Another misconception about the emotions that many Christians buy into is that emotions are so powerful that they govern and control us. At the popular level this is seen in expressions such as “I can’t help the way I feel!” This appeal to the sovereignty of the emotions is used to justify hatred, divorce, infidelity, and all kinds of sinful conduct. From this perspective, the emotions remain immune from obedience, exempt from Christ’s lordship; they are simply external forces that thrust themselves upon us, leaving us at their mercy. One Christian writer expresses this sentiment: “As a saved person, you can control your mind and your will, but not your feelings. God’s plan is for us to believe Him and choose to submit ourselves to His loving care and authority regardless of how we feel. All together now, Rain on how I feel!”4

Just as some Christians elevate reason and dismiss the emotions, others believe that the emotions are the most important thing about us. This view or, rather, feeling turns many Christians into experience junkies who just want to have an emotional high. Such experiences are the sum and substance of their Christianity. They reduce their faith to an empty emotionalism. Being led by the Spirit is nothing more than how a person feels about something. Feelings determine duty. Doctrine is determined by “how I feel about it,” thus, “I don’t believe that doctrine because it makes me feel yucky.” The idea that the emotions should be changed, sanctified, or cultivated is not even on the radar.

This is a very brief and generalized view of some of the most common misconceptions about the emotions. Although these are generalizations, they are accurate ones.

A Working Definition of the Emotions

The Bible does not give us a clinical definition of the emotions, but it does give us numerous words that describe both the source and expression of the emotions. The Bible often commands our feelings, commending or condemning certain emotions. This is an important observation in establishing a working definition. In the Bible, emotions are not amoral. We are responsible for how we feel, and we are expected to exercise self-control and have certain emotions.

Matthew Elliott’s thorough work on the emotions goes into great detail answering the question, “What is emotion?”5 Historically, there are two views on the emotions: one sees the emotions as unrelated to the mind or thinking (the noncognitive view). The other sees the emotions directly related to the mind or thinking (the cognitive view). For those interested in the philosophical and psychological nuances I gladly point you to Elliott’s excellent work. The noncognitive view is generally an evolutionary perspective that sees emotions as a physiological change in feeling (e.g., sweaty palms, racing heart, euphoria), which is named by the person experiencing the change (fear, happiness, etc.). In other words, we are subject to our emotions and are not ultimately responsible for them. They are something that happens to us, physically or chemically. We cry and feel sadness. We feel anxiety because our hearts race. Although emotions often have physiological manifestations (the Bible affirms this), this view is biblically unacceptable. It also flies in the face of common sense and is just plain backwards!

The cognitive view of the emotions sees the emotions as based on beliefs, standards, judgments, evaluations, concerns, and thoughts. The emotions and reason are interdependent. The emotions are not simply impulses; they are the indicators of what we value and what we believe. “Our emotions can be considered to arise from our beliefs and concerns.”6 The emotions reflect and express the inner man, the heart, the soul, the mind. They have an object. For instance, thinking about anger cannot make us angry, but thinking about the injustice of abortion can make us angry. The object of the emotion of anger is the injustice of abortion because we value human life. The thought of losing one’s spouse can cause us fear or sorrow. The emotion of fear has an object: the thought of losing a spouse. Seeing my daughter deliver the valedictorian speech at her graduation brings me joy, because I value my daughter and am proud of her achievement. The power of the emotion is based on our own personal evaluation and valuing of the object. I would have a different emotional response seeing a car hit a jackrabbit and a car hitting a child. Matthew Elliott summarizes this: