Help! I’m Having a Feeling...
Are you emotional? If you said yes, does that sound like a bad thing to be called? For many years, my understanding of emotions could be described something like this:
“Joy is good, but most other emotions are dangerous threats to godliness. Most emotions need to be ignored. You should be suspicious of your feelings, especially if you’re a girl; feelings are usually wrong. Listening to your feelings is a sure recipe for disaster.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Jeremiah 17:9 misapplied and taken out of context to back up the paragraph above: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
If you’ve been taught something similar, maybe you have questions about emotions too. Is being emotional incompatible with godliness? What should we do with our emotions?
God Has Feelings
Even though emotions have been given a bad rap in some Christian circles, the Bible gives us a surprisingly different story. In the very beginning of Genesis, we read about how human beings were created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Then, from Genesis to Revelation, we see the story of God unfolding. And guess what? The God we meet within those pages is powerfully . . . emotional. He experiences deep pain and distress (Eph. 4:30, Matt. 26:37), desire and jealousy (James 4:5), delight and pleasure (Ps. 149:4, Prov. 12:22, Isa. 42:1, Ps. 147:11), indignation (Isa. 66:14), love and sorrow (Zeph. 3:17, Ps. 86:15, Eph. 4:30).
Did you catch the significance of these connections? We’re made in God’s image; we have feelings because God has feelings.
What About Sin?
Once I started to see God’s emotions in the Bible, I became confused. Maybe God’s emotions are good, I thought, but ours are bad because we’re sinful. What about Jeremiah 17:9, right? “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”
Let’s hold on there; this isn’t a verse proving that emotions are bad. Jeremiah 17, like all passages of Scripture, needs to be understood in context—and we need to let the Bible interpret the Bible. Ezekiel 36:36, for example, is a prophecy about the New Covenant, when God will give His people a “new heart.” If we’ve been given new life through Jesus, how can our hearts be “beyond cure”? Don’t we love and worship God with our “heart, soul, mind and strength” (Matt. 22:37)?
Although the Bible is clear that we can sin with our emotions (and be deceived by them), “emotion” is a neutral word—a lot like the word “sex.” Sex was originally designed by God to be good, beautiful, and pure—and it is. At the same time, we know that the good gift of sex can also be abused in a sinful way. It’s harmful if we think sex is dirty because of the ways it can be misused, and it’s harmful if we call emotions bad because of the way they can be misused.
Think of David, a man “after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). Read the Psalms, and you’ll see the full gamut of human emotions there. The prophets wept freely. Jesus Himself was deeply emotional.
In fact, the fruit of the Holy Spirit has a distinctly emotional component. Check out Galatians 5:22–23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Do you think these fruits are experienced without feelings?
Of course, the Bible also makes it clear that some emotions do need to be “put off.” These include rage, envy, and discontentment (Col. 3:8, 1 Peter 2:1). We are not called to act on everything we feel, because our feelings (unlike God’s!) don’t always reflect holiness or truth. So how should we respond when our feelings aren’t aligning with the truth? My advice: listen to your heart.
A Better Way to Listen to Your Heart
When I say “listen to your heart,” I don’t mean, “Do whatever you feel like doing.” If you’re experiencing (unrighteous) anger, and you feel like hurting someone, it isn’t okay to unleash a torrent of cutting words.
There’s another way to “listen.” This kind of listening doesn’t mean accepting everything you hear as truth; it means active engagement with your emotions. This second kind of listening means asking thoughtful, digging questions.
So let’s go back to the unrighteous anger example. With a simplistic “feelings are bad!” approach, we might just try to stuff the anger away and try to make it disappear. We might ignore it or try to talk ourselves out of it. That won’t get you very far, though—and it certainly won’t resolve any deeper issues.
Instead, we can pray through our feelings like David did. We can ask God why we’re feeling the way we’re feeling. When we treat emotions this way, our feelings can become incredibly helpful allies in the war against sin.
Think of it like this: If your arm is broken, it is going to throb with pain. The pain alerts you to the fact that something needs to be healed, and it prompts you to go to the doctor for a solution. If you just said “pain is bad” and tried to ignore it, you wouldn’t be solving the problem the pain was trying to tell you about. Emotions function in much the same way; they’re our God-given alert system, and we would do well to pay close attention to them.
So if your heart is angry, listen closely—not in order to act on the anger by lashing out, but to understand where the anger is coming from. Then, once God shows you the root, you can go to work with Him toward healing. And if your heart is anxious, listen closely; why are you anxious? What are you believing? Are those beliefs true? If your heart is full of desire, pause to consider what you’re desiring and why. What is your desire telling you about what you value and what you hope for?
God created us to be people who reflect His nature through our feelings. Instead of trying to pretend our emotions don’t exist, let’s bring our feelings to the Father who gave them to us . . . and learn to understand their underlying causes. In doing this, we can bring Him much glory.
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