Should Faith Control Emotions?   5 comments

This interaction occurred several days ago on Facebook with a friend who got a brief response from me after she posted a quote.  You can see she is very gracious and open.  I have changed the names for privacy’s sake.  Our FB interaction is followed by a personal message I wrote to her.

Jennifer: “You either pass on your fears or your faith”     to think about…

Janathan: sometimes how I express my faith stirs up your fears and my fears expressed calm your fears.    to think about.

Jennifer: good point Kent, still reflecting on your comment. My initial thoughts on the area of fears … sometimes expressing or admitting our fears ‘demystifies’ them, & I can see value in that,.. also hearing others admit their own fears helps me realize i’m not the only one… I think what I appreciate about the above quote is the thought of being able to ‘transform’ a paralyzing fear into a faith action. Rather than being immobilized by fear, moving towards trusting God with it. Fear does not come from Him… whatcha think??


Janathan:I think I’m wary of what seems over-simplification to me, assuming solutions when I haven’t taken sufficient time to fully understand the emotional dynamics at work (a definition of “pat” answers). We might say ‘love’ and ‘faith’ are simple, clear, easy to identify… until we start realizing how common misconceptions are, confusing love with lust, possessiveness, admiration, etc. I think we have to agree that all emotions were created by God and of high worth. God created fear in us, and the Bible regularly commands us to fear. My biggest fears tell me something really important about my own woundedness, and if I try to simply control this fear with ‘faith” and not understand my deeper heart issues, I think it causes real personal and relational problems. What is your perspective?

Janathan: On the other hand, one can be equally disrespectful of one’s own feelings by exacerbating them rather than listening to them (though I think conservative Christians tend to err on the former side… as one well-known writer titled a book “Emotions, the Believer’s Greatest Enemy.”

Jennifer: hmmm i don’t like simplistic answers either.. and will often ‘chew’ on a thought for a long time (including your quote 🙂 but at the same time, I’ve had to face some of my biggest fears,… and in the midst of those fears have often found myself unable to do anything else with but transfer them to God. “perfect love casts out all fear” is a concept i don’t fully understand yet it seems to involve trusting the Source of Love to such an extent that we have nothing that’s too big for us to face. The kind of ‘fear’ you refer to,.. i would associate with a respectful fear.. and not an immobilizing fear. appreciate your thoughts..


Janathan: I agree, Jennifer, sometimes fears are so intense we have to find a means of calming them before we can begin to understand them. I think there are many ways of doing this, such as adding a safety net or sharing our fears with someone who is safe for us (this is an act of faith as well). I know I have had numerous misconceptions of faith in my past, misconceptions I still struggle with. One of the biggest ones was to use “faith” to shame my feelings, in which case my feelings went underground, seeming to be conquered, but simply adding another layer of distance between myself and my heart.

Jennifer: hmmm good points. I’ve had to work through ‘fear of admitting fears’…. because as I looked back on my life i realized that the fears i ‘verbalized’ (admitted out loud) were exactly the ones that i ended up having to face in reality. 😦 Still working thru that one, but I think one of the lessons I’ve come away with, was that God wanted me to experience His peace even in the midst of my biggest fears (and I did,… for the most part! 🙂 From what I can tell, fear doesn’t GO AWAY.. we just learn to manage it. I’ve prayed endlessly for God to take away my fear of flying.. but it’s still there. What I had to face was my fear of dying instead.. With cancer, I had to face my fear that His plans weren’t good ones (from my perspective),.. but as I look back,.. so much GOOD came from having it.

Beth: Such thought-provoking comments. You’ve both alluded to the idea that fears have a variety of sources. Yes, fear can be emotionally based, but it can also be based on objective facts and truth. Jesus said “… I am the truth…”. Truth is his very essence and thus he also knows all. I’ve learned that I can trust my God more than I can trust myself. We can all be easily manipulated (emotionally) and we can also manipulate others and we can even manipulate ourselves. But God can not be manipulated. Thus I choose to put my trust in Him who is truth, and pray that he gives me the wisdom to discern the source of my fears and take control of all my thoughts. (2 Cor 10:5 “…destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”)

Jennifer: thanks for your input Beth… i like the verse about ‘taking your thoughts captive’ … i think it fits the discussion. Though I have to admit.. i’m a very practical person… and as much as I understand the ‘exercise’ of doing that,.. i still don’t understand what are the practical, tangible results.? In other words,.. what actually changes in relationship to our fears?

Beth: Making our thoughts “captive and obedient” to Christ is definitely practical, with tangible & transformational results. Emotionally based fears are often reinforced by our thought life. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7). It seems that fear and faith can not co-exist. Paul repeatedly tells his readers we have real power to control our thought-life, leading to transformational living. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2). As we renew/change our thinking, our emotions and behaviour will realign accordingly. When our focus is Christ and his attributes, it will result in our minds being filled with his presence and peace (Phil 4:8-9). Faith and fear do not co-exist.

Kent McQuilkin: Ah, Beth, what a very different view you and I have on emotions and faith!

Jennifer: Will need to reflect on your thoughts Beth… Sometimes it just takes time for a truth/principle to move from my head to my heart,.. and then into action. 🙂 Curious about your view on emotions and faith, Kent. 🙂

Wow, Jennifer, where do I even begin?  I understand Beth’s view, I was raised with that view.  There are good and bad emotions and we must choose the good and refuse the bad.  The good emotions are telling us the truth about the world and God, and the bad emotions are telling us lies.  We encourage the good emotions and discourage the bad emotions by thinking the right thoughts about each, often using Scripture as the basis.  We talk ourselves out of the bad emotions and into the good ones.  This is how faith works to free us from bad emotions–I keep telling myself the truth until I believe it (and truth comes from propositions, not from feelings, which can’t be trusted), and as I slowly believe more, my bad emotions dissolve.

In a sense I believe and follow this approach for superficial matters.  As everyone knows, emotions can be very changeable and fleeting (which makes us reluctant to trust them).  If Kimberly does something that slightly irritates me, I throw some “truth” at my feelings (“she also has to forgive me for my irritating behavior” or “she’s just tired”) and let it go.  I can do this because I am secure in our relationship—I know she cares deeply for me and respects me and my feelings.  It is just an emotional hiccough I feel.  However, if the feeling persists, I know it is telling me something I need to hear.

To suppose that emotions are fickle and unreliable because they constantly fluctuate is a serious misunderstanding I think.  What I see with my eyes constantly changes—I see a chair, then a table, then you, then my book… does this mean my visual perception is unreliable?   On the other hand, if I kept staring at the chair and it turned into a cat and then into a pecan pie, I would have major doubts about my visual perception.  Just like my eyes, my emotions are “reading” constantly changing situations, so that to be consistent, they must constantly fluctuate, but when that situation returns, that emotion returns.  Emotions are remarkably consistent and reliable measures of how our situations are impacting us.  We realize this when we use all our reasoning powers to change our feelings about someone, and one look from them brings those feelings flooding back.  In other words, our emotions are telling us something profoundly true and accurate, stubbornly so, though we may misinterpret them easily if we have been raised in a culture that teaches us to doubt them.

I think that is where we get thrown off the track.  We assume that our emotions are measuring the facts about the current situation, and this consistently proves false.  But that is like blaming the gas gauge for giving the wrong mileage.  Our emotions can tell us things about the current situation that our minds cannot (we call it intuition), just like our gas gauge can help us estimate how many miles we have driven.  But that is not their purpose.  Emotions primarily tell us about our own hearts, not about external situations.  This was very hard for me to grasp at first.  I thought my anger against a friend measured his guilt.  It doesn’t.  It simply says something is going on in my heart that I need to figure out.  Whether he is guilty or not is a very different issue, related but different.

If my emotions are given to me by God, they are all good and valuable when treated as they were designed.  But if I suppose some are bad, then I will refuse to listen to them, perhaps quite effectively drowning out their voice, the voice of truth.  I may credit Biblical thinking and faith for this result, but I feel strongly that such an approach ultimately hurts rather than helps me.  If anything, I have discovered that faith can do the opposite—it can give me the safety and courage to identify and listen to my unwanted emotions instead of pushing them away.  I think that blaming and fixing my emotions is much like using my finger to push the gas gauge needle to “full”.

It is true that I want to be free of those feelings of fear, anger, sadness (and even joy and peace) that are harmful for me and my relationships, but after failing in a life long effort at using the typical “biblical” approach I described above, I learned that listening to my emotions with compassion and understanding was the only way to discover my true brokenness and needs and take the long term, deep approach for transformation.  I put “biblical” in quotes since I find myself now with quite different understandings of verses like “take every thought captive” (ones that do not involve pitting my reasoning against my emotions—wouldn’t it be wonderful if our emotions and intellect could work as partners instead of competitors?)

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.



Posted September 27, 2011 by janathangrace in Guests, thoughts

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5 responses to “Should Faith Control Emotions?

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  1. Sometimes I wonder whether we all mean the same thing by “fear”? I don’t believe that God “created fear in us” because fear seems to come into the picture as a result of our turning from God through disobedience, hubris, whatever. Don’t you think that many of the scriptural references to the “fear of God” mean “reverent awe” more than fear in the sense of dread? Most of my fears seems to be the result of over-proccupation with myself — once I change the focus (to God, the needs of others, etc.), the fear seems to fade.

  2. Sorry, didn’t mean for that to be “Anonymous”.

  3. Thanks for interacting, Nora! Since the Scriptures use the same Hebrew and Greek words for all types of fear, it’s a bit tricky to take the one word and suppose different meanings. However, we are faced with a dilemma since the Bible tells us both to fear and not to fear. On the face of it, we might try to distinguish between the objects of fear–that the emotion is the same, but we are to fear certain things and not others. Then we have the conundrum of trying to put together a God who wants us to trust his love and to also be afraid of him. I believe there are several ways of resolving this, not just the one that I was taught growing up–that the emotion itself is different: respect vs. fear. But that discussion would be a digression.
    Unless Adam and Eve were very different from us, I think we can suppose that they had the same emotions as we have. Presumably they had no difficult experiences until the forbidden fruit, so that the “negative” emotions may not have been felt, but I think it is problematic for us to suppose that they had the capacity for only some emotions, the pleasant ones–they certainly experienced fear and shame upon eating the fruit. Like a green light and red light, our pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions speak from our heart telling us something needs to be considered. They are messengers and they are on our side (they are trying to help us). Just like the gas gauge, they are crucial to give us insight, and ignoring them will be detrimental to our health. Listening to them compassionately does not mean exaggerating them (by excessive focus) or belittling them (by too little focus). It is important that we not “feed” our emotions on the one hand or neglect them on the other–either approach would be falsifying rather than listening to our emotions. Fear is a wonderful gift. It not only alerts us to danger, but stimulates us to seek safety… it is almost like experiencing the negative consequences of a future choice and being able to avoid it for our own good (or prepare ourselves if we must plow through). Fear can be debilitating, but the problem is not the fear itself so much as the source provoking the fear, which needs addressing (and this is usually a wound that needs affectionate handling, not an enemy that needs exorcising). How do we bring “faith” into this picture? I think that is a crucial question, since faith plays a very important role. Those are my thoughts in brief (yes, brief!), just my thoughts, not absolute truth. What are your thoughts?

  4. Do you mean that all emotions are morally neutral?

  5. Yes, I think emotions are morally neutral, though they may reveal underlying moral issues (lack of faith for instance). How we respond to those emotions also has moral content (how we express them, how we think about them, etc.). I think the emotion is no more the problem than the gas gauge that reads “Empty,” but is rather a help to identify what needs attention, namely the empty tank. Our perspective on this has a significant effect on how we approach an emotional issue. If the emotion is the problem, then we try to work directly on the emotion itself rather than on the beliefs, thought patterns, or choices behind the emotion. That is my perspective. Feel free to disagree.

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