Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves and I'm the host of Where Life & Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, where everything we do is about restoring Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. For more information and tons of resources, you can check us out at ccef.org.
Well, welcome to 2024. Starting this month in January and going through the rest of our season, we're going to be doing a mini-series on emotions because emotions are a significant piece of life as human beings and especially a particularly important and significant part of ministry and life when things go wrong or are off or are tricky in the world of pastoral care. So I thought it'd be fun to spend a little time around that. It's been a particular interest of mine for a while as some of you who've been around know. So we're going to be talking about emotions generally and… Well, the topic will be emotions. We'll be talking about specific questions on that for the next few months. Today I wanted to talk about the idea of controlling your emotions, particularly thinking about the question of why is it so hard to control my emotions or our emotions? And let me start us with just sort of three ways where I often see that play out or I bet you often see that play out.
For the first moment, think about I just get run away with by my emotions. It's like my emotions are this train just blazing down the tracks and I can't seem to stop them. And if they derail or if they take a different direction that there's little I can do. I feel like I'm sort of helpless along for the ride. My emotions are running the show. Do you feel that? Do you know people like that? Well, that really, I suppose, moves then to the second. So for some of us, that's our experience.
For others of us, the experience is something more like, it drives me crazy when the people around me seem to be being led by their emotions. I'm in a meeting at work and the people are talking and either they're getting worked up about something way more than they need to be or the decision I feel like we're coming to is really being most heavily influenced by how people feel about it, but not actually by what makes sense. And this feels irrational. And have you said such things? Have you heard such things? I've said and heard all of the above any number of times.
Let me throw a third one on the table as well. My husband never seems to feel anything. He seems unemotional, disconnected. My wife, just she seems so distant right now in this season. It's like there's nothing happening. She's just sort of going through the motions of life. Right? I put those both in the context of marriage because where I hear about it the most in marriage counseling as a counselor, but obviously that doesn't have to be something that affects a marriage. It can affect friendships. It can affect parent-child relationships. It can affect brothers and sisters.
So how about just stepping back from all those, okay, in each situation we have people either struggling to control emotions, frustrated where others are struggling to control them, or even feeling like, "Wow, the emotion is so under control, there's nothing there." None of these are good things that we would look at and go, "Oh, I would like that to be my life," or "I would hope everybody around me lives in that way." So what's going on here? What's happening when we're working with the idea of controlling our emotions?
Well, let me briefly, don't worry, briefly, just try to orient us to a theology of emotions in general. When I think about emotions biblically, the place I start with: emotions are the overflow of what we'd love. Emotions are being directed and guided. They're flowing out from what is on our heart. So I think about, for example, Matthew 6:21, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Now the word “heart” means a lot more than just emotions, especially in a New Testament and an Old Testament setting, but it doesn't mean less. It certainly includes the sense of what we feel. So biblical point number one: what you care about is going to shape what you feel. What you treasure, what you love, what is important to you, what you value, what is of significance in your life, what you hold most dear, these are the things that are going to be most shaping and driving and flowing out into your emotions. Okay? What you love shapes what you feel, point number one.
Point number two, emotions happen in our bodies. That is obvious to us all from the moment we are born. But it's worth reminding ourselves of. When you get really sad, water can come out of your eyes. When you get really nervous, it becomes harder to breathe. When you get really angry, your face can get red because the blood flow in your body is changing. When you have strong things, when you get extremely happy or ecstatic, you may even yell or shout or pump your fist or jump up and down. Right? Your body is actually experiencing both in your actions and even just in the flow of hormones and adrenaline and energy and sweat and tears and all the rest. Right? So it's happening in your body and that matters, and that's how God has made us to be. Everything I'm describing here, this is good. God has made us this way. He's made us to have hearts that actually do care about the world around us. And he has made us to have bodies where we are body, soul, connected, inextricable, as we are alive, we are walking every day embodied souls. And that's where these emotions are happening. We feel it physically. And so of course anything that goes wrong or is overly extreme or anemic and underdone, our bodies are going to be impacted as well. We're going to see it physically as well as feeling it in terms of our values and our thoughts and so on.
Last biblical thought. We are designed so that our emotions would actually be a part of connecting us to others. And in particular, most important of all, that our emotions would connect us to God himself. Our emotions are designed to drive us to the Lord in all things, all emotions are meant as you value something in your heart and as that pours out into how you're feeling about, "Well, how is that thing doing?" My son just won his soccer game and I feel happy because I love my son and this is a joy to him. And so his joy is my joy because I love him and I care about him and I want him to experience joy. My mom just fell and broke her hip and she's in great pain. So I feel great sorrow for her. She's limited. She’s suffering. She’s hurting. Because I love her I now feel a sorrow and a grief when something is bad or broken or wrong or off or painful in her life.
At the end of the day, Psalm 62:8 does a pretty good job of capturing the basic dynamic here, "Trust in the Lord at all times. Oh peoples, pour out your heart to him." Right? Pour out your heart to him. What does trusting God look like? One of the most fundamental basic things, and the entire book of Psalms does this, every single Psalm, it pours out the heart. The heart poured out to the Lord is a form of trust. It's actually saying, "Okay, Lord, I believe that you are real. I believe that you care. I believe that you are powerful and can intervene or sustain and help me endure through what is hard. I believe that you love me and you want to know what I care about. So I bring you the things that are on my heart. I pour out my heart to you at all times."
So with that basic three point sort of look at our theology of emotions: they're shaped by what we love. They happen in our bodies. They're designed to drive us to the Lord in connection, and of course therefore to connect us to other people too. If that's all true, then it's actually a really good thing that we can't just turn them off. Right? It's a good thing we can't just press a button and say, "I would like to feel 20% happier right now," or "I would like to stop feeling sad because this is uncomfortable." Boom, done. End of story. That is not how we are designed. That would actually short circuit the process emotions were designed to do of connecting us to the Lord and to others. Our sadness is meant to drive us to him, to cry out in sorrow and lament, to ask for him to restore and ultimately to redeem this world.
When the prophet Isaiah says, "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down," he is not saying, "Oh, that sounds like a nice turn of phrase. Maybe I'll use that. It probably gets to something important and true." He is speaking from the depths of passion. This world is broken. I see the evil and the hardship and the hurt around us. Lord, we need you. Where are you? Come. Come. Come, Lord Jesus. We've just come through the Christmas season, come through advent, right? That longing, the yearning. That is good and yearning is meant to drive us towards the Lord who is the giver of all good things, especially of salvation and redemption as well, of course as creation and joy and all those things. So it's good that we can't just shut our emotions off. That would actually stop us from the whole point, which is running to the Lord with them and knowing other people well through them, understanding what they care about in part because we see and hear their grief. We mourn with those who mourn, not just because that's a, "Yeah, it's a nice thing to do and you really ought to, and I know it's inefficient, but hang in there and…" Mourning with those who mourn is at the very core of loving someone. To love someone is to care about them and what else would you care about but what's on their heart? So that's why it's a good thing that we can't just push a button to control how much we feel at any given moment." I'll feel more, I'll feel less."
And so I think back to our situation, okay, I'm just being totally driven by my emotions. Does that mean it's wrong to have greater control? Is it a bad thing to be able to say, "Okay, you know what? I'm overreacting right now. I need to calm down." No, it's fine to be able to have an ability to respond to ourselves. And we see that in the Psalms too like, "Why are you so downcast on my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God,” right? There's a right dialogue we have with our own souls pointing ourselves towards what is good and right and true and… But that doesn't mean that the sorrow is bad. It doesn't mean the distress is wrong. It doesn't mean our goal is to get out of distress as fast as possible. It means that when you are being driven by an emotion, that may well be a really helpful, healthy, appropriate, good sense of, "Okay, this really matters to me." And you know what? This does really matter. It really matters to God as well. Our church is on the verge of a church split. You should indeed feel a lot of emotion about that. That shouldn't be something you just sort of swat away and be like, "Oh, well, I'm feeling better now. I'll go watch some Netflix or I'll just calm myself down in 10 seconds." There's a right way to have a burden on your heart for the hard things. And if you care and love and if you press into Christian faith over time, you'll actually have more strong, unpleasant emotions rather than less. The more you care, the more you love, the more vulnerable you will be to this world. C. S. Lewis has a great quote about it that I won't pull out at this moment, but that idea that, "To love at all is to be vulnerable" is the end of the quote. That's exactly right. We are meant to be vulnerable, and there's a right way to be pushed in ways where you don't just have control over your emotions.
Now, having said that, most of the time when we feel like, "ah, I'm just being run away with my emotions all the time," usually where we want to grow in that, the response of, "okay, that's not the way I want to just live" or when we're experiencing it and you're like, "everyone around me" or "this person, they're so emotional and it makes it hard to go forward, or it's hard to make a decision, or it feels like I have to walk on eggshells around them" or whatever, those situations where the emotion is so dominant in driving our actions and thinking. Part of what we're hoping for, the growth and maturity for those of us who have that experience is going to be, "Okay. I want to not only see, wow, this hard thing, this thing that I value and care about, things are going poorly or there's a threat or there's something broken, but also I want an increasing sense mixed with that, a deeper sense of, but here is the Lord's care, here is the Lord's provision. Here are the ways where he's entering in. Here's the fact that he really sees me and stores my tears in a bottle and loves and cares and has compassion for me and is at work for my good in the midst of this hard thing. I do want that to matter more because I have emotion about that as well. That's also shaping how I feel." So the mix of sorrow and joy, grief and sorrow, joy and sorrow deeply mingled, that's right for the Christian experience. And if we're those who are primarily focused on only the negative, the sorrow, the suffering, the hard, then probably there's a need to grow. And on the flip side, if we're just sort of the happy-go-lucky and everything's easy, and it's like, "You know what? I don't totally trust that person because they don't take things seriously enough." There's a need to grow in seeing and being willing to engage with, "You know what? When things go poorly, that really is a problem. And there are bad things that really can't happen here." And they need to grow in a sobriety, an ability to mourn with those who mourn, an ability to take seriously the dangers and the threats.
So wherever you are, you're going to have some growing to do no doubt, in a fullness, in a richness, in a fully biblically, rightly faithful Christian emotional life that has lament, that has sorrow, that has grief, that has a right burden of concern on your heart for the things that could go wrong and a right sense of comforts and hopes and joy in the midst of the trial because the Lord is at work. Those things are meant to mix. It’s not a matter of, okay, I need to feel joy and not sorrow or not anxiety. It’s a matter of, yeah, this burden of anxiety I feel because I love someone and care about what could happen to them, needs to also acknowledge and see and grow in its ability to say, “And the Lord is good and he is here and he is present.”
Let's think for a moment here about Jesus, because he shows us this more perfectly than anyone else. Jesus is not just sort of calmly walking through life. He is at many times incredibly calm when we'd expect him to be incredibly upset, right? He wakes up in the back of the boat and the rest of the people in the boat are screaming, "We're going to die. Ah." They're utterly freaked out as any one of us would be as well in the face of a life-threatening, immediate, imminent physical danger. And Jesus says, "Why are you so bothered? I'm here." And he tells the waves to be quiet and they do. And everybody's like, "Oh, wow. You are the son of God. This is amazing." Jesus is able to be very, very calm in some unexpected moments because his emotions are being shaped by a love of his heavenly Father, a love of his ability to protect and calm and a love of even his creation and its glory and fierce majesty of storms that submit and bow to him.
At other times, he gets very emotionally intense. Right? He drives out the moneylenders in the temple, not because he's sort of like, "Well, I should probably teach these people a little bit of a lesson. This would be a good way to do it. Right?" He is shouting, he's overturning tables. There's a fierceness of his passion. Right? "Zeal for your house will consume me," the disciples remember it was written of the Messiah. Right? When he's weeping at the Tomb of Lazarus, when he's feeling what I would call dread in the garden of Gethsemane. Right? There's a fullness to it. And because he loves his people, because he loves his father, because he loves this mission of rescue, he's able to press through some incredibly hard things. And because he loves goodness and life and health and peace, he is dismayed of the thought of the distress at which he's going through. He loves his father. He does not want to be cut off from his father on the cross.
So we want to be like Jesus with a fullness of emotion. You don't see Jesus just tamping down his emotions. You see him able to bring the exact right thing to the table. And he can be sweating blood and weeping and crying out in the garden of Gethsemane and hours later, he can be before Pilate silent and he can be answering relatively calm and collected. And in each case, it's what he loves that is driving what he feels. And it's not a matter of him seeking to like, "Well, how do I control my emotions in the garden?" It's, he's running to the Lord with a full-throated cry because he's pouring out his heart to his father. And because he loves his people and he has to walk through this path because of his love for his father's plan and his plan, he's able to stay incredibly engaged before Pilate rather than screaming and running away or becoming sarcastic and trying to get out of the situation. So when I think about us being overly driven by our emotions, I want us to grow in a deeper balance of feeling all rich biblical emotions more deeply.
And when I think about being overly shut down and only ever getting worked up at a sports game. The only time you ever see emotion from me is when my team is doing really well or really poorly. The problem there is probably not so much that you're rooting for sports. I mean, there may be. Sports may have claimed too high of a position in your life, and there may be repentance to do there. And you know what? I need to pull away from so much time invested in sports. But more likely, or at least along with that, probably that's a sign, "I do have emotions. I can get worked up watching a sports game. Oh Lord, would you help me grow to be somebody who brings a greater level of passion, something closer to that, to the things that matter much more deeply, to the matters of how is our church doing? How is my family doing? How are my relationships? How am I growing? How well am I drinking deeply from the well of scripture? And how am I being sanctified?” I'd like to feel the same kind of passion, the same kind of joy and cheering, or, "No, why would this go this way?" That you see in a sports context so naturally, I'd love to feel that way about the spiritual health of the people around me in my church. I'd love to have that kind of sense of team. So all that to say, why can't we control our emotions easily? Because that's how God made us, and that's a really good thing.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).