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 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.
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.
Emotions and the Image of God
The Bible will not allow us to simply relegate emotions to the baser part of our nature. Rather, the Bible gives 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.
Our ability to feel—our ability to exhibit love, hate, joy, compassion, awe, gratitude, delight, and even anger—is a reflection of being made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, far from being the caboose, our emotions are an integral part of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God. While emotions are not all of what it means to be human, they are a significant part of our human nature and our human experience.
Emotions: Creation, Fall, Redemption
Our emotions are a part of the image of God in us. In that primal sense, they were good and holy. Although the Bible does not give us explicit information about the pre-Fall state, it seems safe to assume that Adam and Eve had all their faculties working in harmony. Their minds, wills, and emotions would have been upright, functioning without sin or corruption. Although we don’t know how long that state lasted, what a state it must have been!
When Adam fell, every faculty of his humanity fell; every part of his being became tainted and corrupted by sin. This corrupt state was then passed down to all his descendants. Adam and the whole human race now had “a bad record and a bad heart.”12 The image of God, although still there, became vandalized by sin. The mind was darkened (Rom.1:21, 28; 8:6–7; Eph. 4:17–18). No longer would human beings perceive truth with clarity or with acknowledging God. Rather, intellectual autonomy and mental impurity would plague Adam’s children; the will became infected by sin, stained and enslaved; and our ability to choose became enslaved to a fallen nature and fallen desires (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16). Nor would our affections escape Adam’s fall into sin and death. Our emotions—our likes, our dislikes, our loves, our hates—became hijacked by sin (Jer. 17:9; John 3:19). God’s image became corrupted by sin.
Our emotions received the fatal infection of original sin and a fallen human nature. Like a few drops of dye into a pitcher of water, every molecule of our nature has been colored by the toxic dye of sin. Emotions, which were designed to be good and work in tandem with the mind and will, now either dominate or become dormant. On the one hand, they can dominate our thinking so that what controls us is how we feel, how we determine what is true is based on how we feel, and how we relate to others is based on how we feel about them. The chaos of such life can be painful. On the other hand, trying to ignore or repress our emotions (and be like a Star Trek Vulcan rather than a human) is also a recipe for disaster. Truth and beauty in God and in life become black and white, and we fail to be whole people. What we need in our mangled humanity is full restoration.
Only redemption in Jesus Christ can begin this restoration project and rebuild the ruins caused by sin. This reconstruction begins with the new birth and is carried forward in sanctification. When the gospel comes to us in the power of God’s Spirit, it impacts the whole person: the mind is enlightened to behold the glory of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6), and the will is empowered to turn from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). But the gospel also impacts our emotions: there is conviction of sin (Ps. 32:3–4), and there is joy in believing in Jesus (1 Pet. 1:8). Jesus is the satisfaction of our souls (John 6:35, 38). The image of God in us, which was corrupted at the Fall, now begins a renovation project. We are being restored to the true image, which is God’s own Son (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
This restoration to the image of God’s Son is the ultimate goal of our sanctification. The process of sanctification entails the whole person, which includes our emotions. The Spirit of God through the Word of God is working in us, transforming us, into the image of Jesus. So in sanctification we look to Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 12:1–2).
You Can’t Tell Me How to Feel! Can you?
At this point, if we were to follow conventional Christian wisdom, then we would have to make two faulty assumptions: “I cannot help the way I feel; I am not in control of my emotions”; and “So when the Bible tells me to feel a certain way or to have a certain emotion, those commands can have nothing to do with the emotions.”
I recently did a sermon series on joy and was surprised to see how many Bible scholars and theologians want to eviscerate all affection from joy, since we are commanded to have joy and obviously God cannot command the way we feel. In this thinking, joy is stripped of all its emotional elements and reduced to a quality or an action! This kind of logic must be rejected.
The Scriptures do in fact command our emotions. Scripture commands us to “forgive from the heart,” to “rejoice,” to “love with brotherly affection,” to “mourn with those who mourn,” to “fear,” to be “zealous,” to “yearn,” and to be “tenderhearted.” While obedience to these commands is more than just the way we feel, obedience to these commands is also not devoid of how we feel. As God is sanctifying us, he is sanctifying our emotions. Our emotions come under the authority of his word and the Lordship of Jesus, and sanctification comes through the word and the Spirit. Sanctification transforms the emotions.
The process of sanctification, then, involves putting to death emotional sins that drag us down, while also cultivating Christlike emotions such as love, compassion, joy, righteous anger, grief, and gladness. The cultivation of these God-honoring emotions happens when we are sanctified by big, glorious, magnificent truths that serve as ballast for our hearts and minds. Right thinking leads to right feeling. What I think about God—who he is and what he is like—is the most important thing about me. What I believe about how I am made right with God, and how I am justified as a sinner before God, is crucial to the stability of my mental and emotional life. What I believe about this present age and the coming age, and what is promised now and what is promised only in the future, is foundational for dealing with this life. Bad teaching about God’s character—about justification and about the now and the not yet—can twist us up, turn us upside down, and destroy the emotional ballast in our souls.
As Christians we have a responsibility to handle our emotions through the truth, and we see this repeatedly exemplified in Scripture. For example, how does Jeremiah deal with the devastation and loss in the sacking of Jerusalem? As he doubles over with grief (Lam. 3:19–20), the winds of emotion shift when he says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21–23). Jeremiah is rescued from the pit of emotional despair by right thinking about God! He sets the Lord before him and he is not shaken (Ps. 16:8–9). This is the experience of psalmist, sage, apostle, and saint as truth triumphantly transforms emotions.
As Christians being conformed to the image of the One who redeemed us, we cannot afford to dismiss our emotions as “feelings, nothing more than feelings.” Nor can we afford to be governed or controlled by our emotions, tossed around by every feeling. A biblical view of humanity must reject both the dismissal of the emotions and the undue exaltation of them. Instead, Christians should strive for the restoration of the image of Christ in them, which can be attained only through God’s word and God’s Spirit. The joyful hope of this pursuit is a sweeter and deeper communion with our God.
Adapted from Brian Borgman “‘Nothing More Than Feelings’?: A Biblical-Theology Primer on the Emotions,” Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2018. Used by permission.