So many times as Christians we might think we need to turn off our emotions so that we can do the right thing. We feel like we are fighting our emotions, which lead us down the wrong path. And sometimes that is true. But it is dangerous to turn off or try to disconnect from our emotions. For one thing, it doesn’t work in the long term. Buried emotions come to the surface eventually, so why not deal with them now before they cause a bigger problem? And I happen to think that God uses our emotions for His purposes, even when they are negative. Certainly, if we turn off or disconnect our emotions, the biggest negative effect is that we can’t connect to the passion and the joy that we feel toward and about God.
The proper role of emotions in our life is to show us something about ourselves. Sometimes we react to a situation without realizing where the feelings are coming from or what thoughts lie behind the feelings. I know that society tells us, “You can’t help your emotions,” or “someone’s emotions can’t be wrong.” But that’s not the whole picture.
Emotions are not right or wrong. When emotions give us insight into our own minds and hearts, it can be healthy, beneficial, and freeing. It’s what we do as a result of our emotions that can send us in the wrong direction sometimes. There’s a big difference between our emotions giving us information about ourselves and using our emotions as an excuse for behaving badly. It’s the difference between the following two reactions:
“I only picked a fight with you because you were paying more attention to your friends than to me.”
“When I picked a fight with you, I realized that I felt jealous of the attention you were giving to your friends. I’m sorry for doing that, and next time I feel that way I can suggest something special for us to do together.”
The first of these is an excuse. The second shows insight into behavior and will lead to better actions in the future.
We can pray for insight and look for ways to understand ourselves better so that our emotions (especially negative emotions) don’t control us; instead, we use them to benefit our lives.
So what part do emotions play in our relationship with God?
I believe that emotions do and should play a part, but should not dictate the relationship. The moments when I have connected with God and felt His presence, my emotions have been intense and euphoric. Long after the moment is over, I can remember what it felt like.
I remember the feelings of peace and joy I felt while looking over the side of the crib at my tiny daughter, so long ago when I was only a teenager, and feeling that God’s presence was there, giving me strength and patience to take care of her. I remember feeling God’s power lifting me up out of my misery after losing primary custody of her when she was a very confused preteen. The memories of these and many other long-ago emotions are as real to me as the pages of my Bible. They form my own personal experience of God. I can hardly believe even to this day that God revealed himself to me, a very insignificant and unworthy person. But He did, and these times are among the most precious of my entire life.
I can never doubt God’s existence or power when I remember these times. They were and are powerful in shaping my faith. However, there are many other times when I seek God’s presence and sense nothing. What am I to make of these times? Should I conclude that God isn’t listening? He’s busy right now, try again later?
No. Because while the emotions involved in faith experiences are important, even formative, they are not the full extent of our faith. It doesn’t work very well to pursue our relationship with God only when we “feel like it” or “feel God’s presence,” any more than it does to only stay in a marriage as long as we feel happy and loving toward the other person.
What can we do when the emotions aren’t matching up to what we know? That’s where faith comes in. During those times when God feels far away, we have an opportunity to use our intellect to understand that God is indeed present whether we “feel” that presence or not. We also have an opportunity to use our will to act out our faith even when our emotions seem to tell us that God isn’t there or doesn’t care.
Hebrews 13 says, “[Jesus] Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,” so that we confidently say, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What shall man do to me?”
I pray that we can rest in the assurance of scripture on this point, and be confident that we are never alone, even when it feels that way.