Every person is familiar with the feeling of a knot rising in their stomach, cold tears threatening to leak out of their face, and perhaps equally familiar with the thrill and delight of friendship, of reunion or of success. Emotions are an intrinsic part of being human, but as such, a few very important questions must be asked. What role does God play in the emotions of man? Similarly, what role does sin play in the in the emotions of man? And after these questions have been answered, a third, equally important query is raised; how should Christians understand their emotions?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines emotions as”a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.1” With this broad definition in mind, this paper will began to answer the questions cited above. First it will examine the origin of emotions, namely where they come from, both in the world and in a person. Secondly, it will examine emotions in the Biblical narrative, when used in both a positive and negative light. Finally this paper will seek to provide an outline for the role emotions ought to play in the life of a Christian.
1: Where do Emotions Come From?
A: In Creation
The first question that must be answered is the origin of emotions. To answer this, an astute researcher must begin at the creation of all things as outlined in Genesis and ascertain if emotions had their beginning before, after or during these events. First it shall be asked if emotions originated in God's creation. Of course, emotions as a concept are not named in the created order, but this does not mean they did not originate here. It is assumed by many that Adam and Eve contained the capacity for a wide degree of emotive responses. Some writers would go so far as to say that eliciting emotive responses was part of Adam's created purpose. “Through his intellect, free will, and emotions, man was to be the showcase for God's glorious character. Adam was, therefore, a very important creation to God.2” This sentiment seems to be standard among scholars and is founded upon a twofold assumption. Because emotions are not mentioned in the cursing of man (Genesis 3), and because mankind is made in the image of an emotive God, mankind must have been created as emotional. This assumption has legitimacy because most psychological sin problems are based on “conscious and unconscious conflict.3” This brings about the second are of inquiry, namely, whether emotions originated during the fall of man. Since sin is primarily a twisting of what already had been created (such as sexual desire into lust), and not a creation of anything new, the introduction of this invisible conflict would indicate that mankind had at least the capability for emotional experience prior to the introduction of sin into the world. More than this, the observation has been made that “our Lord and Savior was neither fallen in His nature or sinful in His living, yet He wept. In His humanity, God has given Him a capacity for tearfulness.4” It is probable then, that Adam contained emotional capacity before the Fall. Finally, the question of emotions having existed before Creation must be asked. The question of God's emotional nature will be examined in a moment, but this paper will focus primarily on human emotions. With that in mind, having no conclusive statement from Scripture, it would be logically concluded that emotions have been a part of humanity since humanity's creation.
B: In God
This, of course, raises another issue, and that is the emotional nature of God. It is commonly seen that as God made man in His image He placed emotional capability similar to His own in the heart of man. Examining the character of Jesus is of little help on this issue, because while He was sinless, His emotional responses could easily be written off as having been part of His human nature. God is seen to be angry (Deuteronomy 9:22), He is described as laughing (Psalms 37:13), He has compassion (Judges 2:18), and shares grief (Genesis 6:6). This is not to mention the host of other emotions attributed to God. It is conclusive that throughout the recorded history we have seen interactions with God, He has shown Himself to be an emotional being.
C: In Man
Though emotion has always been a part of humanity's existence, the origin of emotions in a person's daily routine is another question entirely. Would it be possible that a person's feelings spring from their mind, which is known to be in need of renewal (Romans 12:2)? Or would it be preferable to state that emotions come from a person's heart, which is described as “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9)? This of course, raises a deeper theological issue on the nature of humanity, and specifically how many different functional aspects there are to a man. Many have concluded that mankind is made of three parts, the spirit, soul and body.5 Others argue that this, being a Greek concept, is not Biblical. Regardless, Paul wrote that “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Regardless, many experts distinguish between natural (or physical) and spiritual emotions, presumably coming from the various parts of a person. On crying, Olford has written,
“In our consideration of the capacity for tearfulness...first of all, there is the shedding of natural tears. For example, there is the sorrow of parting...but with natural tears, there are also spiritual tears...there are some salutary things that need special attention in this superficial age in which we live.6”
Although this does not address the motivation for emotion, it can be safely concluded that the source of motivations could be from any part of the human psyche. Whether man is a trinity, a singular unit or something else, it is still safe to conclude that emotions come in various forms in a person's life. They are not limited to a singular aspect of humanity's inner workings, but are a response of the person as a whole. Whether a person is affected by something cognitively or spiritually, they will elicit emotions accordingly.
2: Emotions in the Biblical Narrative
Before examining the role emotions should play in the life of a Christian, it will be important to examine the role of emotions in the Biblical narrative. To do this will give insight into their presence throughout the scope of Scripture. It would be impossible to contain every reference to strong feelings, so the following will specifically examine positive and negative emotions within contexts that make it clear whether this is an act of righteousness or unrighteousness. This section will examine the context of each stated emotion to say how they were used in a righteous or unrighteous way throughout the Bible.
To begin, it is worth noting that there is no use of emotions explicitly stated in the Garden of Eden. However, as was discussed earlier, it is logical to assume that there were emotions prior to the fall. Although no explicit statement tells the reader that Adam experienced love or affection for his wife, Christ is said to love the church, typifying perfect marriage (Ephesians 5:25). Thus, logically, Adam's pre-sin marriage must also have contained love.
A1: Righteous Weeping
There are many mentions in the Bible to crying weeping in a contect that is clearly not nrgative or sinful. In fact, several verses portray crying in an extremely positive light, showing it to be an emotion that can be used righteously. It is shown throughout the Old Testament as a means by which certain people entreatied and made requests of God. “And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" (1Samuel 1:8) Hannah's tear-filled prayer would ultimately be answered, and used as a means by which the whole nation of Israel would experience salvation. The prophet Zechariah understood this means of making requests known to God. “Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-melech and their men to entreat the favor of the LORD, saying to the priests of the house of the LORD of hosts and the prophets, "Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?"” (Zechariah 7:2-3). It is clear that Zechariah made weeping, along with abstinence, a habitual part of his holy prayer life. Prayer is not only referred as a part of prayer, but something that God seeks to rectify when He hears. “For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you” (Isaiah 30:19). Weeping is also seen as an element of godly contrition or sorrow. Jeremiah, known as 'the weeping prophet' wrote this, “But if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the LORD's flock has been taken captive” (Jeremiah 13:17). In the New Testament, Jesus makes mention of prayer as part of a righteous person's life in His sermon on the mount. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21b). As was previously stated, of the Son of God Himself spends time crying at the death of His friend, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). As the elders of the church in Acts send Paul off, they are seen elciting the emotion. “And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:37). Paul later writes to Timothy, “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy” (2Timothy 1:4). Throughout these Biblical examples, weeping is seen in a positive light when used in a holy or righteous manner.
A2: Unrighteous Weeping
Weeping is said to accompany the grumbling and complaining of the Isralites in the desert, an act that would be marked as disobedience, and bar them from the Promised Land. Moses asks, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat'” (Numbers 11:13). When God curses Saul and his descendants, he lists weeping, along with death, as one of the punishments. “The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men” (1Samuel 2:33). Nehemiah and Ezra command the people not to weep, for he indicates that it violates a holy day. “And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, 'This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.' For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:9). Finally, at the end of all time, part of God's established peace will be a world without weeping. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). In these verses, crying is seen to be something distinctly negative, or with an unrighteous connotation.
B1: Righteous Frustration
Frustration, or vexation is seen throughout the Scripture. It is described in one case by Ezra as being the work of God Himself. When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work” (Nehemiah 4:15). It is seen that God can not only cause frustration, but He Himself cares for it. “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalms 56:8). In fact, it is specifically stated that “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18). Frustartion and vexation are also seen in the work of Paul as the necessary response when waiting for the work of Christ to be completed. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2).
B2: Unrighteous Frustration
There several instances where frustration, or dismay, is associated with fear. God intends to remove both the frustration along with the fear. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). In these two instances, God specifically commands people not to be dismayed, having associated this with fear.
C1: Righteous Happiness
There has been a longstanding debate in the Christian community over the difference between joy and happiness. Without further allusion to that discussion, it will simply be noted that historically and grammatically there has never been a significant difference, and the two will be referenced synonymously.7 There are many references in the Scripture to rejoicing, joy, happiness, being joyful and laughter. Happiness is seen in the Biblical narrative as a blessing from God. “So Israel lived in safety, Jacob lived alone, in a land of grain and wine, whose heavens drop down dew. Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs” (Deuteronomy 33:28-29). This sentiment of joy as a blessing from God is repeated throughout the Bible. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11). The author of Ecclesiastes writes of joy as something useful to fill one's life with. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12). The author of Proverbs wrote of it in a similarly positive light. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Proverbs 17:22). It is seen as an emotion that accompanies salvation. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). In the New Testament, joy is seen as a work of the Holy Spirit. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13). Jesus Himself made promises of giving joy. “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24). The apostles noted joy as something that was to be accompany avariety of circumstances. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
C2: Unrighteous Happiness
Happiness is portrayed in a negative light, albeit very briefly throughout the Bible. It is shown to sometimes be temporary, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (Proverbs 14:13). Pleasure is described as something that may accompany sin, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25).
D: Conclusion Regarding Emotions in the Biblical Narrative
This insight into the Bibles references to emotions is far from complete. For the sake of space, only a handful of references to each emotion have been used. This is not to mention that a host of emotions have gone altogether unnamed. This list is neither comprehensive nor complete, but simply scratches the surface of the narrative in an attempt to prove a simple point. Emotions on their own are amoral. No single emotion can be seen to be used solely for good or evil. All emotions contain the possibility of being used for both righteousness and unrighteousness.
3: The Response of the Believer
Thus far, this paper has sought to examine the nature of emotions. Namely, it has addressed where they come from, and consequentially that they are a natural part of the human life, created by God. It has also examined the presence of emotions throughout the Biblical texts. This has shown that emotions of themselves are neither good nor evil. With all of this in mind, the final topic for examination is the role of emotions in the life of the believer. What should Christians do with their emotions? The answer to this is as vague as it is practical. They must use them as a means to fulfill the commandment “Be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). Mankind, when told to image an emotional God, is being asked to use every capacity of their humanity, emotions included, to reflect God's character. In Christ, there is a divine model for the reflection of humanity and divinity. One writer put it this way,
“[Jesus] brought divinity into our humanity. But just as significant is what Jesus did in the other direction. He brought humanity into the heart of God. When we say that Christians are the body of Christ, we're not just saying there's a divine dimension to everything Christians do together. We're also saying that the joy, the struggle, the sin, and the pain of human striving on earth are taken up into the life of God.8”
For the Christian, emotions are neither to be feared nor ignored. Rather, they are a part of the human life, placed their by God and empathized with by Christ. All human struggle should be seen as an opportunity to worship God. A conscious mental action or strong feeling is natural way to reflect the holiness of God in a situation. It is no wonder that Paul wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The question then, for the believer, should always be, 'in the situation I am in, what emotion would God elicit, and how?' Their response should reflect a desire to bear the image of God on the earth.
Emotions are an intrinsic part of being human, but totally different from a sinful nature. Emotional responses do not rise from depravity, but are part of the character of God and have been a part of humanity since Creation. They appear in various forms as the cognitive and emotional parts of man respond to various situations. Throughout the Biblical narrative, emotions are seen as amoral. That is, they can be used for both righteousness or unrighteousness. The believer then, is tasked with utilizing emotions as a means to become more holy. As part of God's character, the believer should practice each emotion in the same manner to which God uses it. In this is found a Biblical and theological understanding of emotions.
1Merriam-Webster (Accessed 2016), web source.
2McGee (1998), p. 16.
3Backus (1991), p. 93.
4Olford (1999), p. 52.
5Von Buseck (Accessed 2016), web source.
6Olford (1999), p. 53.
7Reinke (Accessed 2016), web source.
8Wells (2011), p. 139.