06. Emotions: Are Feelings Unspiritual?
“Don’t ask yourself how you feel.”
“Faith isn’t moved by feeling.”
“Faith alone tells you how you feel!”
“Your feelings can’t be trusted.”
“Faith isn’t a feeling; it is a decision.”
“Forgiveness isn’t a feeling; it is a decision.”
“You’ve got the joy of the Lord. You don’t need feelings.”
“Grief is from a demonic and oppressive spirit.”
“You are yielding to a spirit of grief.”
When you hear these “church” statements, what do they mean to you?
For many in the Christian faith, emotions are deemed as a diabolic threat, a deceptive weapon exclusively used by the enemy to get us off course. Sometimes we even imply that undesirable emotions are all together negative, getting in the way of God’s plan for your life.
We are taught in some traditions that feelings are to be ignored, or suppressed, or categorized as lies, or worse… to be seen as the inner voice of wickedness.
Have you ever wondered why God gave us the ability to emote, to feel, and to biologically experience?
It is no wonder so many Christians struggle in the tension between the actual truth in such statements above, and the untruths that are also in such rigid statements.
So, where do emotions fit in our Christian faith? Are they friend or foe? Are “positive” emotions godly, but “negative” only demonic?
GOD IS AN EMOTIONAL BEING
First. It’s is important to remember that God has, and expresses, emotions.
· God is love.
· God shows tender mercies.
· God is moved with compassion.
· God’s peace is given to us.
· The joy of the Lord is our strength.
· The anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses.
· Israel…grieved God in the desert.
This is just a small array of God’s emotional profile.
God’s emotions are like, but also unlike, human emotions. They are similar enough that we can relate to God and understand God by projecting our human emotions and experiences onto Him. They are different also in that God’s holy nature has no mixture of the unholy, as in the reality of human emotions.
To describe this “same, but different” concept, Christian philosophers and theologians use the word “anthropomorphism.”
Anthropomorphism simply means that humans project human experiences, emotions, and intentions onto God in order to analyze and interpret who God is. This projection must be understood within its limitations; these limitations are due to the dissonance between God’s perfect nature and man’s fallen nature.
God’s emotions are distinct, unique and separate from human emotions in that God has never sinned. Sin corrupts that which is good and perfect. God is only good and perfect. God has never been scarred and marred by sin’s erosive impact. God has never been corrupted by sin and has never experienced the post-sin consequences upon His spirit, soul or being.
Human emotions have built-in filters, energy pockets, and survival instincts that sin has birthed in the spirit, soul, and being. Humans have skewed sense of Self through sin, and ultimately shame. Fear of survival and not belonging are embedded into the psyche.
God has never been challenged with His sense of Self. He has never felt disharmony, or perceived through a bent filter, or been surprised by surging narratives of shame. He has never questioned His survival. Fears, nor their shadows, have ever gripped God’s heart. He has never doubted His value and belonging. He has never lost control of the things He desires to control.
However, mankind has on all counts, due to sin’s pervasive injury. When Adam sinned, he immediately experienced panic. Shame filled his soul. Everything spun out of control. Derangement hijacked his mental processes. Humans are born with Adam’s sin effects, as we have inherited Adam’s sin corruption. This became the bedrock of human struggle with emotional disorder. It is the birthplace of panic, shame and frenzied attempts at control.
God has never sinned. He is unable to sin (impeccable). He has never processed the recovery from a sin state. His absolute purity has never been compromised. This is why it is impossible for God to ever experience panic, shame or frenzy. He is God. He is sovereign, immutable, infinite, eternal, transcendent, providential, immortal, incorruptible, and glorious. He is absolutely all these at one time – which absoluteness describes His holiness.
God’s emotions are inherent in His nature. His emotions are consistent, predictable, just and holy. His emotions are organized, ordered, structured and methodic. In contrast, His emotions are never reactive, chaotic, erratic, confusing, disordered, or impulsive.
GOD’S ANGER & HUMAN RAGE
God’s anger and human rage are categorically different. Yet in an attempt to understand a God who is beyond our full comprehension, when we read of God’s wrath, we tend to project onto God similarities of human rage. This is an example of anthropomorphism.
Traditional translations of Scripture use the word “wrath” to describe God’s anger. This is unfortunate. Many have assumed God’s raging hysteria in Bible stories. It is supposed that when something is incompatible with God’s holiness that He becomes wildly reactionary, with unrestrained impulse, in full crazed response against it. This idea formulates images of God being sparked by beholding a sin, then flying off the handle in a tyrannical profusion of overwhelming, oppressive and uncontrollable wrath.
True functional anger is fundamentally designed to address injustice. Rage (wrath) is not about justice; rage is about panic, striving to regain dominant control. God does express anger. God’s anger is disclosed in His justice as He defends truth, righteousness, the oppressed, and ultimately His just nature.
In the same way, humans are equipped to express functional anger. When humans are emotionally compelled to face injustices, with self-control and structure, to defend truth, righteousness, the oppressed, and ultimately God’s just nature, we are expressing healthy, godly anger.
In contrast, when we think of wrath or rage, we tend to imagine the unleashing of distressed, abusive, uncontrolled, chaotic, unpredictable, cruel, overwhelming lashings - intended to incite fearful submission to the objects of wrath. We define wrath and rage this way because our emotional memory files are filled with cases of such unhealthy, dysfunctional displays of wrath from parents, siblings, coaches, teachers, and more. We even have memory files where wrath’s volcanic surprise came from within ourselves.
We then read a simple word in an old translation, “wrath” of God. We project onto God a profiled expectation, that He must be similar to our experiences with dysfunctional human wrath (anthropomorphism). However, in both Greek and Hebrew texts, from which our English translations originated, the word should simply be translated as “anger,” and not “wrath.”
Technically, human rage is not functional anger. Human rage is not about justice, but about panic. It is the fear of losing dominant control. It is the agitated threat against survival and self-preservation. It is about a shame-based emotional sense of Self. We fear we don’t belong. We fear we won’t get what we desire, what we have worked hard for, or the grief of forfeiting previous achievements.
We fear we aren’t enough. We fear we aren’t valuable. We fear we won’t be seen, felt, known and nurtured. From these fears comes a scenario where we perceive an immediate threat of loss of control. Our brains move into exaggerated arousal and it begins to fabricate worst case scenarios. So, we panic. This is the true picture of rage. Anger is about justice. Rage is about panic.
From inheriting Adam’s sin and spiritual death, to our own painful choices, to the injurious wounds sustained from offending relationships – sin has weaved a fragile identity with the yarn of shame-based panic. Then when a situation is detected and analyzed as threating our status of dominant control, emotional narratives flash like lightning through our entire nervous system. Exaggerated thoughts run wild like a stampede of untamed horses. Our panic impulse launches a hyper-reaction of rage, to regain control of that which we fear will be taken or lost.
In contrast, God can’t experience this kind of rage. Because God doesn’t exist in shame, or with the faintest shadows of shame. God is never in panic. God has never lost control. God’s knowledge of everything is perfect - from the past, the present and the future (omniscience). Logically, God has never had a nervous reaction. God has never been surprised. Nothing is hidden from Him.
God has eternally existed with full knowledge of everything. He doesn’t have to study, research or learn. God has full knowledge of every detail of every human opposing God’s law, His nature and His justice from before time existed. It is impossible for Him to “find out things.” He can’t find out what He already knew. Because God exist in full knowledge of human choices, before a sin is even actually committed, He doesn’t have the capacity to be reactive.
God has never, ever lost control of the universe. While He has empowered humans with free moral choices, He has never lost control of His ultimate purpose. He doesn’t fear the possibility of such a loss. He doesn’t question His competence to accomplish His purposes in such a universe.
While we theologically place human filters of understanding onto God, our projections of human characteristics should be seen with clear limitations. As we have seen, God’s wrath is distinct from man’s rage. In the same way, love, joy and peace have nuanced differences. God’s emotions are methodic, purposed, unchanging, holy and perfect. God does possess and express emotion. Emotions are of a spiritual origin, which makes emotions spiritual.
GOD’S JOY & HUMAN HAPPINESS
Another example where we can contrast God’s emotion to human emotion is the idea of joy.
We often think of joy as being stimulated by our desirable and pleasurable circumstances. When something joyful happens, we then feel happy. When a baby is born, a dear friend calls, a job promotion is offered, or the girl says “yes” to our marriage proposal – these all make us feel happy.
However, God is transcendent and immutable by nature, which means that God is outside of space and time. He is eternal and unable to be changed by forces within the universe. He is the Lord God Who changes not. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. This means that God doesn’t depend on circumstances to create His emotional states. God is in a constant state of joy, no matter the circumstances.
It is hard to wrap our limited human, sin-skewed logic and analytics around the idea that God can exist in a state of joy and grief, peace and anger, and love and justice, all at the same time. But He is God. He is Self-existent. He is never reactive. How is it possible for God to react to things when He already knows them? If He has always and eternally known them, from eons of time before they actually happen, how could He be capable of a reaction?
When people project onto God the limitations of their own human experiences of joy, they tend to distort and misrepresent God’s reality. The human tendency is to think that we cannot have joy without the stimulation of pleasurable circumstances. Yet God is unprovoked by circumstances, as His nature exists in full eternal joy.
God’s joy is inherent in His nature. God is emotional. Yet God’s emotions are consistent, predictable, just and holy. His emotions are organized, structured and methodic. His emotions are never reactive, chaotic, erratic, confusing or impulsive.