As the kids piled into the minivan after the new Pixar film Inside Out, I couldn’t help but imagine the personified emotions busy behind the control panels of their minds—anger at not getting the best seat, disgust at a younger sibling wiping things from his nose onto his shirt, joy at talking about a favorite scene.
That’s what’s so compelling about this movie. Inside Out is sort of a neo-allegory of what we experience in life. The five big emotions that earned a roster spot in the film are Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness. Each is brilliantly cast to evoke familiar character types in pop culture—Joy, the de facto deputy director of the bunch, is played by Amy Poehler; Disgust by the contemptuous Mindy Kaling; Fear by the preposterous Bill Hader; Anger by the gravel-voiced Lewis Black; and Sadness by Phyllis Smith, whose voice is the essence of melancholy.
These characters both cooperate and clash with one another as they direct the behavior of a little girl named Riley, who is navigating the complexities of a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The dynamic between the world outside Riley’s head and the emotional competition inside is insightful and hilarious. This is a well-researched, creative display of daily experience that parents and kids will love.
Value of Emotions
The main premise of the movie is spot-on: we should be aware of our emotions, and each emotion has value. Joy, the quarterback of the team, believes it’s their collective goal to make Riley always happy. When Sadness tries to have a word, Joy responds with sweet control: “This is really the opposite of what we’re going for.” [Mild spoiler alert] But, through a series of events, she learns that Sadness has a necessary role too (and by implication, so do Fear, Anger, and Disgust). The audience sees by the end that happiness is not the only goal of emotional health.
And that’s a good lesson that a biblical theology of personhood would agree with. The full spectrum of emotion is part of our design, and should be acknowledged and expressed in healthy ways. But to what end do we acknowledge our emotions? To simply find the value in our sadness as well as our joy?
Theology of Emotions
While Inside Out overstates the primacy of emotion in human motivation, the movie nevertheless helpfully forces the audience to acknowledge that emotions make up a major part of why we do what we do. For Christians, acknowledging this is vital to discipleship, which requires that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). In other words, Christians value emotions because they are part of how God designed us to worship him.
Here’s what I mean: emotions are the dynamic gauges of what we value. When we feel an emotion regarding something, we are making a statement of its value. Emotions reveal desires. So joy shows we just received something we value. Disgust is the opposite. Sadness can show we’ve lost something we want. Anger shows we perceive a threat to something we want. Fear is a similar reaction. Emotions are the colorful expression of our hearts’ desire. The movie comes to its climax when Riley finally expresses to her parents that she wanted to be home in Minnesota. Her emotions had been a multi-hued expression of that desire.
God designed our hearts to desire what he desires. We were made to find joy in what he finds joy in, be disgusted by what he’s disgusted by, be saddened by what grieves him, be angered by what angers him, and fear the things he identifies as threatening. In other words, our desires—and the emotions expressed by them—worship God as they imitate his.
The main hindrance is that our hearts are inclined to find joy in what he hates, to be disgusted by what he says is good, to be fearful of what he says brings life. Our emotions are corrupted by our fallen condition. And we need the redemption of Jesus Christ, the only one who managed his emotions perfectly to the glory of God by valuing what God valued. Just read Matthew 26:36–46 for a stirring description of Jesus’s emotional obedience.
This movie can be a great conversation starter with your kids about their emotions. Inside Out creatively portrayed the dynamics of how emotions work. But the film is unable to show their ultimate significance. Kids need to understand a greater complexity to emotion than any movie can capture: emotions are good indicators of what we’re wanting, and we are called to trust God with our wants.
Let me suggest a few steps to help kids apply this when they experience various emotions as they grow:
- Help them recognize different emotions. “What are you feeling right now—anger, sadness, disappointment, jealousy?”
- Help them recognize what their emotions indicate they’re wanting. “What does your anger show you’re wanting right now?”
- Help them trust God with their desires. “How does God want you to trust him with the things you’re wanting?”
Emotional health is not merely finding constructive ways to value and express each emotion we experience. Rather, emotional health means, by faith in Jesus Christ, valuing the things God values, and allowing the colorful spectrum of our emotions to show it.
I’ve often wondered if in heaven we’ll be able to better understand the sweeping landscape of Jesus’s mind as he experienced the world as one of us. While Inside Out can’t come close to such a goal, it certainly whets the appetite to see what perfect emotional health looks like.