Jason knew staff meeting typically began with a moment of recognition for jobs well done, but today he squirmed as his colleagues heaped praise on Michael. They were friendly rivals, so there was no reason to be upset. Last week Michael learned that his father had cancer and everyone wanted to support him. Jason knew this, yet as people went on and on about Michael, his distress grew. Fifteen minutes later, on the third agenda item, he blew up—and he knew why. Why am I so emotional? he asked himself that night. But Jason’s distress is no mystery. His gods—self-worth, competence, career—were threatened.
In moments like these, we tend to tell ourselves, Don’t be so emotional. But Jason’s problems began with his heart, not his emotions. Yes, emotions are fallen, but no more fallen or sinful than any other faculty. Jason didn’t lose his temper because of a conflict between his rational mind and irrational emotions. He sinned as a whole person.
Our emotions are an essential element of human nature, part of God’s plan for a happy humanity. Healthy emotions are God’s gift, just like a good mind, will, spirit, or body. There is a time for each emotion—“a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance . . . a time to love and a time to hate” (Eccl. 3:4–5, 8).
Driven by the Heart
Emotions are heart-driven responses to events that feel important to us. Emotions both reflect and also stir the whole person—mind and body. They are a window to the heart. They express the inner workings of the spirit. When we get upset, instead of saying, “Don’t be so emotional,” we should ask, “Why does this event arouse strong emotions?” Instead of rejecting emotions, we should explore them and instruct them. Like our words, our emotions flow from our hearts.
In his book Spiritual Emotions, Robert Roberts wisely calls emotions “concern-based construals,” meaning we “get emotional” when we care deeply about the way events affect us. Suppose someone shouts and rushes toward you with a sword. Your emotions will depend on how you construe the situation. Are you alone in a lawless city? On stage, at the start of an action sequence? At a family picnic with an adorable nephew?
Imagine your phone rings; Rachel is calling. Rachel’s call can bring joy, angst, or indifference, depending on your relationship with her. So while our emotions do come over us, they don’t simply come over us. They flow from the heart. No wonder Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Or suppose your team loses a big game. Whether you're a spectator or an athlete, if you’re devastated, you should listen to your emotions and ask, “Why am I so upset? Does my team take up so much space in my heart? Are the right things in the center of my life?” Roberts explains:
The emotional person . . . is weak not because he has emotions, but because he has such poor ones, or such a limited repertoire. The concerns his emotions go back to are momentary, primitive, immature, badly ordered. He lacks personal integration and depth not because he feels strongly, but because his feelings are erratic and chaotic, or because he feels strongly about the wrong things.
Evil emotions, like evil desires, come from an evil heart. When the Pharisees slandered Jesus, he explained: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Their hatred of Jesus led to slander and murder.
Good Gift from God
Despite many instances of trouble, emotions are God’s good gift. We tend to demonize emotions when they go wrong, but every faculty can go wrong. A fallen mind rationalizes wicked acts. A fallen will grasps whatever it desires. The mind, will, and emotions all fail, but all are fallen gifts.
We have emotions because God has emotions. Some say God can’t have real emotions because he doesn’t change: “I the LORD do not change” (Mal. 3:6; cf. 1 Sam. 15:29). But that doesn’t mean God feels nothing; it means his feelings are consistent. He doesn’t lose his temper or lapse into depression. In his masterful review of Jesus’s emotions, B. B. Warfield rightly asserts that Jesus experienced “all sinless human emotions.” We may know them “only as passions” that lead us astray, but Jesus could become angry without becoming enraged. He could love a person without selfishness.
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer says God’s emotions are covenantal—that is, faithful, stable, and grounded in his concern for his creation and his people. His feelings are consistent (James 1:17). When God sees evil, he is not angry one time and blasé the next. He cares in the right way about the right things.
And that should be our goal, too.
Steward Your Emotions
Let’s briefly apply this principle to emotions about sports. People are prone to say God doesn’t care about colds, lost kittens, and basketball games (many are disgusted by athletes who praise God for victory). But a robust view of God declares that he cares about basketball and cares the right way. He starts with the athletes. He grieves if basketball becomes their idol or if they play dirty. He is glad if they play selflessly, if they do their best, if they take pleasure in their God-given bodies, and enjoy teamwork and camaraderie.
Naturally, the Lord cares most—feels the most emotion—about the great things. That is why we often read of God’s anger toward sin (1 Kings 15:30) and his love and compassion for his people (Deut. 7:7–9; Exod. 34:6; Ps. 103:13). His compassion moves him to make covenants, send Jesus, and renew us by his Spirit—sparking joy on earth and in heaven, and songs from the Lord himself (Luke 15:3–10; Zeph. 3:17).
So let’s assess and steward our emotions. If our sense of humor, for example, leads us astray—if our quip is funny and wounding—we don’t think, Don’t be so funny; we try to redirect our humor. If we overthink an issue, likewise, the cure is not to stop thinking, but to think more wisely. And when it comes to our emotions, the key is to care in the right way about the right things.
Foolish emotions, such as caring too much about televised sports, dissipate our energy. Healthy emotions drive us to devote ourselves to good causes, like removing injustices or loving family more faithfully. The Triune God has an emotional life, clearly visible in our Savior’s joys and sorrows. Jesus experienced every sinless emotion, and so we, remade in his image, can have noble emotions too.