Emotions: Why Do We Feel What We Feel?
Note from Bob: You’re reading Part 2 of a blog mini-series on emotions. For Part 1, read Emotions: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.
For what purpose and function did God design our emotions? The root of the word emotion is motere, the Latin verb “to move,” plus the prefix “e” meaning “to move away.” This suggests that a tendency to act is implicit in every emotion.
All emotions are, in essence, inclinations to act and react. God designed our emotions to put us in motion. They represent an inner response that motivates outward action—emotions signal the mind to go into high gear. To understand this biblically, let’s consider 1 Peter 5:7-8.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:7-8).
We often fail to relate these two verses even though they are back to back in Scripture. Anxiety, like all emotions, is an emotion that motivates us to act. Our emotions and our mind sense something that we perceive to be dangerous—a threat. We can respond to that anxiety-provoking situation with fear of man or self-protection—that would be a fallen emotional response.
Or, we can respond to that anxiety-provoking situation by casting our anxiety on Him and by being alert and vigilant—that is a creation and redemption emotional response. We could describe the creation side of anxiety as vigilance—the ability to pick up on cues in our world and respond in a God-dependent, other-protecting way.
Thus, we don’t have to see emotions, including anxiety, only as a sinful emotion. We could take what Paul said in Ephesians 4 about anger and paraphrase it from 1 Peter with anxiety:
“Be ye anxious, but sin not. Instead, when your emotional sensors pick up a threat, especially a spiritual threat, then cast your anxiety upon the Lord. As you do, use your anxiety to warn yourself to keep alert and vigilant. Don’t be like Adam in the garden who went off sentry duty when the serpent tempted him Eve. Instead, be like Christ who was always on sentry duty to protect His disciples against the subtle attacks of the Evil One.”
Instead of seeing emotions as only evil or fallen, we need to understand that God designed emotions to play a crucial role that forces us to do a double-check, to look outward and inward. Emotions are our “inner sentinel” that connects us to our inner and outer world.
So, we can provide a working definition of emotions:
- Emotions are our God-given capacity to connect our inner and outer world by experiencing our world and responding to those experiences.
- Our emotional capacity includes the ability to internally experience and respond to a full-range of both positive (pleasant) and negative (painful) inner feelings.
A Biblical Model for Understanding Our Emotional Responses
To more fully understand our emotions, we need an introduction to how God designed our inner person.
We’ve said that God designed us as emotional beings. However, that does not mean that we are only or primarily emotional beings. Nor does it mean that our emotions are meant to control us. Instead, God designed us so that our emotions submit to and respond to our beliefs and convictions.
*What we believe (Romans 12:1-2) (Rational Direction)
*About God and life (Psalm 42:1-2) (Spiritual Affection)
*Provides the direction we choose to pursue (Joshua 24:15) (Volitional Motivation), and
*Directs our experiential response (Ephesians 4:17-19) (Emotional Reaction) to our world.
Let’s think again about how this plays itself out in 1 Peter 5:7-8. The context of 1 Peter is a Christian response to suffering and persecution. Notice the key to how we respond to suffering—it’s in the phrase “because He cares for you.” Our belief (rational direction) about God (spiritual affection)—that He cares for us—is what motivates our godly response—casting our cares on God and vigilantly resisting the devil (volitional motivation) to feelings of anxiety (emotional reaction). Godly beliefs (rational direction) lead to godly affections (spiritual affections) which in turn lead to godly motivation and actions (volitional motivation), and ultimately result in Christlike emotions (emotional reactions).
God Designed Our Emotions to Interact with Our Inner and Outer World
Now let’s take this introductory theology of our inner life and consider a practical biblical model for understanding emotions:
- E.S. + I.P. = E.R.
- Our External Situation plus our Internal Perception leads to our Emotional Response.
Picture our emotions like this:
- Negative Situation (ES) + Biblical Belief (IP) = Legitimate Painful Emotion (ER) (Sorrow, Sadness, etc.)
- Negative Situation (ES) + Unbiblical Belief (IP) = Illegitimate Painful Emotion (ER) (Hatred, Despair, etc.)
- Positive Situation (ES) + Biblical Belief (IP) = Legitimate Positive Emotion (ER) (Joy, Peace)
- Positive Situation (ES) + Unbiblical Belief (IP) = Illegitimate Positive Emotion (ER) (Pride, Self-Sufficiency, etc.)
Your boss says to you, “You blew it.” Your emotions react to this external event and to your internal beliefs. What if you had a biblical belief: “I enjoy my boss’s approval, but I don’t need it, and I know that in Christ I am accepted by God”? Then you will respond with legitimate painful emotions such as sorrow, disappointment, or remorse (if you were truly in the wrong).
On the other hand, what if “fear of man” is a besetting sin in your heart? What if you believe that, “I must have my boss’s approval”? Then you would likely respond with illegitimate negative emotions such as uncontrolled anger, depression to the point of despair, hopelessness, or hatred.
On the other hand, let’s say your boss says to you, “You always do A+ work!” You could respond to that positive external situation with a biblical belief like, “I live for an audience of One—Christ, and I am glad that my Christlike work ethic glorifies my heavenly Father.” You would then experience positive legitimate emotions like peace, joy, and contentment.
On the other hand, if your boss says, “You always do A+ work,” and you live for the praise of man, then you might experience illegitimate positive emotions like pride and arrogance.
The key to our emotional reaction is our belief or perception about the meaning behind the event. Thus, events determine whether our emotions are pleasant or painful, while longings, beliefs, and goals determine whether our emotional reaction is holy or sinful.
For Reflection and Application
Ponder a current situation you’re facing. Use our model to assess the situation and your emotional response. Your External Situation plus Your Internal Perception leads to Your Emotional Response.
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