Emotions: An Essential Part of Who You Are

Last month I attempted to provide a biblical perspective on Disney’s hit movie, “Inside Out” (https://alangilman.ca/2015/07/21/pixars-inside-out-a-biblical-perspective/). At that time I commended the film for how it effectively illustrated the value of a wide array of human emotions, including those that may be regarded as negative, sadness in particular. I went on to explain, however, a weakness in the film’s depiction of human psychology. While likely unintended by the writers, there’s an implication that we are victims of our feelings. My eleven-year-old son certainly got that impression. He heard me referring to how, in the Japanese version of the film, broccoli was replaced by green peppers, because in Japan they relate better to a child being repulsed by green peppers. But according to my son, Riley, the main character in “Inside Out,” wasn’t repulsed by the broccoli (green peppers, if you are in Japan), but rather it was the emotion of disgust that caused her to react that way.

In my attempt last month to correct the notion that we are nothing more than the result of our feelings, I wrote:

Whether or not you regularly experience a battle of emotions within you or you are one of the few who are emotionally balanced, your feelings are not you. You are called to be a child of God, whose identity can only be found in your Creator. You don’t have to be a slave to your emotions. If the Spirit of God lives in you, your emotions will serve you as you serve God.

A good friend of mine, who is also a psychologist, expressed concern over my statement, “your feelings are not you,” thinking I may have been detaching emotions from the human person. If my feelings are not “me,” then what are they? Are they separate from me? Are they illusionary? He and I worked this out over email. He is no longer concerned about what he perceived I was saying.

I would like to clarify what I really meant by “your feelings are not you,” just in case anyone else misunderstood me. But first, I’d like to mention something I realized through my discussion with my friend. I had failed to take into account how people, whole cultures in fact, relate to emotions differently. I grew up in a household where emotions flowed freely. My parents and brothers wore their emotions on their sleeves, on their faces, and every other part of their bodies, often leaving destructive traces of their presence everywhere. It wasn’t all negative, however. My family of origin was also passionately creative and engaging. Everyone was good at telling stories. We talked loud, we laughed loud, and we cried, even the men (actually in my case I had lost the ability to cry, until God restored to me the wonderful gift of tears. But that’s a story for another time). And so I grew up amidst a great deal of emotion. Tragically, too often those emotions were out of control and brought with them much grief. As for my wife, children, and me these past many years, I am glad to say that we have continued the legacy of expressed emotion, but without most of the grief. Not that we co-exist in perfect harmony, but the Lord has given us the grace to, for the most part, channel our various emotions in constructive ways. Forgiveness – something absent earlier in my life – really helps.

Not everyone is accustomed to an overly charged emotional environment as I am. So when I wrote, “your feelings are not you,” I didn’t have in mind people who have experienced the negative consequences of emotions, not from their overuse as I have, but from their underuse instead. Perhaps you were brought up to regard emotions with great suspicion to the point where feelings and desires were never to be indulged or trusted. Even now you may have a difficult time accepting that emotions are a vital part of you (my friend’s point) and that when properly understood, they are an essential aspect of effective living.

One aspect of my communicating an integrated, holistic understanding of the entire Bible is bringing to people’s attention bad filters we consciously or unconsciously have that prevent us from fully engaging the whole Bible. A misunderstanding of the role emotions play is one such filter. Regarding emotions as sinful in themselves cuts us off from much of what God has revealed in his Word. Joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness, the five emotions featured in “Inside Out” are all portrayed in the Bible at various times in a most positive light (I know there are more emotions than this, but I am trying to make a point). Here is a small sampling:

Joy: Adam’s being introduced to Eve for the first time (Genesis 2:23). The Israelites song after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). Nehemiah’s statement about its importance (Nehemiah 8:10). Several Psalms (Psalms 30:11; 100:1-2; 126:3; etc.). Yeshua’s delight at God’s revelation to “little children” (Matthew 11:25). Paul’s command to rejoice (Philippians 4:4).

Anger: King Saul’s righteous anger (1 Samuel 11:6). Elisha’s words to the King of Israel (2 Kings 13:19). Yeshua’s indignation over the disciples preventing children from coming to him (Mark 10:14) and his cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-17). Paul’s confrontation of Peter’s compromise (Galatians 2:11) and his words to the Judaizers (Galatians 5:12).

Disgust: Those things which are an abomination (disgusting thing) to the Lord (Leviticus 18:22). The loathing of the faithless (Psalm 119:158; cf. 139:21), the “lukewarm” that Yeshua spits out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16).

Fear: Many references to fearing God (e.g. Psalm 111:10). Note: I am aware that people tend to reject the idea that fearing God includes an aspect of being afraid, but I think that the emotion of fear is more connected to reverence than we may realize.

Sadness: God himself grieves (Genesis 6:6-7). The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 9:1). Nehemiah was sad in the presence of the King resulting in a positive outcome (Nehemiah 2:1-8). Yeshua wept at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35). Paul was continually sad over the plight of his kinsmen, the Jewish people (Romans 9:1-3). And in the letter in which he calls for continuous joy, he also expresses sorrow (Philippians 2:27).

It would be most helpful to do an emotional study of Scripture. There are few passages that are devoid of feeling even though for some of us we may have to stop and carefully think about what we are reading in order to begin to sense the passion throughout. I doubt that it’s only because of my expressive emotional background that I make the claim: take out emotion from the Bible, and you have nothing left. You might point to supposed unemotional passages such as the genealogies. Maybe you don’t care, but there’s a lot of people out there who have a lot of emotion regarding family trees. And why not? Every name is a story, a link to the past, giving meaning to the present. Maybe if we grasped their importance, we would emote more over them. Remember that Paul needed to write to at least one group of believers and tell them to tone down their interest in genealogies (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 3). And you might find the book of Leviticus boring, but it wasn’t so to the priests of old, who would have gotten into big trouble if they didn’t follow its directions carefully. They would have had feelings about that, not to mention how we would feel if we could only grasp its importance for understanding Yeshua’s sacrifice for us, which is perhaps the most emotional event in all history.

I hope I have made clear what might have been fuzzy last month: emotions are an essential part of us. But that doesn’t mean that we should define ourselves by our emotions. While our feelings may appropriately connect us to other people and our environment, allow us to express ourselves effectively, and be necessary outlets for the events of our lives, they were not designed to master us. Emotions are great when they are a reflection of reality, but they can be misinformed and misguided. Our need of the fruit of the Spirit called, “self-control” (Galatians 5:23), reminds us that there is something other than emotions that should be in the driver’s seat of our lives. The directive “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) implies that we can and should subjugate our emotions for the sake of others.

So don’t be confused. While “your feelings are not you,” they are yours, given to you by God as an aspect of being created in his image. Like every other part of creation, our emotions have been affected by sin. But if we have put our trust in Yeshua as Messiah and Lord, they are being renewed by him that we might learn to express ourselves as the holy children of God we really are.

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