Enjoy the Gift of Biblical Emotion
(This is a special feature post from a chapter in the book Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything From the Inside Out by Daniel Henderson.)
The Indwelling Spirit Empowers Me with Sanctified Affections
So let me get this on the table right up front. I am a “crier.” But lest you think I am a hypersensitive type, I also I love to hunt. I growl like Tim the Tool Man when I harvest and dress a deer. But I tear up during many movies.
Recently, while leading one of our national conferences for church leaders, I choked up every time I tried to give the announcements. My heart was intensely moved by what I saw the Holy Spirit doing in the hearts of pastors from around North America. It affected me deeply. Yet, in daily life, my “gift of mercy” is actually subterranean. Go figure.
Emotions are a gift from God, mysterious and often beautiful. But sometimes, if uncontrolled, they feel like a curse and can poison relationships. I’m getting emotional just thinking about my emotions!
EMOTIONS OR THE HOLY SPIRIT?
I certainly do not have an advanced degree in “emotionology,” but I believe a discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit must include a balanced, biblical understanding of our very real and necessary emotions. I’ve realized that many of our suspicions about those “other” Christians are not so much a rejection of their theology but rather an aversion to how they overly process, or fail to process, their emotions as they experience the Holy Spirit.
One camp is on the more expressive side. Observers wonder if it is really the work of the Spirit or just too much caffeine. Maybe they just manifest an eccentric exhibition of personal dysfunction. Others, it seems, might as well join a society of totem poles, as they don’t seem to feel anything at all about matters truly divine and supernatural. In any particular weekend gathering you’ll discover a diverse mix of thinkers, feelers, and a segment of the unsure.
The inside-out work of the Holy Spirit helps every believer experience vital, holy emotions that are part of our transformational growth. The indwelling Spirit also helps us control emotions that might, in any way, detract from the glory of Jesus and the edification of others. It could be that those who typically worship from the emotional sidelines (whether overtly “wired” or overly “wary”) might be missing a balanced, new covenant experience of the Holy Spirit. Emotion is a gift from God to help us relate to Him and one another. Our feelings are important to our journey of faith. They make an effective servant but can be an excruciating master. Like any gift, we must understand and steward our emotions so that they are formed by truth and fueled by the Spirit to facilitate the advancement of Christ-honoring purposes.
Emotion is a gift from God to help us relate to Him and one another. Our feelings are important to our journey of faith.
AN EMOTIONAL GOD?
In many places the Bible demonstrates God’s intense compassion (Ex. 33:19; Deut. 13:17; Judg. 2:18; Pss. 103:13, 116:5), joy and delight (Deut. 30:9; Isa. 42:1; 62:4; Jer. 32:41), anger (Ex. 22:24; Deut. 6:14–15; Josh. 7:1; Jer. 7:20; Ezek. 5:13), grief (Gen. 6:6; Eph. 4:30), and love (Deut. 7:7–8; Isa. 43:4; Jer. 31:3; Hos. 11:1; 1 John 4:8). In Isaiah 49:15, the Father communicates His affection for Israel with the imagery of a mother caring deeply for her child, clearly one of the most tender and emotionally charged relationships known to man. Zephaniah 3:17 states that “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Pastor Brian Borgman explains, “Unless we want to chalk up hundreds of passages as ‘figures of speech’ and eviscerate God’s personhood, we must admit biblically that God has and expresses perfect and holy emotions.”
JESUS, OUR EXAMPLE OF EMOTION
Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). John said that He has made the Father known ( John 1:18). Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Like the Father, Jesus demonstrated full range of emotion.
New Testament professor G. Walter Hanson has observed, “The gospel writers paint their portraits of Jesus using a kaleidoscope of brilliant ‘emotional’ colors. Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; he was troubled, greatly distressed, very sorrowful, depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved.”
THE EMOTIONS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
The indwelling Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the living God (1 Cor. 2:11–14; 2 Cor. 3:3; Phil. 3:3; 1 Peter 4:14) and the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9; 1 Peter 1:11). Thus, we are indwelt by a God of “perfect and holy emotion.”
Hebrews 10:29 speaks of those who “trampled underfoot the Son of God” and have “outraged the Spirit of grace.” Ephesians 4:30 describes the Holy Spirit being “grieve[d],” which is a word that conveys intense heartache, sorrow, or distress. In Romans 8:26, we are told “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Literally, the Spirit “laments” or “sighs” as he identifies with our struggles. James 4:5 tells us, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously” (NKJV). The Spirit “envies intensely with profound longing and desire for total loyalty and devotion.”4 The Holy Spirit is personal and emotional.
Herbert Lockyer writes, “‘Personality . . . is capacity for fellowship. The very quality which was most singularly characteristic of Jesus manifest itself in the Spirit, only more universally, more intimately, more surely.’ Being able to think, feel, and will, the Spirit has the capacity for fellowship, which is not possible without personality.” The inside-out work of the indwelling Spirit transforms our emotions, making them truly Christlike. The Spirit empowers us to express emotion in a gospel-advancing fashion to be a blessing to the saved, a witness to the lost, and a warning to the disobedient. In the words of Walter Hansen, “We are not to be merely spellbound by what we see in the emotional Jesus; we are to be unbound by his Spirit so that his life becomes our life, his emotions our emotions, to be ‘transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.’”
EMOTIONAL IN THE IMAGE OF GOD
We are made in the image of God and thus able to experience meaningful emotion in ways that no other species of God’s creation does (Gen. 1:27). The Bible speaks prolifically about human emotion from Genesis to Revelation, perhaps nowhere more often than in the Psalms, where David and other psalmists came to God with a wide array of emotions. Jesus said, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
The apostle Paul wrote openly about his emotions. In Acts 20:31, he testified to the elders from Ephesus that he “did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” As he departed their company the account says, “There was much weeping on the part of all; they embrace Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful” because they would not see him again (20:37–38). To the Thessalonians he wrote of his affection for them, like a nursing mother, and his encouragement of them, like a father (1 Thess. 2:7–8, 11–12). In Galatians 4:19, he described his feelings toward the church like the “anguish of childbirth.” He spoke openly of his extreme joy and personal longings in connection with the God’s people (Phil. 1:8; 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19-20; 2 Tim. 1:4). In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s transparency prompted him to make specific references his emotions no less than thirty-five times!
Spiritually healthy people are aware of the vital role of emotion as beings made in the image of God and saints called to transformation into the image of Jesus.
God desires that we express emotion. Brian Borgmans writes, “Another consideration is that God in His Word actually commands us to feel certain ways and express certain emotions. Rejoice, fear, be angry, weep, mourn, delight are all biblical mandates that must not be reduced to mere acts of the will (Phil. 4:4; Matt. 10:28; Eph. 4:26; Rom. 12:15; Ps. 37:4). These commands engage the emotions. Far from being the caboose, the feelings or emotions are a vital part of our humanity which needs to be cultivated through God’s Word.” As one counselor has noted, “Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality; listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God. . . . Emotions are the language of the soul. They are the cry that gives the heart a voice.” The great Bible teacher, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,
“I regard it as a great part of my calling in the ministry to emphasize the priority of the mind and the intellect in connection with the faith; but though I maintain that, I am equally ready to assert that the feelings, the emotions, the sensibilities obviously are of very vital importance. We have been made in such a way that. . . . one of the greatest problems in our life in this world, not only for Christians, but for all people, is the right handling of our feelings and emotions. Oh, the havoc that is wrought and the tragedy, the misery and the wretchedness that are to be found in the world simply because people do not know how to handle their own feelings! Man is so constituted that the feelings are in this very prominent position, and indeed, there is a very good case for saying that perhaps the final thing which regeneration and the new birth do for us is just to put the mind and the emotions and the will in their right positions.”
Emotional reactions are essentially outward expressions of what is going on inwardly. The exuberant happiness I experienced when the Seahawks clobbered the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII was only matched by the exasperating disappointment I felt the next year when they gave the victory away to the Patriots in the final minute in Super Bowl XLIX. Emotions are a part of life. Christians and non-Christians alike get emotional about many things: sports, romance, births, deaths, personal conflict, injustice, etc. Raw emotion, prompted by a happy or tragic event, is common to all people and part of the glory of God creating us in His image. Yet only Christians can experience truly holy emotion. Christ-honoring, Christ-witnessing, Christ-loving emotion is unique to those indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Christians also have emotions rooted in the glory of the gospel.
There have been many occasions when I have wept over men expressing deep repentance at a prayer summit. I have cheered joyously at outdoor baptisms and felt profound agony as I’ve seen the spiritual lostness of people in various nations of the world. I’ve struggled with deep grief watching my parents and treasured church members slip from this life on their deathbed. I’ve felt the joy of the angels when someone committed their life to Christ after we’ve prayed for many years.
Our feelings can be positive or negative, godly or carnal. We know they can tend to change on a dime and are sometimes hard to understand. Several of my godly mentors have advised, “Never let your highs get you too high, or your lows get you too low.” Perhaps they knew I had a particular need for this wisdom.
A TOOL OF PURPOSE
So as you think about the inside-out work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, let Him engage and empower your emotions, but also govern them. Writer Jon Bloom counsels:
“God designed your emotions to be gauges, not guides. They’re meant to report to you, not dictate to you. The pattern of your emotions (not every caffeine-induced or sleep-deprived one!) will give you a reading on where your hope is because they are wired into what you believe and value—and how much. That’s why emotions like delight (Ps. 37:4), affection (Rom. 12:10), fear (Luke 12:5), anger (Ps. 37:8), joy (Ps. 5:11), etc., are so important in the Bible. They reveal what your heart loves, trusts, and fears. . . . pleasure is the measure of your treasure, because the emotion of pleasure is a gauge that tells you what you love.”
Charles Swindoll wrote honestly about his experience of emotion: “I have found that my feelings often represent some of the most sensitive areas in my life touched by the Spirit of God. Not infrequently do my emotions play a vital role in how and where the Spirit is guiding me, giving me reasons to make significant decisions, cautioning me to back off, and reproving me for something in my life that needs immediate attention.” Honest and helpful words. He continues, “We are strange creatures: proud of our brains, stubborn in our wills, but ashamed of our emotions—though we deny all three!” He states that one of the benefits of a life sensitive to the Holy Spirit is that it “allows us to warm up to our emotions, which is nothing more than allowing ourselves the freedom to be real, to be whole. . . . Expressing one’s emotions is not a mark of immaturity or carnality.” The Spirit-inspired Psalms, packed with emotion of all kinds, affirm and illustrate this reality.
Emotions are driven by our thoughts. Circumstances do not determine our emotions. Rather, our thoughts toward, and in response to, those circumstances drive our emotions. Clearly, there are real biochemical factors for some people. In some seasons of life, the weight of a major trial or crisis put us in disarray or complete brokenness. But most of the time, the emotional battle is won or lost at the level of our thinking. It’s not always what I am going through but how I am thinking about what I am going through that sparks strong emotion.
This is where the “renewing of our minds” according to biblical truth is so essential. Ephesians 4:17–24 explains that the unsaved manifest sensuality and impurity based on hardened hearts, rooted in the futility of their minds. Believers, embracing the “truth [that] is in Jesus,” are renewed in the spirit of their minds and able overcome deceitful desires to live out the truth of a “new self.” What we believe fuels how we behave. Lies instigate destructive feelings. Truth shapes godly reactions and profitable emotional behavior.
John Piper elaborates with these words: “My feelings are not God. God is God. My feelings do not define truth. God’s word defines truth. My feelings are echoes and responses to what my mind perceives. And sometimes—many times—my feelings are out of sync with the truth. When that happens—and it happens every day in some measure—I try not to bend the truth to justify my imperfect feelings, but rather, I plead with God: Purify my perceptions of your truth and transform my feelings so that they are in sync with the truth.”
HOLY AND HAPPY HEARTS
Tim Keller, advising preachers, writes, “Unless the truth is not only clear but also real to listeners, then people will still fail to obey it. Preaching cannot simply be accurate and sound. It must capture the listeners’ interest and imaginations; it must be compelling and penetrate to their hearts.” This could also be said about much of our daily communication with family, friends, and work associates. Keller defines the heart as “the seat of the mind, will and emotions all together.” He explains that the heart produces emotions, the heart thinks, and the heart wills. He states, “Most fundamentally, the heart puts its trust in things (Prov. 3:5). Biblically, then, the heart’s ‘loves’ mean much more than emotional affection. What the heart most loves is what it most trusts and commits itself to (Prov. 23:26). . . .Whatever captures the heart’s trust and love also controls the feeling and behavior.” He reminds preachers that to preach to the heart they must preach from the heart and that “sermons may be nothing but good lectures until ‘we get to Jesus.’”
This is why a biblical view of emotion by church leaders and members is so important. A plaque that has rested on my desk for decades says, “God’s word sets me on fire and people come to see me burn.” Truth-inspired, godly emotion is contagious in the best of ways. “Worship of God should always involve the emotions; how can we praise a holy God who has redeemed us without getting emotional about it? But what should move our emotions is not the sonorous tones of the organ, or the insistent beat of the drum, but the mind’s apprehension of the truth about God.”
Some Christ followers on the road to Emmaus journeyed briefly with the risen Christ. This emotional encounter was recounted with these words: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Notice what sparked their spiritual heartburn.
So our emotions are a function of the loves of our heart. The loves of our heart are shaped by the truths we believe. Conversely, our loves can drive our thoughts. In the complicated mix of human emotion, one thing is sure: we are wise when truth shapes our trust. And because the Holy Spirit’s purpose is the glory of Jesus, we manage our feelings best when our heart is enthralled with the Savior and we are free to express that love and obedience with our entire being, including emotions.
We manage our feelings best when our heart is enthralled with the Savior and we are free to express that love and obedience with our entire being, including emotions.
Dr. David Eckman helps us with an essential distinction: “Emotions do not authenticate truth; emotions cannot verify the historicity of the resurrection of Christ or other historical and theological realities. Emotions, however, do authenticate our understanding of the truth. A happy heart is the greatest evidence of the apprehension of spiritual truth. In the Bible, truth is supposed to strike the life with positive emotional force. Truth without effect is an unknown within Scripture.”
The New Testament also shows a profound contrast between those whose lives are guided and oriented around the Holy Spirit and those ruled by their flesh. The fruit of these dissimilar lifestyles is seen in some emotionally infused terms. The flesh is evident in “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19–21). Some of these behaviors would be classified as emotional manifestations, the others involve emotional motivations.
But those whose regular conduct is ordered according to the life of the Holy Spirit embrace truth and exhibit trust in ways that demonstrate “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22–23). Our emotions are transformed by the inside-out work of the Holy Spirit.
When we are filled with the Spirit, our truth-based and truly healthy emotions are focused on the astonishing wonder of the person and work of Jesus. The Spirit’s control overflows in song, gratitude, and willing submission (Eph. 5:18–21). “Theologically speaking, emotions are ‘rightly ordered’ when they are appropriately directed. In order for an emotion to be considered ‘a full-fledged emotion’—as opposed to, say, a ‘mood’—it needs an object: something to be directed toward. To have our emotions rightly ordered, then, is to have them appropriately directed toward the right objects.” The right and best object is the person, purposes, and power of Christ.
BALANCED EMOTIONS IN THE CHURCH
In some churches, emotion can seem like a narcotic that must be dispensed from the platform each week through various delivery systems. The evaluation of the service as being good or bad, powerful or dull, Spirit-filled or boring is rooted in the level of emotion aroused by those in charge of the program. It appears that a heightened level of feeling is the goal.
In other churches, emotion seems to be an intrusive threat to biblical worship, a dangerous distraction to the true work of the Word of God. The music must not provoke any activity below the neck, and the preaching is clearly targeted exclusively to the head. Reason and intellectual learning are the markers of a godly worship service, and emotion is viewed as a hindrance to the work of the Spirit, who is almost spoken of as if He were concerned exclusively with the mind.
In most cases people are stuck somewhere in the middle and not sure what to think, do, or feel. Author Arturo Azurdia speaks of our vulnerability to a “law of diminishing returns,” when we are overly dependent on emotional experience in worship: “The maturing Christian will be consistently impaired if devotion to Jesus Christ is determined by fresh experiences of spiritual ecstasy . . . because one’s sensation of being overpowered by God will need to steadily intensify. The ordinary will give way to the unusual. The unusual will surrender to the extreme. The extreme will topple to the ridiculous. Often, the inevitable consequence is spiritual emptiness.” As J. I. Packer has noted, the danger of an imbalanced emphasis that leans toward a continual need for an emotional high can result in “Christian-centered instead of . . .Christ-centered” worship.
So we must cultivate a Christlike, Spirit-prompted freedom to feel. Yet we must guard our hearts from simply being excited about excitement, emotional about emotions, or worshiping the feelings of worship. Vaughan Roberts strikes this balance, “We should not assume that we have encountered God just because we get emotional. It might simply have been the skill of the musicians or the beauty of the songs that moved us. But please do not conclude from that that we should be wary of all emotion.” Ed Steele confirms, “The key is to keep our focus on God as the center of our worship and not the emotions that the music may evoke, lest we find ourselves worshiping the feelings generated by the music more than God. We have freedom of emotional expression but focused on the root source, not the result.” Again, the root source is Christ and His glorious gospel.
Spirit-filled churches, then, make much of Jesus and the primacy of the new covenant. This affects our thoughts with inspired truth, which fuels our trust and moves our emotions in attributing all-out worth to Jesus. This is not done in some manipulative cheerleader mode but through a Christ-focused environment where leaders and participants alike pursue the glory of the Son of God, in step with the purpose of the work of the Spirit.
When we gather with other believers we have an additional responsibility to steward our emotional expressions. How are my expressed feelings affecting others? Paul established clear guidelines for the worshiping community: “Let all things be done for building up,” “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets,” and “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:26, 32, 40). Any manifestation of emotion that has the intention, or even the effect, of drawing attention to oneself needs to be submitted to the “self-control” of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Because I am invited to minister in a wide array of church settings, I witness a diverse display of emotion. For me, one of the more curious expressions involves women in flowing clothes, dancing around in front of the gathering, waving flags in rather wild whirling. Perhaps this is part of your tradition. For me, it was a distraction from the message of the music and competes with a focus on Christ. (I even got whacked in the head once with a flag pole. That was not edifying.)
The point is simple: God commands us to experience emotion. The forms that we embrace must be subjected to the Bible and the spiritual leaders of the church, then expressed in a way that heightens the glory of Jesus rather than competes for the attention of our fellow worshipers.
The forms that we embrace must be subjected to the Bible and the spiritual leaders of the church, then expressed in a way that heightens the glory of Jesus rather than competes for the attention of our fellow worshipers.
FINDING THE BALANCE
We all live each day, and come together each weekend, with real needs. Many of these necessities affect our emotions. Unpredictable circumstances, strained relationships, financial pressure, health difficulties, work conflict, and many more dynamics can trigger difficult feelings within the course of any given week. To manage these responses, we need to embrace biblical truth, applied by the indwelling Spirit, whose very life is one of holy emotion.
Ed Steele notes, “If we worship God so that our needs are met, we are focusing on ourselves. However, when we really focus on God in worship, somehow in God’s grace, He meets our needs; the focus is on Him, not my needs or desires. We aren’t to pretend we haven’t needs when we come in worship. God invites us to bring our needs to Him.” Yes, we bring our needs, including the emotions attached to the those needs, to an ever-sufficient Christ, subjecting our thoughts to His Word and submitting our wills to the control of the indwelling Spirit. The Lord does not scold us for our emotions but desires to sanctify our emotions for His glory.
So, tomorrow as you wake up, and this weekend when you worship, here are some helpful questions to ask:
- Am I aware of and open to my God-given emotions?
- What is prompting this particular emotion?
- What thoughts may be fueling and shaping this emotion?
- Are these thoughts being transformed by the Word of God?
- Based on God’s Word, where should I focus my trust?
- Are these emotions consistent with the fruit of the Holy Spirit and submitted to His control?
- How can the Holy Spirit use these emotions to glorify Christ?
- How are these emotions affecting others?
- Is my emotional expression building up others or in some way distracting or discouraging them?
- If my regular emotions are proving to be destructive, how and when will I get outside help to maintain emotional health and spiritual maturity?
Emotional balance will go a long way in our experience of the Holy Spirit. In the fringes of dead-pan tradition or feverish frenzy, we can miss God’s intention for our experience of perfect and holy emotion. John Piper gives good advice: “Worship must have heart and worship must have head. Worship must engage your emotions and worship must engage your thoughts. Truth without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full of unspiritual fighters. Emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates flaky people who reject the discipline of rigorous thought. True worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine.”
Copyright © 2023 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.