Strong emotions always insist on particular interpretations of life, and they are in no mood to listen to alternatives.
“It is vain to contend with anything that hath the power of our affections at its disposal; it will prevail at the last.” So says Jonathan Edwards in Treatise on Religious Affections, and he is right. When you feel something strongly, you are very confident in whatever that emotion says about you, other people, and God.
Just try disagreeing with any strong emotion that you have and see how long you can last.
- Try telling anger that it might be wrong.
- Try telling fear that there will be grace for tomorrow.
- Try telling guilt that there is forgiveness in Christ, which means that God does not see us according to our sins. Yes, you know the words, but when guilt is loud the words are silent.
- Try telling shame that Christ, through faith, accepts, washes, and makes us holy.
- Try telling mania that its choices might have horrible consequences.
- Try telling depression… anything good.
Anger is the obvious example. Right or wrong, anger is always confident. No ambivalence. No shades of gray. Anger is very sure of itself.
Mania might be a surprise entry on this list, but if you know anything about mania, you know that mania is always certain that everything will go well. Put your life savings down on lucky number 7? You are sure it will pay off. If it doesn’t, no worries, everything will be fine. Mania is chemical confidence.
Depression? You might disagree with that one. After all, depression is infused with self-doubt. Depressed people feel like failures and failures aren’t very confident. But is there any interpretation of reality that is more stubborn than depression? You hear a depressed person speak of the futility of life, and, nine times out of ten, Scripture isn’t going to jar the person back into thinking God’s thoughts. I am not trying to be critical of depressed people with these observations. I am, however, trying to raise some warning flags for all of us. The stronger the emotion, the harder it is to hear the truth, and depression, if anything, is a very strong emotion. Strong emotions have much in common with delusions. Delusions insist on their interpretation despite clear reason, all contrary evidence, or a consensus among friends for a different interpretation.
Here is some of the behind-the-scenes activity:
Emotions portray what is happening in our hearts. Or we could say that emotions speak on behalf of our hearts. They tell us what we really want. For example, when I am anxious, which has been known to happen every now and then, I [my heart] am saying, “There will not be grace available for me in the future,” or “I am going to lose something I love and I don’t know how I can live without it.” The physical feeling of anxiety is the shorthand version of these statements. Our emotions reveal those things that are most important to us. Ask yourself the question, “What am I saying that I really love?” Or you could try its doppelganger, “What am I saying that I really need?” When something we love or need is in jeopardy, there is no time for ambivalence and uncertainty.
Overall, I tend to be fairly mild-mannered, but last week when I heard over the phone that a fellow two-year-old had bopped my granddaughter on the head with a metal truck, I was quite confident that I had to immediately track down that two-year-old and… do something. I’m glad I didn’t see it happening. I might have, I think, been less than mild-mannered.
So it’s no wonder why strong emotions are so confident. They reveal that I am confident in my opinions.
But there is more to say.
Emotions speak to our hearts. Most of the time our emotions speak for our true self, our hearts. Sometimes they speak to us. Start with a dash of frustration, add a dollop of fatigue, and you might get anger. That anger has been artificially enhanced by bio-chemical complexities. It tells a parent that the mess the kids made yesterday, which was merely a nuisance, is now catastrophic. In short, emotions sometimes lie. They tell us that something is a big deal when it isn’t.
Any emotion can lie. Anger is just one. In my experience, mania and depression are the most notorious liars. Mania tells us that we are right, our ideas are the best (God probably anointed us), and the insights of others are marginal. No wonder mania is so often paired with anger. The challenge for every person who is prone to manic swings is to listen to the wisdom of others. It sounds easy when you aren’t manic. But once that chemical confidence kicks in, humility is elbowed out.
Depression can do the same thing, except depression tells us that life has been pithed of meaning and purpose, love is elusive, God is distant or indifferent, we are too bad to be rescued, and so on. Depression can be confident of lots of things.
How do we manage all of this? When are our emotions speaking for us? When are they speaking at us? It can get complicated, but that doesn’t mean the answer is complicated. A wise person listens to the Truth and listens to other people. A wise person listens. And this is no mere listening, as the book of James reminds us. It is really hearing, which doesn’t come naturally.
Okay, slow down. I am a creature, not the creator. I am part of a larger body and I need the larger body. I don’t have all wisdom and knowledge in myself. When there is a difference of opinion between my feelings and what God says, God’s words win. I gladly submit to him. When there is a difference of opinion between my feelings and what many wise counselors have said to me, I submit to the wisdom of the community.
Yes, this is all true, and it sounds good on paper. But right now my emotions are not raging in any particular direction. The good news is that I can practice humility today. I can listen to God—really listen. I can consider the interests of others as more important than my own. That will prepare me for the times when my strong feelings don’t tell me the whole story.