When we feel sad, do we just need to pray more? When we feel happy, is this a sign of strong faith? People have a wide range of opinions when it comes to emotions. At one extreme is the belief that emotions are simply uncontrollable physical forces that must simply be repressed. At the other end of the spectrum is frustration over the idea that they are considered so important and used as the basis for everything. Throughout the Bible, we find a variety of emotions expressed. How should we view emotions, and can they affect our faith?
1. God created humans to have emotions and created them good.
One has only to read through the Psalms to see the whole range of emotions expressed. We can take comfort in the fact that God inspired the writers of this book to express all the emotions we encounter. When sin entered the world, however, our emotional responses became tied to our sinful nature and this suffering world. Therefore, we must be careful to not let our emotions control what we believe. Sometimes this means seeking medical help, and always it means resting upon the Word of God to tell us what is true about ourselves and the world.
God’s Word tells us that if we believe and rest upon Jesus as our savior, the truth that we are saved from our sin and given a great inheritance in God’s kingdom does not depend on our emotional state. It’s easy for us to make emotional experience the test of truth or true faith. However, every Christian will experience emotional ups and downs, both for good reasons and bad reasons. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ Jesus alone. He lived the perfect life, feelings and all, because we could not save ourselves from our bodies of death (Rom. 7:24–25).
2. Jesus himself experienced the full range of emotions.
At times Jesus was completely overcome with strong emotions, like when he wept for Lazarus (John 11:34–35) or the time he threw people out of the temple (Matt. 21:12). All these emotions were right because Christ was perfect, always obeying God’s commands, even despite overwhelming emotions (Matt. 26:36–46). He went through all of that for our sake, so that he would intimately know what it is like to be human. He endured all the way to the cross so that we could be saved.
Christ engages, constrains, and conforms our beliefs and values—and thus our emotions. When Jesus gives us a new self, our emotional responses are able to be redirected toward the things of heaven rather than the things of this world. God even commands us to have certain emotional responses. God’s commands to rejoice (Phil. 4:4), to hope (1 Pet. 3:15), and to love (1 Cor. 13) are all founded upon the great and wonderful things he gives us to rejoice in, hope for, and love. Matthew Elliot notes,
The nature of Christian emotions themselves are not different than the emotions of the world, but rather it is why they are felt and for what they are felt that sets them apart (Faithful Feelings, 259).
The psalmist always remembers who God is and what he has said, and these facts form the basis for understanding his experience. Thus, his emotions ultimately never control or fully overwhelm him. His faith rests upon God even in the midst of intense emotion. He is never persuaded to dismiss his faith due to how he feels (Ps. 116:3; Ps. 48:6; Ps. 5:11). Augustine writes,
Among ourselves, according to the sacred Scriptures and sound doctrine, the citizens of the holy city of God, who live according to God in the pilgrimage of this life, both fear and desire, and grieve and rejoice. And because their love is rightly placed, all these affections of theirs are right. (City of God, 14.9)
Augustine explains that emotional responses are correct when they are the fruit of our rightly placed love. Emotions can be expressions of our faith and what we believe, but they should never be the basis of our faith or our confidence.
3. Faith is not measured by our emotions.
As sinners and saints, our emotions will never be perfect in this life. There will be days when our emotions do not act in accord with God's Word and threaten to convince us the truth is not what the Word of God says. This is why it is important to remember what C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity:
Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable…That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue. (pp. 140–141)
Faith does not depend on our emotional state but holds onto and trusts what God has said. Physical or emotional struggles are always going to shake us up. While our emotions can and should express our faith, God is constant and unchanging. He is the anchor we grasp by faith when everything threatens to overwhelm us.