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.
CAN GOD BE PROVOKED?
BUT, doesn’t the Bible give examples of God reacting to humans? For instance, God is pleased by faith, grieved by sin, and sits on and inhabits our praises. Doesn’t that mean that He is provoked by circumstances? No, actually it doesn’t. Because God has perfect knowledge of everything – past, present and future – He already knows everything about each and every one of us, and the decisions we will make.
Because of our human limitations and finite understanding of an infinite, eternal God – sometimes the language of the text implies God is being reactive. Again, this is anthropomorphism.
To create a profile of God, giving Him the potential of provocation or reactivity, we enter many systemic theological conflicts. Here are a few:
· God is eternal, which means He is outside of time and space.
· God is transcendent, which means He is independent of the universe.
· God is love, which means His nature will never be intermingled with non-love.
· God is good, which means He can never be or do evil.
· God is immutable, which means He is unchanging.
All of these divine attributes are incompatible with provocation or reactivity.
How then do we make sense of texts that express that “faith pleases God,” or that He is “grieved by sin,” or that He “inhabits our praises”?
“Faith pleases God”: Our choices of faith aren’t new experiences for God; He knew you and your faith activations before creation itself. The concept of our faith being a pleasure to God is an invitation for us to feel, know, and be seen in the pleasure that God has eternally had towards faith, universally for all people. God is revealing Himself and wants us to mutually and emotionally experience the pleasure He has towards us personally and specifically. His pleasure wasn’t provoked, it was eternally existing, and eternally connected to His relationship with faith. We are invited to emotionally share in that reality.
“God is grieved by our sin”: Our choices to sin aren’t new experiences for God; He has known it in full display of heart and soul from the before we were born. In the same way God is pleased in relationship to faith, God’s grief at human sin is God making Himself known. God doesn’t start up the engines of grief when a person sins, He has always and eternally been grieved by sin. The text reveals His grief to us as an invitation to feel, know and be seen in mutual emotional connection to God. God desires we unify our hearts with His. This is where relationships are enriched through shared experiences. God’s grief wasn’t provoked or reactive. His grief is eternally associated with sin, universally, for all people. We are invited to emotionally share in this reality.
“God inhabits our praises”: God inhabiting, or sitting upon our praises is true in the sense that we can become aware of His abiding, gracious omnipresence. Omnipresence means that God is everywhere, throughout time and eternity. If God is everywhere, and as the Psalmist said, “Where can I go from your presence?”, then how can God inhabit space that He has already inhabited from eternity till now? These textual ideas of God inhabiting human praises is an invitation to us to enter God’s eternal and universal feelings towards praises. Our response to this invitation brings an anticipated shared experience, rehearsed by God’s revealed attitudes and joyful acceptance of us, bringing about mutual intimacy. Once again, God is not provoked or reactive.
What about those texts that say, “Israel provoked God in the desert”? I would suggest that we slow down and remember that systematic theology cannot have conflicts within the system, and the theological construct to continue in its viability. If God’s nature and attributes are in conflict with His provocation and reactivity, then we have to back up, consider innovating our ideas, without dishonoring the perfect nature of the inerrant Biblical text itself. I believe the above logic preserves God’s attributes, and makes sense of the text.
Emotions originate in God’s nature. Humans are made in God’s likeness and image. God is a spirit, revealing Himself as spiritual, which makes it spiritual to have emotions and be emotional.
In future e-newsletters we will continue this exploration with the following ideas:
· Emotions are purposed and can be studied.
· Emotions are experiential – You can’t have an experience without an emotional component.
· Emotions move us to action.
· Emotions are information centers designed to flag us of deeper processings.
· “Emotionalism” is not the same as “emotional”.
· The devil targets emotions but the emotions are our gifts, not our enemy.
· Emotions aren’t what randomly happen TO us; they are to happen WITH us.
· And more
QUESTIONS TO REFLECT ON
What skill level do you presently have for following the emotional narrative-trail to find the deepest part of disruptive and misaligned thought roots?
How will you take “next steps” to mature in emotional intelligence?
Who will you invite to guide you in your journey?