Think of emotions as a language. They say something—something very important—and part of our job is to figure out what they are saying.

Sometimes the interpretation is easy. A friend says, “I feel so afraid.” She is saying that a threat looms over something that is important to her.

Got it. We hear her correctly. Now there is much we can do. We want to know more about the real or perceived threat, and we want to know how to bring God’s words to her heart. But the message is fairly clear.

Sometimes the meaning is harder to decipher. When my eight-month-old granddaughter cries, what is she trying to tell us? Since she does not have a large range of sounds, there could be a dozen different messages.

  • Leave me alone, I want Mom.
  • My leg is caught in the crib again.
  • I am hungry.
  • My brothers are trying to smother me with love.
  • I like hearing my noises.
  • Carrots are not among my favorite foods.
  • This is way too much stimulation for me.
  • My grandfather is the best.

And so on.

In a similar way, our emotional language is often not very precise. There are only eight or so families of emotions, and a lot gets packed into them. Sometimes we don’t even know what is going on inside ourselves. The psalmist asks, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Ps 42:5). If we don’t even know the emotional language of our own soul, how can we discern the intent of those around us? Is it shame that inhabits their fears? Is fear the core of their despondency? And though the meaning of their anger might seem obvious—“I am not getting what I want” (James 4:1–2)—anger can also be fear, self-protection, shame, despair, aloneness, and more. To complicate things a little more, a disrupted body and brain can send emotional signals that simply say, “I am sick.”

With all this in mind, here are a few clear guidelines.

  1. Scripture consistently identifies our emotions as matters of our hearts, which is another way of saying that they are important and we should pay attention to them. They usually reveal our true selves, and we hope to know each other in that deeper way.
  2. If someone close to us expresses strong emotions, we should do something. We might ignore the temper tantrum of a child, but if friends or spouses have shared that something is especially hard or good, we are moved by what they feel and want to know more. Otherwise, it might be the last time someone is willing to be open with you.
  3. Since emotions can be complex and give mixed messages, we hope to understand how and why someone feels as they do, in a way that they understand their own hearts a little better and feel known.

Figuring out the message in someone’s emotions may take time and commitment, but it is a great work of love and leads us in that process of knowing and being known, which is a key feature of the kingdom of heaven.