Emotions are tricky. Everyone has them. Everyone struggles with them. Many struggle with how they feel more than anything else in their lives. Then there is the sea of other people’s emotions in which all of us swim. I suspect most of us consider emotions to be more of a liability than an asset.
What does the Bible have to say about emotions? The Bible doesn’t talk about emotions quite the way we do. We’d like Romans to lay out a theology of emotions, or Proverbs to include a section beginning “Here are six ways to manage your feelings, seven to feel as you should…,”but they’re not there. However, Scripture frequently does exhort us to feel certain things and not to feel others. We are to consider our trials joy (James 1:2). We are to put off rage and bitterness (Eph. 4:31). We are to have compassion for each other (1 Peter 3:8). We are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (Deut. 6:5).
I’ve spent a great deal of time reflecting on God’s call to us to have a whole array of emotional responses to his world, from awe-filled delight (e.g., Ps. 8) to vehement hatred (e.g., Ps. 139:21–23). How can we live up to this? Does God expect us to have perfect, instantaneous control over our emotions? No. God does not stand at a distance and command emotions we can never fully attain. Instead, he meets us with countless mercies, transforming our hearts and character, which always influences our emotions.
Throughout the Bible God continually encourages, comforts, convicts and reorients us. Instead of handing us a manual on emotional self-transformation, he patiently and tenderly invites us to simply come to him with all our feelings. This makes our emotions one of the premier opportunities to deepen our relationship with him!
Understand your emotions
If you are surprised to hear that God actually wants you to draw near to him when you feel like you are an emotional mess, remember this: the Bible views emotions as fundamentally good. How do I know this? Because we are image bearers of God and he has emotions. His joy, hate, wrath, compassion, jealousy and love are the model for ours.
We are more than computers cataloging facts. He made us both to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and to “hate what is evil.” He commands us to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” because he is a God who is moved by his children (eg., Hosea 11:8), a God who commands feasts and celebrations in Israel’s law (e.g., Lev. 23), a God who weeps at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11).
God doesn’t call us to avoid or squash our emotions (as Christians often suppose). Neither does he call us to embrace them unconditionally (as our culture often urges). Rather, he calls us to engage them by bringing our emotions to him and to his people. I like the word engage because it doesn’t make a premature assumption about whether the emotion is right or wrong, or how it might need to change. Instead it highlights what the Bible highlights: our emotions (good and bad) are meant to reveal the countless ways we need God.
Our emotions invite us to see the world as God sees it—both broken and beautiful—rejoicing where he is redeeming it and yearning for the full redemption that is yet to come. Only in the safety of his strength and patience can we face our visceral reactions, name them honestly, and talk about them with God and others.
Bring your emotions to God
At this point, you might be wondering, “But what does it actually look like to bring our emotions to God?” Let me give you an example from a passage that has been especially powerful for me.
Look at Psalm 22:1. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? Here is a man in deep distress. He is in trouble and groaning. Worse, he is also alone and abandoned. Stop for a moment and consider the nature and intensity of emotions he’d have to be experiencing to write something like that. Panicky fear. Deeply confusing disappointment. A shocking sense of betrayal. Tangible grief.
Now look at what this man does with these painful emotional experiences: he takes them to God. He is apparently free to engage God—with loud cries no less—even about being abandoned by God. He calls this God, from whom he feels so distant, “My God,” and speaks directly to him, not about him in the abstract. “Why have you forsaken… Why are you so far?”
Of course we know from other passages that God will never leave or forsake his people— the psalmist’s feelings in this moment are not the whole story. The psalmist knows that, too, because the psalm ends with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness. Yet this psalm and many like it come to us without a swarm of footnotes about how God hasn’t really abandoned us. And, importantly, this psalm doesn’t direct this person (or us) to ignore his feelings because they don’t reflect the truth about God. Instead, we are shown a path that forges endlessly toward God, even through the center of emotional storms.
God hears and cares
Like the psalmist, you can come to God with a raw heart and lay your burdens before him (Matt 11:28–30). He will receive you in your pain and walk with you. When your emotions feel overwhelming, turn toward God and put those feelings into words. You will be heard by the God who hears. And when you don’t have words, read Psalm 22 and ask God for help. Know that when you do, you will find your father in heaven feels great joy for the opportunity to embrace a child he loves.