September 22, 2003
by David Zimmerman
The heart—the seat of emotional life—certainly seems uncontrollable. When I’m angry to the point of rage, appealing to reason just irritates me. When I’m depressed, I withdraw from attempts to bring me out of my depression. Whether I’m happy, sad or mad, I’m generally not interested in feeling any different. The heart wants what it wants.
Our emotions affect others more than our intellect, our physique or our spirituality. People can tell with one look what emotions I’m processing from moment to moment, and my feelings have immediate impact on them. Happy people steer clear of sullen people, and misery loves only miserable company. We make judgments about people based on their emotions, sometimes temporary (“I wonder why she’s so upset”) but sometimes permanent (“She’s so crabby”).
Unchecked emotions can rule over us, no question. And yet, emotions are part of the human package—we are never emotionless, and suppressing emotions can lead ultimately to bad health and broken relationships. We have mental, physical and spiritual disciplines, but what we’re missing, and what we really need, are emotional disciplines.
Often we can’t recognize what we’re feeling. The first emotional discipline is thus to engage our feelings—to learn what prompts them and sustains them: “Search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4 NIV).
But emotions are politically potent, affecting not only how we perceive reality but how we engage it. To discipline our emotions we must strike a balance between emotional honesty and emotional tyranny. Psalm 4:4 speaks to this balance as well: “In your anger do not sin.”
Some situations call for anger (or a host of other emotions), but no situation calls for sin. When I’m so happy I avoid unhappy people, I allow my emotions to reign in the place of God, who may be asking me to minister to their suffering. Or when you give full vent to your anger without thought of the consequences, you betray your calling to live at peace with everyone “as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).
Indulgence is not the only unhealthy engagement of emotions, of course. There’s a reason emotions are political: to stifle emotions in the interest of a superficial peace is to avoid a confrontation God may want you to make. Once we recognize what has triggered our emotions, we must consider their purpose and respond adequately. God created us to exist in community with him and each other, and emotions are a tool for building that community.
Once we get in the habit of disciplining our emotions, we will be better prepared to engage the world around us in the manner God has prescribed for us. And instead of betraying God in our deceitful hearts, we can respond to the calling of every Christian heart: to want what God wants.