got me in my feelings
The narrative of God’s story is one of relationships. In Garden of Eden, God created humanity to exist in perfect relationship with him and with each other. Likewise, in Genesis 1:28, God invited humanity to further create cultures and communities in which these deeply connected and committed relationships exist. Although sin would forever break the perfect relationship between God and humanity, and even the relationship between two people, Jesus offers us a way of reconciling us to himself and each other. Through his good news, he pushes us ever forward towards the experience of connected and committed relationships with him and each other. Yet in order to have these types of connections and partake in Jesus' invitation, emotional awareness, experience, and expression is vital.
We don’t have to look far to see the importance of feelings to the rest of the world. Large tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, have been spending millions of dollars to research and implement emotion-detection systems in order to better serve the customer, advertise to the consumer, and build businesses around emotional consumption. Likewise, in the academic and professional world, the concept of Emotional Intelligence - the ability to recognize, name, and express awareness of our emotions and those of other people - is considered so rare, yet so important, it is being taught in graduate programs, businesses, and health care systems throughout America. And all of this doesn’t even include Drake’s newest album, Scorpion, which itself alone has 3 tracks incorporating the words “Emotion” or “Feeling” in its title (still waiting to hear from Kiki). In short, it seems like most of the world recognizes the importance of emotions; so as Christians, what do we need to know about them?
In James K.A. Smith’s book, You Are What You Love, he details a different perspective for Christians which addresses our experience of emotions. To do so, he first analyzes the historical perspective of French philosopher Rene Descartes - a perspective that confines humans into "thinking things." Descartes made the infamous statement: “I think, therefore I am”, a viewpoint which values our brains as the “mission control” of our very selves. This belief suggests “it’s thinking that defines who we are”, yet this does not adequately reflect our human experience. Descartes' viewpoints have greatly influenced modern Christian discipleship; we are told that through applying Scripture “we can think our way into holiness.” Discipleship is simply "sanctification by information transfer." Yet how many of us often know the right, best, or obedient thing - but don't do it?
Smith argues in order to experience change in ourselves and the lives of others, we need more than to simply ingest information. This is not to refute learning, but it is to better consider our human experience; that is to say, we do not need “less than knowledge; we need more.” As we seek discipleship of Christ and seek to partake in his redemption on earth, we need to have a more holistic, biblical understanding of humanity. This will help us grow as disciples of Jesus Christ as well as partake in his great mission on earth - one of peace, justice, and loving connection. As we follow Jesus, we need more than head knowledge; we need knowledge of the heart. We need emotional awareness and expression in order to grow and experience deeper connections with Yahweh and others.
Emotions Through Scripture
To discuss emotions, we must recognize their God-given purpose. In Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Witacre’s book titled True Feelings, they explain the origin of the word ‘emotion’. It comes from "the Latin word movere, which means to move.” Although many could believe being moved by our emotions is a bad or 'weak' thing, Mahoney and Whitacre explain otherwise. Instead, “emotions are supposed to move us.” God gave us emotions in order to move us towards him in love and in obedience.
Throughout Scripture, emotions push people towards a loving connection with God and with others. David, an unquestionably emotional man, constantly wrote, sang, and prayed to God through his emotions. Consider just these four verses from Psalm 42 as David laments to God:
“My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?"
“My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
‘Where is your God?’"
“These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in the procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.”
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God."
David’s feelings reflect his most fundamental state and need. He is in despair, experiencing loneliness apart from God’s presence. As he brings his lament to God, David encourages himself by addressing his very soul, taking his heart in hand as he reminds himself why he can hope in God. David’s sorrow leads him towards action - towards prayer, encouragement, and comfort. David’s emotions guide him to a deeper connection with his God.
Jesus’ emotions also led him towards relationship. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus expresses his state of affliction As he talks with his disciples, he says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:38). Jesus asks his disciples to stay with him and watch with him, asking his friends to not leave him alone in his sorrow. Stepping away and falling on his face, Jesus prays to his Father, asking, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39). Even Jesus Christ shows his deepest feelings, revealing his need to connect with Yahweh and his friends through his emotions.
David and Jesus display a truth found throughout the entirety of Scripture. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is so moved by her visit from the angel Gabriel she breaks out in a song of worship. Joseph was so moved by seeing his brothers again in Egypt he wept, leading him to ultimately praise God and encourage his brothers to recognize God’s sovereign plan for the lives of his chosen people. The lives of Joseph, David, Mary, Jesus, and countless others in Scripture reveal how feelings can move us towards humility, forgiveness, joy, comfort, and ultimately, connection with others and with God. Their emotions draw them towards their Father and towards those they loved.
Contrastingly, consider Cain, who is so full of anger and jealousy he chooses to murder his own brother, Abel. Yet before Cain decided to kill Abel, God seeks to connect with Cain through his anger:
“Why are you [Cain] angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7).
In this passage, it seems God is not chiding Cain for his anger; instead, he is inviting Cain to consider the cause of his anger and turn instead towards loving and submitting to God. The problem is not Cain’s anger; but where is he going to go with it? By choosing to not humble himself before Yahweh, Cain moves towards distrust, jealousy, and sin, later causing him to be separated from his family and sent away from the very presence of God. This is the opposite of what occurs in the lives of Joseph, David, Mary, and even our Savior. Yet through all these stories, it is evident that feelings are powerful moving forces. Scripture shows how our feelings either move God’s people towards connection and deeper relationships, or their emotions push them towards sin and isolation.
A More Holistic, Biblical Worldview
If emotions can cause us to live isolated, lonely lives, this is worth our attention. When people live in seclusion and disconnect, this goes against our spiritual DNA - and the negative results are undeniable. Dr. Henry Cloud, Christian psychologist and counselor, explains that the ability to have deep, emotional connections is a psychological term called bonding. Bonding is “one of the most basic and foundational ideas in life and the universe.” It is one of the most basic human needs; for “without a solid, bonded relationship, the human soul will become mired in psychological and emotional problems.” Therefore, emotional awareness, recognition, and expression are important for our very livelihood. Without bonds - deep emotional connections - we “will suffer sickness of the soul."
Yet there are many reasons emotional awareness, recognition, and expression are not valued in our own personal lives. To consider this reality, we can reflect on ways we might have unconsciously accepted prescribed allowances or disallowances to the expression of our feelings. Maybe this came through your family experience or your early childhood; perhaps no one has ever taught you how to express your emotions healthily, or even shown you how to express your feelings towards others. Or maybe it is a result of our cultural assumption about manhood and womanhood. Where a man is supposed to be strong, charismatic, and invulnerable, women are supposed to be caring, emotional, and even weak. In our cultural assumptions about men and women, once again reason and emotion are pitted against each other - with reason being associated with the strength of a man.
Whatever the cause, an unwillingness to experience and express our emotions fosters unhealthiness which goes against our God-given natures. By being told certain emotions are allowable and others are not, that certain feelings are ‘strong’ and others are ‘weak’, it keeps us from discovering our deepest experiences and being able to connect with God and others through them. Let us consider again the sorrow and fear of David and Jesus. We can learn from these men and the expression of their feelings. Being able to share such ‘vulnerable’ or maybe even ‘weak’ feelings brought them to relational connection because they shared their deepest experiences. They had the emotional maturity to recognize their core feelings and moved towards others through them. This is emotional strength and maturity, something which all people are able to experience.
Yet growing in awareness of our feelings is truly a process requiring a lot of humility. Consider again the definition of emotion - where do your emotions take you? Often times we can become aware of where our emotions are unhealthily taking us through situations which cause us to feel anger, denial, or avoidance. Could there be something deeper going on in your heart which needs addressing? Invite others into your journey and practice active listening with one another. Why do you feel angry? What causes you to avoid? What makes you want to deny reality? How did that experience hurt you? If we aren’t willing to invite others in, step into vulnerability, and embrace humility, we cannot grow in emotional maturity - and most importantly, we are not meant to be on this journey alone.
We need to be emotionally aware and intentional to further the mission of the Gospel. Allowing ourselves to experience emotion and draw near to our emotional Savior, we will grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, better able to recognize and care for the emotional experiences of others. As those seeking Jesus, as those praying for God to bring justice, how might we consider being more emotionally healthy in order to form Gospel-centered relationships? How might we think about experiencing and sharing our emotions to love, to be humble, to forgive, and to form loving bonds that radically transform the world? Let us receive the invitation of Jesus Christ to experience a redeemed humanity, cultivating shalom and justice on earth through healthily expressing our emotions.