A Biblical Theology of Emotions
by Dan Tsouloufis
It is healthy to feel our emotions, and then we are more easily able to let them go. We cry out in utter honesty to God, and the Holy Spirit helps to calm our hearts. As the psalmist proclaims, “I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because He inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call on Him as long as I live” (Psalm 116:1-2).
Yet it is important for Christians to have a biblical theology of emotions. As such, it is important to understand that feelings are a byproduct of what we think and what we do. In other words, they are a result, not a cause, of our thinking and our actions. For example, it is through emotions that we respond to our experiences, and it is through emotions that we express our feelings. As such, we may feel the emotions of joy, or anger, or discouragement. Yet we may also say that we feel stupid, or ugly, or guilty. But these are not emotions, thus demonstrating that we confuse these sometimes. Therefore, we must recognize that it is through our emotions that we show our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, desires, and opinions. Our emotions demonstrate how we interpret life and life’s circumstances.
There are clear examples in Scripture that help us convey a biblical theology of emotions. First, we can observe that Adam and Eve had emotions of shame and fear after they had sinned. Thus, their emotions were the result of their thinking and their actions. Their emotions were not the cause of them. Yet it is common for people in our day to say that they feel guilty. But guilt itself is not a feeling. Rather, guilt produces a feeling of shame. Second, we can observe that King David’s depression was the byproduct of his sin. David felt depressed (and shame) as a result of his guilt before God. Scripture tells us that David was a man after God’s own heart before he fell into sin and after. Even after David’s heinous sins, God forgave him and his faith was restored (Psalm 51:10-12).
A couple more points are necessary to make regarding a biblical theology of emotions. First, Scripture shows us that God has emotions. This should not surprise us, since we are created in His image (Gen. 1:26-27). As such, God displays similar emotions as we do: joy, anger, grief, betrayal, jealousy. However, it is important to note that God does not share all of our emotions, such as despair, fear, or shame. Second, we must recognize that emotions, when practiced over and over, become a habit. Habits in our emotions reflect the habits in our thinking and actions.
Lastly, regarding how one can tell the difference between sinful emotions and righteous emotions, it is important to understand that anger is not sinful in itself. The apostle Paul alludes to this in Eph. 4:26, when he says, “In your anger do not sin.” Therefore, we can assert that emotions (such as anger) are deemed sinful when they are focused on self. In other words, sinful emotions are man-focused, whereas righteous emotions are God-focused. Sinful emotions have man’s glory in mind, whereas righteous emotions have God’s glory in mind. Sinful emotions are characterized by man’s way of doing things, whereas righteous emotions are characterized by God’s way of doing things.