Emotion is essentially an outward expression of what is going on inwardly. Christians are not the only ones who show emotion. Non-Christians also get emotional about many things: sports, romance, births, deaths, personal conflict, injustice, etc. Intense 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.
The exuberant happiness I experienced when the Seahawks clobbered the Broncos in the 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. Emotion is part of life. But this common, God-given emotion had nothing to do with the mission of Jesus.
On the other hand, 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 tasted the joy of the angels when someone committed their life to Christ after we’ve prayed for many years. These are emotions rooted in the glory of the gospel.
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.
Never let your highs get you too high, or your lows get you too low.
A Tool of Purpose
So as we think about the inside-out work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we must let Him engage and empower our 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 (Psalm 37:4), affection (Romans 12:10), fear (Luke 12:5), anger (Psalm 37:8), joy (Psalm 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.”[I]
“God designed your emotions to be gauges, not guides. They’re meant to report to you, not dictate to you.” (Jon Bloom)
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 reason to make significant decisions, cautioning me to back off, and reproving me for something in my life that needs immediate attention.”[ii] Honest and helpful words. He continues, “We are strange creatures: proud of our brains, stubborn in our will, 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.”[iii] 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 bio-chemical factors for some people. In some seasons of life the weight of a major trial or crisis puts 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.
It’s not always what I am going through, but how I am thinking about what I am going through that sparks strong emotion.
So, 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 to 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.
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.”[iv]
The New Testament presents 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” (Galatians 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.
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 (Ephesians 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.”[v] The right and best object is the person, purposes, and power of Christ.
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.
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 our emotional responses, we need to embrace biblical truth, applied by the indwelling Spirit, whose very life is one of holy emotion.
To manage our emotional responses, we need to embrace biblical truth, applied by the indwelling Spirit, whose very life is one of holy emotion.
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?
(This devotion was excerpted, in part, from our book Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything from the Inside Out, available HERE).
Copyright © 2022 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.
(Find resources along this theme HERE.)
[ii] Charles Swindoll, Flying Closer to the Flame (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), 155
[iii] Ibid, 155-156
[iv] John Piper, Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again (Fearn, Highland: United Kingdom, 2009), 17