“A blind man was crossing a bridge. Two guides offered to lead him, one named faith and one named feelings. Faith led the man to safe ground. Feelings was as blind as him, and led him off the edge.”
That was how Clive, an older man in the church, responded to a question about feeling joy in the Lord. I was a bit surprised, but the idea was familiar. Emotions are dangerous and not to be trusted (or maybe even wanted).
Whether you agree with Clive or not, if you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve heard the same idea. A previous generation (if you’ll permit a sweeping generalization) held them suspect. Meanwhile, our generation seems to live by them. When we feel good, life is great. When we feel bad, life is bad—regardless of whether life is actually more challenging than usual. The goal is to feel good.
For all of our generation’s emphasis on romanticism, applauding the authentic and the “real,” I’m not sure we really know what to do with feelings. At least not the bad ones. Emotions are powerful, but they’re also unpredictable. Emotions—we can’t live with ‘em; we can’t live without ‘em.
For all of our generation’s emphasis on romanticism, applauding the authentic and the ‘real,’ I’m not sure we really know what to do with feelings.
Enter J. Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith’s Untangling Emotions. These two experienced counselors associated with CCEF summarize the fruit of many conversations with Christians who are struggling to be faithful—all while living with feelings that seem to want to tug them over the cliff.
Don’t Avoid Emotions—Engage Them
Consider Groves and Smith’s observation:
Christians often see negative emotions, the ones we would describe as feeling “bad,” as signs of spiritual failure. Anxiety is proof you don’t trust God. Grief is failure to rest in God’s good purposes for your life. Anger is just plain old selfishness. . . . [A]s a result, negative emotions are to be squashed and repented of immediately rather than explored. (15)
“Bad” feelings aren’t feelings from which we should run; they’re feelings we should engage. They’re indicators of activity within our hearts—and the best indicators of possible disorder in our hearts. “God gave us emotions that are actually designed not to change unless what we love changes or what is happening to the thing we love changes” (77, emphasis original). This is the basic premise of Groves and Smith’s work. Emotions are complex, but their instinctive nature helps expose what’s happening. Facing our emotions, then, isn’t just a good or necessary thing to do—it’s a godly thing to do.
I recall exactly where I was when I learned to make myself ask, If this isn’t a big deal, why am I so frustrated? It took just a few seconds to realize my anger wasn’t the fruit of the other guy’s stubbornness; it was the fruit of my belief that my opinions and preferences deserved automatic deference. That brief moment of engagement with my emotions exposed the depths to which pride was embedded in my heart.
Engaging with our emotions isn’t just a good or necessary thing to do—it’s a godly thing to do.
Groves and Smith’s experience in guiding Christians through their feelings, helping them find humility and hope, repentance and renewal, through God’s Word and work is evident. Perhaps the biggest backhanded commendation I can give this book is this: I read every single one of the reflection questions.
Feelings Can (and Do) Change
The book moves from good to great because it not only provides sure-footed guidance through the internal life of feelings, but it also provides clear direction for growing more godly emotions as well. The authors write:
Happily, we can nurture godly maturity in our emotional lives without mastering a complex list of spiritual techniques or even consciously paying attention to our emotions. By pouring ourselves into simply knowing, trusting, and deepening our love for Christ, we will, as an inseparable result, develop godly feelings. (123)
Groves and Smith set out a realistic hope for their readers. If you want your feelings to change, don’t expect overnight transformation. But if you set out to grow in your faith, if you read and meditate on God’s Word, if you observe God’s creation, if you foster godly lament and righteous anger against sin, if you call to mind God’s past faithfulness, if you hold fast to corporate worship and the communion of the saints, you will find your emotional life improving. “Anything that is good for your soul, will, by definition, also have some positive impact on your emotional health” (138).
If you set out to grow in your faith, if you read and meditate on God’s Word . . . if you foster godly lament and righteous anger against sin . . . if you hold fast to corporate worship and the communion of the saints, you will find your emotional life improving.
We may not be able to control how we feel in the moment, but we can change how we feel over time by what we choose to invest our time, energy, and affections in. As our Lord said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
Emotions for Good
I’ve often heard (and maybe even said) the comment, “Emotions are good servants but terrible masters.” Before reading this book, I don’t think I would’ve been able to articulate how negative emotions like anger or anxiety can be good servants in my pursuit of godliness. This book helped me to see and appreciate feelings as a source for potential good. It was also helpful in providing ways I can help others to understand and use their emotions for good.
You may not agree with all their applications. You might want to slice up their dissections of human emotion differently. But if you have emotions, this book is worth your time.
The Gospel Coalition