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A Brief Theology of Emotions

We all have emotions. How often do we consider emotions from a biblical perspective though?… Yet, what better place to turn than God’s word! So, what does the Bible say about emotions?

Emotions are part of God’s good design

First, it is important to realize that “Our emotional capacities are part of our nature as personal beings created in the image and likeness of God.”[1] Second, Emotions are part of God’s good design.[2] Third, We often don’t think about it but we are actually commanded to be emotional. For example, Psalm 2:11 says “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” And there’s a bunch of other examples (Deut. 28:47-48; Ps. 51:17; 97:10; 100:2; Matt. 6:25-34; Rom. 12:9, 15; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:15).

So, Jay Adams says:

“The fact is that there are no damaging or destructive emotions per se. Our emotional makeup is totally from God. All emotions of which He made us capable are constructive when used properly (i.e., in accordance with biblical principles)… All emotions, however, can become destructive when we fail to express them in harmony with biblical limitations and structures.”[3]

You may have heard: “Don’t follow your emotions” or “don’t let your feelings get the best of you,” or “use your head.” But emotions are not bad in themselves. God created us with emotions.

Even our negative emotions are not always wrong. It’s not always bad to feel bad. Sometimes feeling sad and angry is good and right. It’s important to realize that in the Psalms the genre of lament is most dominant.[4] It is also important to remember that there is no book of Joys but there is a book of Lamentations.[5] We don’t always have just “good” feelings and that’s okay. On the other hand, God made us at least in part to experience profound joy and to experience this forever, Psalm 16:11 says. So, our first take away is for us to realize that emotions are not bad in themselves.

But what’s wrong with emotions? Or, why is it that sometimes we can’t or shouldn’t trust our emotions? Because…

Emotions are broken by sin

A lot of us remember the (true) story of Adam and Eve. John Frame has said, “the fall… was rebellion of the whole person—intellect as much as emotions, perception, and will—against God.”[6] After looking at Genesis 3:1-6 (notice the highlighting) we can agree with what Frame says:

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Jesus on Anxiety

We all worry. We all struggle with anxious hearts. 

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 are helpful. Listen to what Jesus says: 

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:25-34).

Jesus is talking to poor people. Some of them are subsistence farmers. They hope each day to have enough food to make it to the next day. The people Jesus is talking to have no running water in their homes and no toilets. They have no refrigerators and no supermarkets. They have no health care. Their welfare and even their lives depend on whether or not they get the right amount of rain. 

We have many “cares of the world” (Matt. 13:22) and we have to build bigger houses for our “abundance of possesions” (Lk. 12:15). We have many things to think and fret about.[1] So, sometimes it’s hard to see how what Jesus says applies to us. Yet, the truth is, if the first recipients of Jesus’ words were called not to be anxious, how much more does it apply to us?! 

This passage applies to us. The problem is we often fail to understand Jesus’ first point and so it’s downhill from there for us. 

1. First Jesus makes a point by asking a question: isn’t life more than ______________? (v. 25)

The way we answer this question tells us a lot about where our hearts are and how much help we will get from this passage. If our life is all about stuff then we have to fret and be anxious. Because we have to protect our stuff! It is of absolute importance. 

2. Jesus tells us to look at the ravens (Lk. 12:24).

Why?

Well, do you know what a raven is? They are rather nasty. Ravens were listed as unclean animals in the Old Testament (Lev. 11:15; Deut. 14:14). Ravens are trash birds. And they’re like the only bad animal in “Winnie the Pooh.” So, what’s Jesus’ point? He is saying God takes care of ravens. Ravens! He’s going to take care of you! Don’t be anxious. God will provide.

3. Jesus tells us about the benefits of anxiety: Nothing. Anxiety adds… nothing. It doesn’t help at all. (v. 27)

4. Jesus tells us to look around to see the lilies and wildflowers. Who takes care of the wildflowers? No one. Well, that’s kinda right but kinda really wrong. No human takes care of the wildflowers. God does! God beautifully dresses wildflowers. They don’t worry. God takes care of them. We should trust God, He is capable.

5. Jesus tells us that we should be different from those who don’t know God. We shouldn’t worry and ask: “Will I have what I need to wear?” Why? Because we have a Father in heaven. We have a very capable Father. Through Jesus, God is our Dad.

Wow.

So, we should trust that our heavenly Father will provide for all our needs (v. 32). And He will know what our needs truly are. 

Of course, if we read this and we don’t trust our heavenly Father then it comes down to us. We must fret and fear and plan. We have every reason to be anxious. If we think we are lord of the universe and king of the domain then we must be always on patrol. We must protect our stuff, even if it means no sleep. 

6. Jesus tells us there is something better to seek.[2] Something that can’t make us fearful because nothing can touch it. Jesus’ Kingdom cannot be shaken. And it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom (Lk. 12:32). That is good news for the weary. 

7. Jesus tells us to be where we’re at. Today’s troubles are sufficient. Let’s be where we are today and do what God has called us to today. And let’s trust Him for tomorrow. 

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (v. 34). 

Verses to Instill Faith and Fight Fear

As we wrestle to fight against anxiety let’s fight our fear with faith. Here are some verses that have helped fuel my faith: 
 
“We can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Heb. 13:6).
 
“My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:2).
 
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
 
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you” (Ps. 55:22).
 
“Even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save” (Is. 46:4).
 
“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen
a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for Him” (Is. 64:4).

 

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[1] “A worrier is storing ‘treasure’ in the wrong place. If what you most value can be taken away or destroyed, then you set yourself up for anxiety” (David Powlison, “’Don’t Worry,’” 58).

[2] Edward T. Welch says, “Whatever is most important is the thing that rules us” (Edward T. Welch, Running Scared, 198). He goes on to say, “Do the opinions of other people control you? What you love and value is showing. You love reputation, love, respect, adoration” (Ibid., 199). 

My atheistic anxiety

I have a father.

There is something profound about that.

And really it should be spelled Father.

I’ve been anxious. Anxious about all sorts of things.

My anxiety is really a sort of fear.[1]

That’s where understanding I have a Father is so helpful. And understanding who my Father is…

When I’m anxious, when I fear, I am faithless. And Fatherless. A practical atheist.

I tell myself all sorts of lies: No one can rescue me. No one is looking out for me. I am alone, an orphan in a vast indifferent world.[2]

I often think and act as though I have no Father and I determine my own destiny. I act as though the buck stops with me—that if I don’t make it happen, then it won’t happen. I sometimes think and act like I’m my own little lord.

Sometimes my anxiety is atheistic. It takes no account of God. It takes no account of the fact that I have a good and able Father.

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20 Quotes from Gary Thomas’ Book The Sacred Search

I found Gary Thomas’ book The Sacred Search helpful. He deals with some very relevant issues. I think every person in a dating relationship should read it and I think every single person should read it. Here are some quotes from the book to get you interested: 

1. “I want to make a promise to you: if you will seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness and let that agenda drive your decision regarding whom you choose to marry and refuse to compromise on that, you will set yourself up for a much more fulfilling, spiritually enriching, and overall more satisfying marriage. The degree to which you compromise on this verse is the degree to which you put your future satisfaction in jeopardy and open wide the door to great frustration and even regret” (Gary Thomas, The Sacred Search, 22).

2. “Guys… are more inclined to experience romantic love with women they are attracted to physically, yet physical appearance is the thing most likely to change in a person’s life. Marriage isn’t about being young together; it’s about growing old together—and bodies change as we get older. If you don’t marry with that in mind, you’re going to make a major mistake—perhaps the biggest mistake of your life” (Thomas, The Sacred Search, 25). “What launches sexual chemistry won’t sustain sexual chemistry” (p. 47).

3. “The way God made our brains, infatuation resembles an hourglass. The moment you become smitten by someone—the second you find yourself deeply “in love”—is the moment that hourglass gets turned over. There is enough sand in that hourglass, on average, to last you about twelve to eighteen months” (p. 29)

4. “I don’t want to diminish the mystery and poetry of a truly delicious romantic attachment and “soul connection,” but in reality you’re living through a fairly predictable and observable neurochemical reaction. And here’s something you need to know: the state of infatuation actually impedes your ability to objectively discern your partner’s faults and weaknesses. Dr. Thomas Lewis put it this way: “Love may not be literally blind, but it does seem to be literally incapable of reason and the levels of appropriate negativity necessary for realism” (pp. 32-33).

5. “Sin, by definition, is overturning God’s created order. In God’s created order, there should be no sex outside of marriage, and lots of fulfilling, generous sex during marriage. Why do you think a person will disobey God in the first instance, but obey Him in the second? Doesn’t it make sense that if you shut out God to do what you want to do in one season, you’ll keep doing it in the next season?” (p. 48)

6. “This might shock you, but your best chance at sexual satisfaction in marriage is not to focus on appearance alone, but rather to find a woman of virtue” (p. 49).

7. “Time serves intentionally cultivated intimate affection, even as it kills infatuation” (p. 51).

8. “The language of the Bible doesn’t suggest there is one right choice for marriage. Rather, all the teaching passages seem to suggest that there are wise and unwise choices. We are encouraged to use wisdom, not destiny, as our guide when choosing a marital partner” (p. 61).

9. “Some Christians find themselves in a dating dead end. There’s no one suitable where they work or at their church. For their own reasons, they refuse to look at any online dating sites. Instead of putting themselves in social environments where they might find someone, they start to feel bitter and angry and blame God for not bringing the right one along” (pp. 79-80). Later on he asks, “Are you putting yourself in places where you can find or be found? Do you hang out in places where the kind of person you want to marry hangs out?” (p. 80). So, “Instead of simply ‘waiting for God to bring the right one,’ go out and find a godly mate” (p. 81).

10. “A spiritual sole mate is someone who is passionately committed to getting married for the glory of God first and foremost” (p. 94).

11. “If you marry for money, health, or looks, keep in mind that none of these are certain to remain. Character is the surest thing. Even if the two of you manage to avoid a medical maelstrom, the vast majority of you will have to navigate something else that will test you to your core: having children. Does the person you’re planning on marrying have what it takes in this regard? Are they strong enough not just to be your spouse, but to be your children’s mom or dad?” (p. 119).

12. “Intimacy is built through sharing, listening, understanding, and talking through issues. If someone doesn’t like to talk, refuses to talk, or resents your desire to talk, intimacy building is going to hit a stone wall” (p. 141).

13. “The general rule is this: however much your boyfriend talks to you while dating, cut that down by at least 25 percent after marriage. If you’re not good with that, you’re looking at the wrong guy. I’m not saying it should be that way, only that it almost always is. Talk to married women; ask them if this isn’t true. Make your choice accordingly” (pp. 141-42).

14. “The person you marry is the person you’re going to be married to” (p. 160).

15. “When we live for ourselves, we become boring. Most of us are simply not interesting enough on our own to captivate someone else for five or six decades” (p. 174).

16. “When we sin sexually we are literally launching a neurochemical war against our mental reasoning” (p. 187).

17. “Sex is a powerful tool. In a healthy marriage, used appropriately, it can be nothing short of glorious. As people who believe God is the Creator of our bodies and our sexuality, we should be eager to embrace His good handiwork. But know this: the more powerful the tool, the more training and caution you need when learning to use it” (p.  201).
 
18. “If you’ve caught the vision for a marriage that seeks first the kingdom of God, you need to be on the lookout for personality traits that will undermine such a focus” (p. 203).
 

19. “Guys, if you marry a woman who is motivated by reverence for God over affection for you, she’ll learn to be kind to you and affectionate toward you even when she doesn’t feel like it and when you’re acting like a jerk. The same thing that feeds her chastity—love and respect for God—will feed sexual enthusiasm within marriage. The same thing that feeds promiscuity before marriage—selfishness and fear—will kill sexual desire after marriage” (pp. 210-11).

20. “Sex can indeed be amazing. It’s also a skill that can be learned, and that’s what marriage allows, so if the two of you aren’t “compatible” on your wedding night, you have a lifetime to get there.
   Two people who genuinely care for each other and who are growing in the virtues of kindness and generosity will figure out, sooner rather than later, how to please and keep on pleasing each other” (p. 187).

***Porn*** (pt 3)

[This post contains explicit descriptions and is not suitable for all audiences]

The Supernatural Perspective 

So, we have looked at the natural perspective but what does the supernatural or Biblical perspective have to say? The Bible has been saying what we just saw—that porn is bad—for over a millennia. But let’s look at a few specifics.

The Bible and Porn (porneia)

Pornography degrades and derogates the good design of sex and can also ruin relationships. We are wired for intimacy but pornography hijacks the brain[i] and leads to malfunction of God’s intended design. So, with that in mind, let’s look at a few Bible verses that speak to the issue of porn.

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***Porn*** (pt 2)

[This post contains explicit descriptions and is not suitable for all audiences]

Porn and Objectification

Porn turns people into objects to use and then discard. A Princeton University study has actually shown that “viewing pictures of scantily clad women activated the ‘tool-use part’ of men’s brains, causing them to view women as tools to be used.”[i]

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***Porn*** (pt 1)

[This post contains explicit descriptions and is not suitable for all audiences]

How should we think about porn?

Porn has been normalized and seems to be accepted for the most part in mainstream culture. It may not always be openly promoted but it seems to be assumed. It seems wise, in part because of porns prevalence, to at least consider the impact it is having and the place it should (or shouldn’t) have in our lives. 

In America, there is no broadly shared consensus regarding sex.[i] For example, there are various answers to these important questions: What is the purpose of sex and when and with whom should we have it? Connected to people’s view of sex is people’s view of pornography.

Statistics,[ii] as well as mere observation of culture (e.g. Snapchat, Instagram), show us that there is moral ambiguity towards porn. In fact, teens and young adults view overeating as more immoral than viewing porn.[iii] So, as “access to pornography has increased, the stigma toward it has seemingly decreased.”[iv] I would suggest, however, that we shouldn’t assume this is a good thing.

I don’t think that we should blindly accept that porn consumption doesn’t matter. We would be wise to have and be able to defend our position on porn. As Socrates reportedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

How do we evaluate the acceptability of porn? There are two main ways we can evaluate porn and I believe they are both important to look at. We can look at porn from a 1) natural perspective and from a 2) supernatural perspective.

The Natural Perspective 

Here are two questions I believe it is wise to answer: Does porn promote human flourishing? Does porn help individuals and society thrive? Those are obviously big questions (that we can not exhaustively cover here) but they are important to consider.

Porn and Self-image 

Porn can turn healthy self-image into an unhealthy “sex-image” where people measure themselves by the images they view or by the images their partner views. Porn can very negatively affect self-image. For example, “A 2012 study of college-aged women with male partners who used porn concluded that the young women suffered diminished self-esteem, relationship quality and sexual satisfaction correlated with their partners’ porn use.”[v]

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