Emotions are curious things. They come in a variety of flavors, both positive and negative. Negative emotions often seem to show up uninvited and stay long after their usefulness. Positive ones seem to never wear out their welcome and are gone far too soon. They are part of our humanity, part of our being created in the image of God.
As Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” he might just as well have said, “I feel therefore I am.”
Emotions are a part of us; we cannot escape them, though some of us try. I often try to hide my emotions or deny them, stuff them in a box inside. Other people seem to live out of their emotions, riding on a rollercoaster of extremes—joy or sorrow, gladness or anger, excitement or lethargy.
We don’t have to just live with our emotions—we can use them to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But how? Aren’t emotions just feelings? Aren’t emotions more or less outside of our control?
We “just feel” in response to ... what? I wake up one morning and I feel sad. I am stuck in traffic on the way to work and I become anxious. My wife challenges a decision that I made and I feel angry. I receive a compliment and I am proud. I have the day off to sit down with a good book and I’m filled with joy. Emotions just are, aren’t they?
Don’t shortchange your emotions; they are a window to the heart—much more than just feelings that cause your body to tingle, your palms to sweat, or your muscles to tense. Your emotions are a very real part of you, part of the essence of you, the you that is the core of your inner being, and what the Bible most frequently refers to as the “heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, Psalm 139:23, Acts 15:8).
Through the window of your emotions you can see what has captured your heart, what is ruling the heart, what you worship. Does your heart seek the praise of man or seek to be pleasing to God? Does God sit on the throne of your heart or are you asserting yourself in opposition to his rule? Do you worship the creation or the Creator?
Here’s an example: I come home from work one evening, tired and looking forward to a quiet evening at home. No sooner am I in the door than my wife reminds me that we need to leave in five minutes to have dinner with some friends.
Unfortunately my mouth spews forth a litany of lies. “Why are you always making plans for us? Can’t we ever just have one night at home?” Or maybe I just develop an attitude; I become quiet, sullen, and distant. Both of these responses are sinful and are at least accompanied by strong emotions, if not emotionally driven. And when I recognize how sinful they are, I need to repent of them and seek my wife’s forgiveness.
The problem is that I repent of the words or the attitude but seldom look below the surface to examine the heart that gave birth to my sin—let’s call it the sin beneath the sin.
So how does this work practically? Let’s examine some of the emotions that might be behind these sinful responses. A few prime candidates might be disappointment, anger, frustration, or weariness. These could be present alone, all together, or in any combination.
I need to ask myself, What do my emotions tell me? Why am I disappointed? Why am I angry? Why the frustration or the weariness? Perhaps it’s that I like comfort and ease. Both are morally neutral, good things—good gifts given by God. But in my heart I assign them a value they were never meant to have. I treasure the gift more than the Giver. I have placed another god on the throne of my heart. With this insight, the Spirit begins to work a deeper repentance.
Thoughtful examination of emotions can work toward sanctification. My hurtful words and huffy attitude toward my wife, while sinful and serious, are really just small indicators of a bigger issue, “What is my treasure?” My emotions offer a window to look into my heart to see what I am really thinking and believing. In that moment, my comfort was my treasure and my god.
Correcting this wrongful thinking, reclaiming my true treasure, repenting of this idolatry, is far more helpful in my sanctification than simply repenting of my words or my attitude toward my wife. The offense of those words and actions against my wife pale in comparison to what they say about my God.
Through the window of our emotions we can see the idols of our hearts.
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.—Matthew 12:34–35
Learning with you to use our emotions as a window to the treasures of our hearts,
Pastor for Covenant Member Care