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Getting a Handle on Our Emotions

(John 11:35 NKJV) Jesus wept.

Like it or not God has made us to be emotional beings. He wants us to have emotions – His emotions. He wants us to weep over the lost, be moved with compassion for the oppressed, be outraged by injustice, provoked by idolatry and angry at the hard of heart. He wants us to love the sheep in our charge, be caught up in the agony of intercession and have hearts full of hope. The Christian life, properly lived, is awash in emotion. However it is not merely sentimental, trite or unstable. Truly Christian emotions have a majesty about them. They ring of the Kingdom and participate in and agree with the Truth.

People and their emotions are like bells. Some people are like alarm bells going off anxiously and loudly. Some are chipped and cracked and when they “ring” the sound seems painful or like the bells on old-fashioned trams noisy, clanging, rattling. Yet others are like shop bells being rung by everyone that enters their life. Some are like a carillon, gentle, and beautiful and silvery; finally there are those that are deep and resonant and summon the countryside to worship. The aim of this book is to produce people who ring true and ring deeply with the emotions of God. People whose very emotional presence is a declaration of the Kingdom of God. To do this we must get a handle on our emotions, we must be able to name them and we must start to choose which emotions we will express and which emotions we should deny.

Identifying Our Emotions

Many people cannot clearly identify their emotions. They simply use general words and phrases such as “good”, “bad”, “up” and “OK”, instead of more specific and useful words like “disconsolate”, “elated” and “perplexed”. For others feelings are just a confused blur. Yet others are so hurt that pain overwhelms all other finer feelings and for those people the emotional choice is constant pain or oblivion. Many chose oblivion via drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity and increasingly they escape into the total oblivion of death through suicide. Such people need help. They need to untangle their emotions and work through to peace. So being able to “feel their feelings” and being able to identify and name their emotions is a crucial first step.

Another reason why good emotional identification is important is that mistaken emotional identification can lead to spiritual disaster. For example take the common confusion between love and lust. A young person who confuses these two can end up in a disastrous relationship. Love and lust are opposites as looking at 1 Corinthians 13 soon reveals: “Love is patient (but lust is impatient), love is kind (but lust is cruel), love does not envy (but lust envieth all things), love does not parade itself (but lust struts its stuff)… and so on. If we think we are feeling one thing but are in fact feeling its opposite all sorts of havoc can be unleashed. Regret and repentance can seem similar. However regretting being found out is far different from repenting from sin. Unless we can correctly identify emotions in ourselves and others we can make serious mistakes in judgement.

For information about emotions and the fine differences between them the Psalms, classic poetry, novels and good literature are excellent sources. The great writers and poets have put their emotions into words with such fine skill that others through the years have found them to be important and accurate descriptions of emotions. Whole poems can focus on a single emotion such as Keats’ “On Dejection”. The portrayal of emotions by great authors helps us to get in touch with our feelings and to discriminate between them. When a poem particularly resonates with us then it is probably evoking an unexplored feeling that needs to surface.

Of course writing our own poetry, keeping a diary, painting, joining a drama group or attending a 12 step group or workshop can also be ways to get in touch with buried feelings and gradually sort out the emotional knots within. As we do so it is initially important to simply accept the emotions that surface rather than leaping to spiritual judgements before the process is complete.

Making spiritual judgments about the emotions we experience is often counter-productive and causes us to express some emotions and repress others to conform to a spiritual standard or model that we have been taught in church. This can confuse us emotionally and spiritually and is the subject of the next section.

Emotional Modelling – Choosing The Emotions We Express and Repress

Most Christians have a strong belief about what the perfect Christian is like. Some may think the perfect Christian is an extroverted evangelist. Others may think the perfect Christian is a quiet and ascetic mystic, while yet others may think that the perfect Christian is a blessed and happy believer living a happy and contented life. This model of the perfect humanity shapes our emotionality. For instance people who think the “blessed believer” is the ideal Christian tend to emphasize the importance of joy as an emotion. They also tend to deny painful emotions such as grief or disappointment, which do not fit with their model of the happy contented Christian. This process of valuing some emotions and denying others based on our idea of the “model Christian” is very common. Lets look at how your mental model of the perfect humanity may be affecting which emotions you repress and which emotions you express. The following table lists sixteen different models of ideal humanity along with their central premises, the consequences for the expression or repression of emotion and the key weaknesses of the model. Each of them is in some way a human cultural creation, each falls somewhat short of Christ who should be our model.

Model Of The Ideal Person
Areas Expressed Areas Repressed
Weaknesses and Limitations

The Blessed Believer: The ideal Christian is a person of great faith who prays fervently and receives great blessing from God and lives in abundance and happiness free from anxiety and turmoil. Salvation is easily and joyously and often instantly received. Abraham, Isaac, David and Solomon are seen as models Can easily focus on material blessings as a sign of God’s approval. Praise, gratitude, thankfulness, joy and contentment. “Rejoice in the Lord always”. Salvation is from misery to happiness. Happiness is a sign that Jesus is in your heart.
Sorrow, depression, grief, anxiety, genuine doubt, feelings of weakness and inadequacy, disappointment , any sense that life has treated them in an unfair manner. Negative emotions are construed as indicating a “lack of victory”.
Model fails when life appears to be far less than blessed such as when life appears to be unjust or unfair or when pain is overwhelming or during grief and sorrow. Job is the classical example of a blessed believer being challenged by life.

The Penitent Pilgrim: The pilgrim is escaping judgment and heading away from the World which is doomed. The Christian life involves separation from sin and worldliness and the serious pursuit of salvation which only relatively few attain and which is a perilous journey. Pilgrim’s Progress. Lot escaping Sodom. James
Sorrow for sin, seriousness, self-examination, correction of faults, penitence, intense prayer, travail, joy over forgiveness, righteous anger, woe, and pessimism over the world.
Frivolity, laughter, flippancy, playfulness, sensuality, attraction to worldly things, sexuality, pride over achievement, romance. Positive emotions are treated with suspicion.
Can become legalistic and joyless. Fails to give proper place to the goodness of Creation and creates rebellion in people brought up in this system who learn life is not as grim as portrayed.

The Independent Achiever: Emphasises being in ministry and achieving things for God. A Christian is measured by the size of his or her ministry and how they achieved it alone as their personal vision. Strategic thinking, business skills and personal success are highly prized. Models include Nehemiah and the apostle Paul.
Faith, hope, vision, optimism, joy, and the emotions of the will and the mind.
Tend not to be artistic and may lack compassion at times. They avoid necessary introspection and reflection. Doubt and fear are repressed rather than faced.
Can lead to burn-out. Works for some people but can destroy others. Their spouses often suffer.

The Sacrificial Servant:. Its what you give up for God that counts. The Christian “has no rights and is there to “spend themselves for God” and “burn out for Jesus”. Spiritual indicators include remoteness of where one serves and the poverty of conditions. David Brainerd is a model example.
Enthusiasm and passion for God and devotion to the cause.
Most emotions are repressed or sublimated including most natural affections.
At times is the stuff of cults. Tends to love God alone and sacrifices self, family and neighbour to the cause.

The Serene Saint: Like Yoda in Star Wars these are the unruffled and wise contemplatives full of peace and deep emotions. Their goal is tranquillity of soul and union with God and self-mastery.
Tranquillity and peace, gentle emotions, prayerful devotion, saintly emotions, mercy.
Anger and most intense emotions including sexuality are repressed.
Can be weak at critical moments and fail to tackle issues of justice and practical issues of life. Can become very selfish and inward.

The Radical Revolutionary: Enjoys turning over the tables in the Temple. Seeking after justice they identify with the Old Testament prophets. The ideal Christian is a counter-culture revolutionary who brings transformation to society and justice to the poor.
Righteous anger, passion for justice, indignation , wrath. Vision, hope and even optimism may also be present.
Tend to be overly serious and lose natural playfulness and joy. Gentleness and meekness may also be lacking.
In some contexts this is very much needed in others it is totally inappropriate. Not a whole of life perspective for most people.

The Evangelist: The ideal Christian sees many people saved. They are master communicators who are always witnessing. They have strong personalities are enthusiastic and clear sighted.
Black and white emotions. Enthusiasm, passion for the lost, joy, exuberance.
Reflective quiet emotions are often seen as impractical.
Lacks any understanding of ambiguities and complexity, a very confined and narrow model.

The Aggressive Apologist defends the faith from error at every turn and exposes heresy, cults, witchcraft and deception as well as contending with other belief systems. The ideal Christian is knowledgeable , theologically correct, logical and able to debate others so that they convert to Christianity or correct their ways.
Reason, logic, righteous indignation, anger, forcefulness, suspicion, evaluates and discriminates.
Playfulness, gentleness, creativity, sympathy, mercy, emotions of the heart.
Tends to distrust emotional expression and be overly logical and dry. Can make a person very rigid in their later years.

The Ecstatic Enthusiast: Led by the Spirit they are “on the move for God” and express strong enthusiasm for spiritual things. Spiritual ecstasy is a sign of God’s presence. The day of Pentecost is the ideal Christian moment to be recreated at every opportunity.
Trance states, ecstasy, passion, enthusiasm, joy, exuberance, praise, thanksgiving.
Critical faculties, analysis, contemplation, thinking, reflection and negative emotions such as pain, grief and disappointment.
Tends to spiritual burn-out and can be very unstable and insufficiently critical. Tends to fall for fads and is too simplistic for many of life’s deeper practical issues.

The Reasonable Man: Wisdom and Reason are the voices of the Spirit who leads Christians into a balanced and moderate life that reflects proper priorities and which is well adjusted to the social context the believer lives in. Extremes are interpreted as a sign of a dysfunctional personality. Solomon is a model.
Reason, analysis, ethical reflection, conventions and social mores, well-tempered emotions, kindness, gentleness, reasonableness. “Moderation in all things”
Strong emotion of all kinds is disapproved of as well as any major breach of social standards.
Unless the Bible is taught clearly and strongly this rapidly tends to an insipid worldliness and spiritual skepticism.

The Perfect Man: Like Confucius’ concept the perfect man is without inappropriate emotion or any visible faults. Emotion is carefully guarded and kept under control. The perfect man is upright, ethical, has perfect manners and social perception, and is extremely humble and meek.
Proper behavior, loyalty, humility, meekness, convention, submission, restraint, ethics, duty. “Being without fault in one’s conduct in life”.
Anger, pain, any socially disabling emotion, anything that may cause loss of face.
Because how others perceive the Christian is of ultimate importance it can produce harshness and hypocrisy. Very individualistic and tends to ignore larger social issues.

The Good Samaritan Love of neighbor expressed as social action and deeds of mercy mark the true Christian. Kindness, gentleness, mercy and helpfulness are the premier virtues.
Mercy, gentleness, kindness, hospitality, inclusion, practical deeds of love and compassion.
Exclusion, rejection, unkindness of any sort, tries to develop a very inclusive and non-theological faith.
Has much merit but can become just social work without a true saving gospel being proclaimed.

The Principled Idealist is characterised by seeking the high and noble life lived by principles and virtue and self-renunciation for the Ideal Good. People are valued by their principles, intentions and ideals without reference to actions. There is a pursuit of absolute excellence at the personal level and of a Christian Utopia at the corporate level.
High ideals and aspirations, concepts, ideas, justice, philosophies, ambition, personal striving for high goals, vision, personal principles, ethics, mission statements, nobility, virtue, the Absolute Good, Utopia.
The mundane, earthy, concrete details of daily life are scorned. Attention to detail and diligence are often lacking. Earthiness and pragmatism are perceived to be un-spiritual. Tends not to allow feedback from results.
Frequently disorganized. Also godly ambition and personal ambition can easily be mixed. Often so focused on the external goals that they lose personal insight and can become dishonest and treacherous.

The Perceptive Pragmatist is able to sum up life quickly and fix problems on the spot. A Christian is measured by their capacity to be useful and by their skills in judgement, analysis and implementation. Analysis, evaluation, enthusiasm, practical knowledge, authority, wisdom, toughness, shrewdness, energy.
Empathy, kindness, compassion, mercy. Most emotions are not felt deeply and they tend to be deemed as irrelevant.
Tend to come unstuck in mid-life and feel a deep sense of meaninglessness. May neglect relationships. May see virtue as impractical.

The Intelligent Instructor is a learned Christian who teaches well and can exegete the difficult verses of Scripture. The goal is knowledge of God and wisdom and knowledge are equated with progress in the Christian life. Academic prowess is prized and church is often made into a classroom. Ezra is a model. Thoughtfulness, balance, evaluation, discipline, kindness, gentleness, logic, intelligence, knowledge, reasoning, debating, humour, moderate emotions suitable for the classroom.
Strong passions are suspect and practicality may be lacking. The subjective and non-cognitive areas of the Christian life tend to be deeply distrusted. Lack of celebration and praise.
Can become dry, dull and overly rational. Praise and worship tend to be seen as only teaching tools. The central idea that knowledge of theology is progress in God is deeply flawed.

The Child of Nature is still living in the Garden of Eden and feels free to express all kinds of emotion. Spontaneity, freedom, expressiveness, artistic skill and creativity are high on the agenda. Nearly all emotions are freely expressed. Creativity, joy, freedom. The inner child is given freedom to play.
Discernment, wisdom, truth and responsibility. Can be undisciplined and immature emotionally.
Can become overly sensual and fall into moral disorder. There is a tendency to anarchy and irresponsibility. Lacks power and authority.

So we see that the Christian’s mental model greatly influences which aspects of life they pay attention to and which emotions they express or repress. In fact we probably choose our own model partly because we are naturally more comfortable expressing one set of emotions than another. This may be due to, among other factors, our culture, our denomination, or to our natural temperament.

I find God paying a lot of attention to those areas outside my model. He challenges my preconceptions and stretches my view of what I should be like. The gap between my natural comfortable model of the Christian life and the life of Jesus is a gap He wants closed. He wants me to model myself after His Son and does not allow me to invent my own destiny or a ‘better idea’ of how I should be sanctified. For instance I am naturally rational and cognitively orientated and uncomfortable with high levels of emotion, so God in His desire to make me like Jesus, has made emotions a real area of challenge and of study for me.

God will not be satisfied with you being less than Christ-like. He will work on the difference between the model of faith you have adopted and that displayed in the Scriptures. Your mental model of the ideal Christian undoubtedly has many Scriptures that support it – but here and there it can be improved and in fact needs to be improved if you are to be fully like Jesus. . In my Christian life I have had to do a major revision of my faith about every seven years or so. I move from a certain model to a more Christlike one then that in turn is challenged and revised and so the process goes on.

Changing Our Mental Model

How then do we correct our mental model of the Christian faith – particularly one we are quite committed to? For a start read one of the gospels and note the difference between how you act and react to how Jesus acts and reacts. Would you be happy being a friend of publicans and sinners? Would you let a prostitute touch your feet? Would you say “You cannot serve God and Mammon” with conviction? At those points where your model and the gospel model disagree you must decide to change and become like Jesus. Other clues are inner discontent with where you are at (maybe its your model of Christianity that’s wrong), or a desire for something more. Go with your questions seeking their answers in the Scripture and “brick by brick” you will build up a more mature idea of what it means to be a Christ-like person.

The central questions of changing mental models are “Can I be more like Jesus than I am now ?” and “What is my actual working notion of the Christian life? Is it what Jesus meant by the Christian life?” To doubt our mental model of the faith is not the same as doubting God. I do not doubt the authority of the Scriptures but I do periodically question how I have interpreted them and the mental pictures I have generated. Thus changing mental models means being honest to God and the Scriptures and tough on one’s personal comfort zone, church culture and traditions. It is honest biblical reflection on where we are at spiritually, in the light of Scripture.

You may need to make a calculated decision to move beyond your culture and upbringing, accepting that which is good and rejecting that which is evil and moving to maturity in Christ. The Jewish Christians in the book of Acts had a most difficult time doing this because they were so sure of then superiority of Jewish culture and practices and of the need to be circumcised. Their model of Jesus was that He was “a good Jewish boy who kept the Law” – and He did! However He also accepted Gentiles! Chapters ten to fifteen of the book of Acts detail with the terrible tension Peter and the Jewish Christians faced when the Gentiles accepted the gospel. A church-wide conference had to be called to resolve the issue. Changing models of faith was not easy then and its not easy now.

It requires the power of the Holy Spirit if radical change is to occur and if we are to have the courage to be more Christ-like emotionally than our community believes is desirable. For instance people who bring prostitutes and drug addicts to church may not be welcomed with enthusiasm. Departing from our comfortable model of Christianity to a genuine Spirit-filled and Christ-like existence will have a huge cost and be understood only by other seekers on the same journey. [Remember that this is your quest and that you may not be able to take your church with you. You may see the need to change while they are content with where they are. You do what you must do to be like Jesus. That’s your responsibility. They will have their time and path to Christ-likeness.]

To sum up – we need to get a handle on our emotions by first of all identifying them and secondly making a conscious decision about which emotions to express and which to deny. Our mental model of the Christian faith will greatly affect how we express or repress emotions. Our mental model serves as a sort of Christian master plan that guides our destiny, thoughts, emotions and behaviour. It is shaped by culture, conditioning and our community of faith with its traditions as well as our own conclusions about God and Jesus. It needs to be revised now and then when it has outlived its current usefulness. We need to move to ever more Christ-like mental models and these in turn will pattern our thoughts, behaviour and biblical EQ. As we become Christ-like we will express and repress the right emotions, in the right way and at the right times for the glory of God and the extension of His Kingdom. This leads us to a problem – what about the emotions I have today, right now, before I have changed a bit. How do I handle them? How should I evaluate them? How should I react to them? That is the subject of the following chapters.

Discussion Questions

1. Name as many emotions as you can. If you get stuck use Roget’s Thesaurus. What are the differences between the emotions? Why do we have so many words? How do they have different facial expressions? See if you can imitate the emotions of dejection, surprise, happiness, fear, anticipation, puzzlement, and exuberant confidence yourself. How does it feel when you do this?

2. What are some ways that you can keep track of your own emotions? Are there some emotions that you just do not want to feel?

3. What do you think of the idea of people being like bells? What sort of bell are you? How do people “sound” emotionally to you?

4. What sort of emotions should we clamp down as Christians? Which emotions should we express?

5. Which of the mental models listed above is closest to your own? Where do you need to change to be a bit more like Jesus? Which is closest to that of your church? Where does it need to change in order to be a bit more like Jesus?

6. How do you feel about such a major change? What is the difference between a “nice church culture” and a “Christ-like church culture” ?