The author and counsellor Ed Welch describes emotions as the language of the heart.
You can see his point. When we share our deepest longings or admit our darkest fears, we speak emotionally. Or at least we should. It’s much harder to connect with, or even understand, someone who only communicates with us in cognitive terms. It’s so much harder to sense what really matters to them.
Emotions also move and galvanise us. We act upon our feelings*. We admire those who feel passionately about the plight of the homeless or starving refugees or injustice. We approve of those feelings; we are glad when they are acted upon.
But that’s not the whole story. We sense that emotions are also tricky. Feelings, we say, can come and go; they can mislead us; they can even run riot. Be careful we say: ‘don’t let your feelings run away with you’.
A ‘hot-head’ allows their feelings to take control of them and, in the heat of the moment, with emotions raging, they speak or act irrationally. Much better, we say, to keep our cool; to be measured; to speak and act ‘reasonably’. Maturity means overcoming childish passions.
So, which is it? Should we engage our feelings or suppress them? Nurture them or neutralise them?
Scripture, at first glance, may not seem entirely clear. Sometimes the Bible seems distinctly negative about our emotions. At one time, Paul tells Titus, we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions (Titus 3:3) but now the grace of the gospel ‘teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12).
Yet, in other places passion is the very thing the Bible seems to want: My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God (Psalm 84:2).
It feels confusing. How should we feel about feelings? Is there a godly way to be emotional?
Our opening idea can help us. If emotions are indeed ‘the language of the heart’, then reflecting on the character of our hearts begins to make things clearer. Our hearts, we realise, are divided. Christian believers experience an internal battle between the Spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:16-18). Moreover every one of us experiences a tussle between expressions of the divine image implanted in us and expressions of the sinful desires which have corrupted us. It’s no surprise if, out of those divided hearts, a complex mix of emotions emerge – sometimes moving us to pursue what is good but sometimes what is evil.
To make sense of our emotions, we first need to make sense of our desires. Unless we know which desires are godly and which ungodly, we will never be able to identify godly and ungodly emotions either. Sometimes a passion we feel is good – it reflects the image of God in us or the shaping influence of the Spirit. But sometimes a passion is evil – it reflects the desires of a rebellious heart and the deception of the evil one. Emotions are complicated. They can neither be broadly commended nor broadly condemned. In other words, we do need to think about our feelings. But we do also need to feel appropriately about the things that we think.
Three brief implications:
1. Notice emotions
They reveal the workings of our hearts. What we fear and desire, what brings joy and what brings sorrow, all of this will tell us much about the passions that are ruling our hearts.
2. Speak emotions
If emotions are indeed the language of the heart and if, like Paul, we want others to know that we have them in our heart (Phil 1:7), we will need to find words for that. Unless we learn how to speak about our emotions, we won’t be able to convey the passion we feel for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
3. Pray emotions
Learning to speak about our feelings is also crucial for our prayers because prayer should be emotional. We should grieve our sin and have words to express that grief to God. We should feel delight in Christ and have words to express that delight to him too.
*People do sometimes distinguish between ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’, but in this brief reflection I’m using the two terms interchangeably.
This article was first published in Evangelicals Now.