I will, God willing, never forget the day on which each of my children were born. Hands down, the predominant feeling my wife and I experienced was joy. After nine months of anticipation, preceded by years of hopeful longing to one day have children, we experienced in each case a wonderful, life-enriching event. I will also, God willing, never forget the day in my adult years that my dad passed away. Unlike the days that marked my children’s births, it was a day of mixed feelings. I felt much sadness because my loving father was no longer with me and my family. I also felt profound joy knowing that he had entered into eternal rest. While both feelings were pronounced, joy was no doubt the more pronounced of the two. I may forget, God willing, the day I walked home from elementary school, when I was no older than six years, and a large, tense, growling, teeth-bared German Shepherd stood in my way. What did I feel? I think you know. I thought for sure he would at least bite me and probably do worse. Fortunately, some older kids managed to distract the dog and I walked safely home.
In each of these cases, I felt something, and I suspect that the feelings I felt were appropriate. I further suspect that the feelings I felt even helped me in those circumstances in some important way. How so? I’ll dig into that question in a moment, but first, just what are emotions? Are they simply non-cognitive, physiological states? That is, are they just physical, bodily reactions? I doubt it. Following Robert C. Roberts, I believe emotions can be helpfully understood to be an aspect of human personality that allows us to grasp the significance of situations. When we enter a situation, within us is registered a particular feeling or feelings — anger, sadness, joy, for instance — whose intensity varies according to the significance we attach to the situation. Why does it matter whether or not we have emotions? Emotions allow us to experience the meaningfulness of the events of life: sorrow enables us to experientially grasp loss. Anger enables us to experientially grasp injustice. Compassion enables us to experientially grasp another’s misfortune. Love enables us to experientially grasp another’s well-being. Joy enables us to experientially grasp favor. And so on. Emotions, in short, give richness to life shared with one another.
We can appreciate this fact if we imagine if life was devoid of emotion. In such a world, we might perceive that someone is being mistreated, but without the emotion of anger we would fail to grasp the significance of their mistreatment. We might perceive the loss of the death of a loved one, but without sorrow we would fail to grasp the significance of that loss. We might perceive that someone is down-and-out, but without compassion we would fail to grasp the significance of their pain. Can we give an example? If humans were emotionless, Sam might see that his bullied younger sister Lisa needs a listening ear, and he might just give her that ear, but what moves him won’t be compassion. It will instead be a calculation: Lisa is hurting, listening helps alleviate hurt, I’ll listen to her. In Sam’s act, Lisa may in some measure receive the care she needs, but it won’t be empathizing care. We might suppose that in such a world it wouldn’t matter that Sam lacks empathy, because Lisa, too, being emotionless, wouldn’t need it. But this imaginary world does point to something important about the real world in which we live. Life with emotions is vibrant, full, variegated. Life without emotions would be dull, flat, vapid. Can we give a concrete example? Having personally ministered to the Christians in Ephesus for several years, Paul sensed it was time for him to depart for Jerusalem, and gave a farewell speech to the elders in the Ephesian church that movingly captured the significance of his ministry. “And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20.36).
In the real world, the world in which people really do have emotions, emotions are in part reactive states. For example: anger wells up in Becky when she sees her boss berate Samantha her co-worker. But emotions aren’t reactive states alone. They also move us to action: a woman angered by abuse of children is moved to provide assistance. A child filled with joy knowing he is loved by God is moved to sing songs of praise. The death of a loved one occasions a flood of joyous memories which in turn stimulates giving thanks to God. Other aspects of our personhood also move us to action. Hunger pangs, for instance, move us to acquire food and intellectual curiosity moves us to investigate unexplored questions. But emotions move us to action in their own distinct way. They move us closer to other people. Joseph, for example, full compassion for his brothers, said to them, “'So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50.21).
Emotions, too, are universal, in the sense that every properly functioning human person – whether they are in Christ or not — has them. This is a profound aspect of God’s common grace in that it allows people of all backgrounds to grasp something of the significance of the events in their lives. In God’s kindness, unbelievers can sense the import of the plight of the impoverished as well as the import of the eradication of disease. The universality of emotion is good for a number of reasons, not least because it enables believers and unbelievers to work together on common projects (like providing relief for the poor) and it is also an important means for the gospel to take root in their lives should they, by God’s grace, sense the direness of life apart from the Lord and the goodness of life together with Him.
It probably goes without saying that emotions sometimes misfire, and that it is wrong when they do. A dad who flies into a rage when his preschool aged son doodles a bit on the table has misconstrued the significance of the situation. Being mildly upset might be warranted; uncontrolled rage is not. It is appropriate to evaluate our emotions and to bring them under censure when they are inappropriate and commendation when they are appropriate. It’s also good and necessary to work on improving our emotions and our ability to read the significance of situations. We can do this, in large part, by aligning our thoughts, affections, and wills more and more with Holy Scripture. We should ask of Scripture: What is God concerned about? What does He consider to be feeling-worthy? Who in scripture exhibits healthy emotions worthy of our imitation? (Ruth and the matured Joseph are two who come right to mind.) What might we learn from the emotional life of Jesus? (B. B. Warfield’s The Emotional Life of Our Lord is a great place to start—and return to.) What situations might require of us deeper empathy, greater joy, more profound compassion? (Genesis and Exodus in the Old Testament and the Gospels in the New are good places to turn to.) How should I take into account my personality, life-history, and family upbringing when considering my emotional states? What does Scripture teach us about how we should construe loss, mistreatment, favor, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation?
How then shall we feel? It depends in good measure on the person, the situation, and his or her perception of the situation. I hope I never tell someone (unless perhaps they ask me) how I think they should feel in a particular situation, for most of the time each one of us has a pretty good sense of the kinds and ranges of feelings that are and are not appropriate. But it is good to feel, because we are created to feel.
Mr. Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.