07. EMOTIONS ARE SPIRITUAL, PURPOSED AND CAN BE STUDIED
God is an emotional being. Emotions are not unspiritual; on the contrary, they are spiritual. If emotions were unspiritual than God, who is a spirit, would be incompatible with emotions. We know God and emotions are compatible, therefore emotions are spiritual. To understand more about the contrasts between God’s and human emotions see last month’s (September) eNewsletter “Are Your Feelings Unspiritual?”
Our emotions are designed by God, and therefore serve an intended purpose. From a brain perspective, neurons firing with neurons are the technical underpinnings of thoughts. A common mantra is, “When neurons fire together, they wire together.” This means that when we have continual activations of neurons with other neurons, they will build a kind of brain-circuit, or highway. The more they are firing together the stronger that circuit becomes, and the more paved the highway becomes.
When neurons fire together, they release brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) that are the technical underpinnings of emotions and feelings. These circuits run through our brains into our brain stem and nervous system, then down through every organ and tissue of our body. Emotions aren’t just feelings; they are embodied experiences. We carry emotions in our whole body.
Because of a lack of understanding, many have kept emotions in a vague, indistinct, intangible, and unscientific space. Kind of like skunk spray, you don’t know where it is, but you for sure don’t want to get any on you. Yet emotions can be seen in fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans by watching and matching brain activity and biomarkers, all in real time.
Emotions can, for the most part, be observed, studied, analyzed, and repeated. While the scientific community is still working through consensus on various aspects of emotions, there are many legitimate handles that scientific discovery has gifted us with. This means that emotions are designed to not just happen to us, but they are designed to happen with us. When we understand emotions as a gift from God, we can then functionally manage them, stimulate them and increase our quality of experiences because of them.
EMOTIONS ARE EXPERIENTIAL
Any human experience has an emotional aspect to it. All our memories are either housed in our emotional brains (limbic system), or they are interactive with our emotional brains (all other parts of the brain).
Consider this: A human to human relationship that is not experiential is actually not a relationship at all. We cannot have relationships without emotional experiencing. Bonding happens when oxytocin, a hormone, is secreted. Oxytocin is called the “love hormone.” It is released in activations of empathy, compassion and gratitude. When oxytocin is released by both humans, attachment happens. Emotional bonds are formed. This is emotional.
When we worship God, groomed in advance for the anticipation of His delights in us, His love for us and generous nurture of our overall needs, our brains release oxytocin. This is how our spirit, soul and body bonds to God. God designed our brains and nervous systems to carry our worship holistically through our entire body and being.
The same is true of when we read our Bibles. If we read the Bible as love letter from God, revealing His heart and soul to us, we will experience oxytocin washing over our body. Then we feel bonded to the Word. Over years when we return to various texts, we trigger memories of times God spoke to us out of that exact text, and emotions surge again. We are attaching to the Bible as a precious and valued love letter. This is how the Psalmist experienced God’s Word, “It is like honey on my lips.”
The neurochemicals in our brains create experiences for our entire body and being. Consider again: A human to human relationship that is not experiential is not actually a relationship at all. We cannot have relationships without emotional conditioning.
Relationship emotions cause us to experience desire, hope, preoccupation, anticipation, vulnerability, trust, joy, laughter, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, patience, kindness, peace, contentment, and so much more. All of these experiences are individually a cocktail mix of emotional happenings. More specifically, each experience only happens with the secretion and release of neurochemicals to give us feelings.
Things like trust and distrust, faith and doubt, love and fear, intimacy and self-preservation, hope and contempt, dreams and depression – all are embedded in emotional circuits. As I stated above, we cannot even have desire for someone or something without emotional formation.
Are emotions spiritual? Are they important?
We don’t have to journey far before we meet someone who diminishes the need for emotions. They may say, “I’m not an emotional person. I’m logical.” And when you bump into their personality it feels like you have thumped into a thick, rigid shell, their armor, revealing only a form of themselves that they want you to know them as.
But logic and intellectualism aren’t all that unemotional.
People who diminish their need for emotions usually have sustained relational and emotional injuries over a lifetime. They need higher levels of structure, predictability and logic-based security to mitigate the anxiety they feel in social settings, or in professional projects, or in religious circles. The great need for logic, and the aversion to emotional experience, isn’t always because God gifted us with cognition; it is often the escape, hyper-management and seeking control of environments so that a person feels safe physically, socially or spiritually. The diminishing of emotions is a learned tactic that has become a protective armor to their personality.
For those who pride themselves as being analytical rather than emotional, it may be surprising to find out that it is an emotional influence that drives them to be analytical. The desire to understand or find logical meaning around something is all driven by interactive neurochemicals (emotions). Again, desire itself is an emotional processing of chemicals.
Even learning and memory retention aren’t all that unemotional.
Remember back in elementary mathematics classes, while we were putting analytical equations together, even if we didn’t know it was happening, neurons were firing and releasing neurochemicals that supported our memory. Emotions play a critical role even in mathematical cognition and learning.
Spiritual enlightenment experiences like dreams, angelic appearances, and visions of heaven aren’t all that unemotional.
The Apostle Paul told of a time he was caught into the heavens, “whether in the body or not, I cannot tell.” He said he had heard things from the Lord that are impossible to articulate. What an experience! However, when he came back into his body on this planet the entire memory and experience was fused with emotional neurochemicals.
Even when we get to heaven, without our human body and the physical brain, we will have emotions. We don’t know how emotions without a physical body works, but we know that God has emotions without a physical body, and we will too. We will rejoice. We will be glad. However, we may not present anger because there won’t be injustice. We might not present anxiety because we will live with full trust in God’s control. We won’t strive for survival and belonging, so peace will be pervasive.
Again, emotions are experiential. It is impossible to have an experience – to learn something, do something, believe something, or say something – without having emotions coalescing it.
If it is a human experience, it is emotional. To say it another way: As a human, it is impossible to have an experience without the amalgamation of emotions. Everything we experience - our perceptions to our actions to our choices to our personalities to our learnings – are all motivated by our thoughts (neurons) and emotions (neurochemicals).
Emotions originate in God’s nature. Humans are made in God’s likeness and image. God is a spirit, revealing Himself as spiritual. It is spiritual to have emotions and be emotional. Then feelings are spiritual.
However, emotions aren’t designed to be our governing authority. Emotions are designed to be gauges, signals and indicators of things. Emotions are designed to give us impetus, energy, motivation and constancy.
Our governing authority as Christians is God’s Word, truth and facts. When we have dissonance between truth and our emotions, we are to explore into our brains firings to see what “the roots” of it are. In this context, emotions tell us something is off. We then can address the dissonance at the root with truth, logic and facts. We do this through Biblical therapies called the “spiritual disciplines.” Then the truth will make us free and reprocess our emotions.
The bottom line is that emotions aren’t our enemy, or something to be shunned or suppressed. You can succeed in suppressing for a season, but they will always spring up and trouble, or defile you. Renewing the mind must include aligning emotions with our truth. This process isn’t random. God made our brains to work where we manage it to this end.
SEGWAY TO FUTURE ENEWSLETTERS
In future e-newsletters we will continue this exploration with the following ideas:
· Emotions move us to action.
· Emotions are information centers designed to flag us of deeper processing.
· “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?