us to the Lord in a healthy way. Anger is often an alarm triggered by a legitimate violation or sin committed against us. Even jealousy can be a red flag that lines have been crossed in a committed relationship. God Himself is a passionate being, displaying many of these same emotions, only without the contamination of selfishness and sin. 

In her book All the Feels: Discover Why Emotions Are (Mostly) Awesome and How to Untangle Them When They’re Not” Elizabeth Laing Thompson points out that our emotional nature is a gift from God and an avenue through which we reflect him in this world. She writes, “God entrusts us with our emotions, our sensitivities, and it is our job to figure out how best to use those gifts (p.19).” Thompson goes on to talk about some of the ways we can use emotions for constructive purpose such as showing empathy, noticing and celebrating detail, modeling vulnerability and demonstrating love in expressive ways. 

The Dark Side: Feelings as Disastrous Masters

Yet while it’s important to recognize emotions have a beautiful place in our lives, most of us recognize there’s a dark side to them, as well. As writer and theologian Dallas Willard wisely cautioned: “Feelings make good servants, but they are disastrous masters.” [1] In other words, while our emotions are helpful and valid, they should not be placed in the driver’s seat of our life. Many of us have experienced moments (or even seasons) when emotions such as anxiety, anger, cynicism, or guilt have gained mastery over us. If we do not learn to keep our emotions in check, recognizing their proper place in our lives, they will drive us into hard places where we end up a slave to their domineering demands. 

Differentiating Between Fact and Feeling

It’s important to differentiate between fact and feeling and to remember that our feelings, strong though they are, do not define us. Feelings are constantly changing and if taken at face-value, tend to distort the truth, so it’s unwise to base our identity or decisions on them. 

Taking Control

Rather than let feelings be our taskmaster we must recognize our ability to direct our own emotions. We can choose to allow our will to govern over and direct our emotions. 

Lessons from the Psalms: Redirecting Focus

I love the Psalms because they are oozing with so much unfiltered, raw emotion, proving that nothing is off limits with God. He sees us where we’re at and is open to the expression of any feeling in human experience. But I see something crucial being played out in Psalm 42 where two times the psalmist talks to his own soul and asks: “So then, my soul, why would you be so depressed? Why would you sink into despair?” Notice what comes next! The psalmist tells his own emotions where to go. “Just keep hoping and waiting on God, your Savior. For no matter what, I will sing with praise, for you are my saving grace.” [2]  Notice the emphasis on the will: I will sing praise regardless of my emotional state. Perhaps the psalmist recognized that often, as we make the Godward choice to focus on His goodness and character, our feelings will respond and follow suit. 

Emotions come together for Fact and feeling. Directing emotions and Emotional responders
Worship God concept: Silhouette human standing on cave of heart against blurred city sunrise background

Author Mark Batterson shares the story of what Abraham Lincoln used to do when he was upset with someone. “He had a habit of composing what he called a ‘hot letter.’ It was a cathartic exercise, putting all his anger and frustration on paper. Then after his emotions had cooled down, he would write ‘Never sent. Never signed.’ In psychology that’s called a pattern interrupt. It’s the difference between responding and reacting.”[3]May we learn more of what it means to bring our up-and-down feelings under submission to the Holy Spirit and be wise responders rather than emotional reactors. 

[1] Dallas Willard; “Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ”, p.98, Tyndale House, 2014

[2]Psalm 42:5,11; The Passion Translation, BroadStreet Publishing Group, 2020 edition

[3]Batterson, Mark; “Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God,” p. 88; The Crown Publishing Group, 2017

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