When Emotions Rule

THOUGHTS OF TYRANNY never induce happy thoughts. Such totalitarianism leaves little room for fulfillment of individual dreams and desires. We hope for sunshine and bunny rabbits and ice cream cones. We never expect gray skies and hopelessness, but all bets are off when emotions rule; when feelings become the main impetus for action. It is one thing to know about the high-handedness of emotions, but this is only half the battle. If your emotions tend to rule you, then you have a problem. Remember, nothing about who you are in Christ (abundant life, salvation, the power to resist sin, adoption into the family of God) rests on your emotions. Yet, we are not called to be “stoic” or emotionless either. We are not defined by our emotions in the sense that they nullify who God says we are in Christ. But here is an important caveat: Our emotions do define us in everyday interactions in that they reveal the depth of our walk in the Spirit.

Our emotions are neither the most important thing about us, something to be worshiped, nor are they the least important, a problem to be avoided or ignored.

It is inappropriate for us as believers to go about our day spitting up our emotions. As I’ve learned, I tend to do this without realizing it. I get in someone’s car and just start spouting all my anger and frustration over something that’s happened to me. Obviously, I was looking for an “anger cohort,” but what I got was someone who listened begrudgingly. I failed to notice that they kept trying to change the subject. At first, I blamed them. A natural reaction (in the flesh), and not in the Spirit. But it kept happening. I thought, Hmm. Maybe it’s me? I tend to let my unforgiveness, resentment, and anger control my emotions to the extent it can derail my day or irritate my friends. Once embroiled in unforgiveness or resentment, it can be rather difficult to stop. I’ve learned it is best to work on the problem in real time and check myself.

R.C. Sproul said, “Emotions and experiences are not necessarily bad things, but they should not be set up in opposition to the mind and reason.” Paul told the Colossians, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Col. 3:8). Joyce Meyer wrote, “If someone has a long history of out-of-balance emotional behavior, they may have many issues they need to face, perhaps even long-standing problems that go as far back as childhood” (1). I agree with her 100%—unless we surrender all our excuses (You’d drink too if you had my childhood!) we will continue using the past to abuse and manipulate others. Unless we get rid of emotional baggage, our present behaviors will not be “undertaken” by us, but will be “driven” by the past. Meyer adds, “One of the ways God taught me to deal with the past was by confessing His promises instead of talking abut how I felt” (2).

Control your emotions so they don’t control you—Joyce Meyer.

Mark Driscoll warns of an “identity crisis” in the church today. Before I repented of sin, and addressed my premeditated (habitual practice) of sin, I had a nagging sense that I was depraved, fallen, unable to be redeemed, lost. Of course, sin causes us to be cut off from the Light of the Spirit. In such state, we indeed can feel lost and abandoned. Emotional difficulty can lead to a number of destructive ways of coping: alcoholism, overeating, binge spending, depression, anger, resentment, bitterness, isolation, and more. Driscoll writes, “…underlying our struggles in life is the issue of our identity” (3). This “identity crisis” began with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Of course, this does not mean we get to stand on “It’s all Eve’s fault,” or “The serpent is at fault.” I found out the hard way that the “blame game” provides a temporary reprieve, but it leads to arrested spiritual development. You will find yourself “acting out,” treating others like you were treated, and bringing your past hurts into your present relationships.

Hubert H. Humphrey said, “To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.” But, we cannot blame someone else for our character defects and deficits, accepting no blame on our part, and expect emotional or spiritual growth. John Bevere puts “being offended” into perspective. He says, “Often when we are offended we see ourselves as victims and blame those who have hurt us. We justify our bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, envy, and resentment as they surface. Sometimes we even resent those who remind us of others who have hurt us” (4). But whenever we filter everything through past hurts, rejections, and experiences, we find it impossible to believe what God says about us. Our “vision” is clouded. We are blind to our own character flaws and do not realize God wants to refine us and help us mature through uncomfortable experiences.

A Brief Anatomy

There is both a human and a spiritual component to being controlled by our emotions. Because we are tripartite beings (body, soul, spirit), it is vital that we confront our emotions on each level. Some mental health professionals refer to this as Our Three Brains. Admittedly, the three-brain model initially referred to an evolutionary view of human brain development. Paul MacLean put forth a theory in the 1960s that the human brain has evolved from ancestors over millions of years. He identified the R-complex as man’s primitive (reptilian) brain—made up of the brain stem and cerebellum. These two parts of the brain are responsible for emotions such as paranoia, obsession and compulsion. MacLean compared this “complex” to the brains of reptiles, birds, and other lower mammals.

The Human Side

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology

Biologically, emotions are psychological states relative to neurophysiological changes that accompany thoughts, feelings, and behavioral responses, usually causing a degree of pleasure or displeasure. Our emotional development begins in the first two years of life, ranging from reactive pain and pleasure to more complex social awareness. Since birth, we pay attention to what works and what doesn’t relative to our physiological needs and safety. Abraham Maslow believed we cannot move up the “actualization” scale (which he expressed in the above pyramid) until the previous needs have been met. For example, as newborn infants, our greatest needs are physiological—hunger, thirst. If these necessities go unmet, we cannot begin to concern ourselves with safety, love, social belonging, and the like.

Our emotions are closer to us than air. They are the ever present current within us.

Carolyn MacCann says, “Emotions are not just feelings, but the meaning we make from a given situation” (5). In her article, MacCann shares Professor James Gross’s “Modal Model of Emotion.” Gross says there are four components to feeling an emotion:

  1. the situation you are in (whatever is happening to you at that moment);
  2. the details you pay attention to;
  3. your appraisal of what the situation means for you personally; and
  4. your response, including the physical changes (like blushing or shaking), and your behaviors (like crying or throwing furniture).

Something about the situation you are in draws your attention. This causes you to determine whether some aspect of the situation is relevant to you and your goals or needs. If nothing critical is happening, emotions are not very strong. Emotional cues can also be presented non-verbally: slumped posture, crossed arms, avoiding eye contact). The above features are

The Spiritual Side

Spirit, Soul, Body, Emotions, Will and Mind - Bible. A Christian perspective & view

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). What a beautiful contrast to walking in the flesh, which includes sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. Show of hands, how many of you walk in the sinfulness of the flesh?

C.S. Lewis explores a number of issues regarding the spiritual component of human behavior. He’s quick to remind us, however, that when it comes to moral “ideals” we’re speaking of the kind of perfection we cannot obtain (6). But Lewis notes two ways in which human beings go wrong. The first is when individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another, and do the other person wrong. This is where our bad behavior impacts society. The second is when we go wrong on the inside—the very locus of our spiritual condition. So, if we only consider whether our actions will harm others, we are thinking solely about the first thing. Lewis adds, “…if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing—the tidying up inside each human being—we are only deceiving ourselves” (7). These factors have a direct impact on our spirituality, which impacts our emotional state. I’ve spent much time on my face before God, full of shame and sorrow, asking for God to forgive me and for the Holy Spirit to guide me through the day ahead.

Joyce Meyer writes, “We have all said many times in life, ‘I wish I didn’t feel this way'” (8). According to Merriam-Webster, the word “emotion” comes from Middle French, emouvoir “to stir up;” from Old French esmovoir and Latin emovēre “to remove;” from e- + movēre “to move.” This etymology helps us understand how emotions move us from somewhere deep inside. Meyer says of our emotions, “…then they move out and pressure us to follow them” (9). Consider the expression, I was moved to tears. Further, so-called “emotional people” allow their feelings to control them in almost every situation. Certainly, we are not called to be like Spock, science officer on Star Trek, making logical, emotionless decisions. Emotions are powerful and real, and they can be helpful indicators of what is going on in our hearts. But out-of-control emotions do not typically produce results that honor God.

Now What?

James said, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). Notice James did not say, Don’t feel! Emotions are bad! The challenge is to learn how to allow Jesus to help us face, manage, and express our emotions in ways that are healthy and bring glory to Him. Remember, we have a High Priest who can relate to and sympathize with our humans weaknesses: “…one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:14-15). I think we sometimes miss the miraculous truth that Christ was both fully God and fully man. Origen said of the two natures of Christ, “With this soul acting as a mediator between God and flesh… there was born the God-man [deus-homo], that ‘substance’ [substantia] being the connecting link” (10). God, through Christ, understands our emotional turmoil.

Emotions are inherently neither right nor wrong; rather, how we deal with and express them determines whether our not we act sinfully or righteously.

Whatever emotional difficulties we face, not only can Jesus relate to our situation, He is the exemplar for guidance, inspiration, and instruction in how to deal with our feelings. Jesus experienced and expressed a full range of emotions. Yet, He did not allow his emotions to “bottle up” but expressed Himself in a direct and honest way. When He spoke of an abundant life, he used the Greek word perisson, meaning “exceedingly, very highly, beyond measure,” a quantity so abundant as to be far beyond what can anticipate. However, “abundant” life requires us to live our lives in Christ. We must learn to not be carried away by every whim or emotion, but grow in the grace and knowledge of Him (see 2 Pet. 3:17-18).

Nouwen writes about the man “…who suffers from a constant fear that everything is too much for him… [He] is no longer able to keep the many pieces of his life together in a meaningful unity” (11). It is not difficult to imagine the same for an individual who is constantly depressed, overly anxious, or troubled by a state of self-hatred. When overwrought with such emotion, we often look for any means whatever of gaining power over our sense of lack. Nouwen adds, “We are armed to our teeth, carefully following the movements of the other, waiting to hit back at the right moment and in the vulnerable spot” (12). A friend of mine once said, “I’m all about paybacks.” We don’t like runaway emotions, and tend to blame others or the situation rather than looking inside our hearts. In this manner, we tend to hold a resentment toward someone we believe has harmed us. Unfortunately, we fail to see how this angst sours our soul.

controlling behavior

Learning how to handle all of this can be a rather daunting task. Left to our own devices, we have little hope of wrangling our emotions. Further, it is a mistake to focus on controlling our emotions; instead, we need to hone in on controlling how we respond. In the spirit of dealing with feelings, consider the following five suggestions:

  1. Do not view emotions as “facts.” Feelings are notoriously unreliable. Don’t view feelings as a guide for how to respond.
  2. Remember what emotions are for. Emotions are signals, not guides.
  3. Try writing down emotions in a journal. This is a powerful tool for going deeper and sorting things out.
  4. There is power in Christ. When we are in Christ, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. He guides us, and gives us wisdom and self-control (see 2 Tim. 1:7).
  5. Learn to delay reaction. “Now” thinking can lead us to believe we must act immediately and emphatically.

Concluding Remarks

God made us with a soul: mind, will, and emotion. We would do wise to use all means necessary to focus on being restored to grace and good health in a manner that addresses the entire being. The Bible warns us that uncontrolled emotions can mean trouble. Solomon wrote, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (Prov. 15:18, ESV). Paul reminded Timothy, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). It is important to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (see Col. 3:15). Being wholly man and wholly God, Jesus understands emotional turmoil. Certainly, He felt many emotions while in the flesh: sorrow, grief, frustration, anger. But He always expressed His emotions without sinning.

We live in a world where life is increasingly complex: social and cultural issues, health concerns, mental illness, rampant substance abuse, global terrorism, regional tensions, environmental crises, economic concerns, and moral decay. Some of America’s top fears lately include pandemics, civil unrest, government corruption, economic/financial collapse, cyberterrorism, and environmental crises. FDR told us, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Perhaps FDR was suggesting that “fear itself” refers to the unrelenting grip of fear and all its consequences. The fear of doing nothing; of becoming mired in a life of retreat rather than marching headlong into that which frightens us and confronting it. Without this approach, there is little chance of victory. My dad said to me, “You tend to quit going in to avoid failing.” In this manner, fear is a choice. I believe all emotions require a choice: focusing on how best to respond to our emotions rather than striving to squelch them.

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

(1) Joyce Meyer, Living Beyond Your Feelings: Controlling Emotions So They Don’t Control You (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2011). 14.
(2) Ibid., 17.
(3) Mark Driscoll, Who Do You Think You Are? Finding Your True Identity in Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 2.
(4) John Bevere, The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense, 10th Anniversary Ed. (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2004), 10.
(5) Carolyn MacCann, PhD, “What Are Emotions?” Psychology Today (Jan. 15, 2021). URL: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dealing-emotions/202101/what-are-emotions
(6) C.S. Lewis, “The Three Parts of Morality,” Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1980), 69.
(7) Ibid., 72-73.
(8) Meyer, Ibid., 47.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Origen Adamantius, “On the Two Natures of Christ,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed., Alister E. McGrath, editor (Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 230
(11) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 112.
(12) Ibid., 113.

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