We’ve been looking at the topic of emotions. We’ve been doing so because emotions possess a tremendous influence on our spiritual maturity. Over the years, I’ve become convinced one of the reasons it’s possible for people to attend solid Bible-teaching churches, but not make much progress in maturity, is the issue of emotional maturity. I will conclude today.
To ascribe to someone or something an attribute that belongs to God alone is idolatry. Therefore, as we looked at in a previous post, to say emotions are sovereign and impose their wills on us is biblically faulty. We went further to say emotions come from within (Mark 7).
Now, when life happens, we react emotionally. We don’t live through a life-experience, retreat to our room, and then decide on an emotional reaction. No. Emotions are instinctual. So if emotions come from within and they are instinctual, is there any hope for change? Yes!
Emotional instincts can be trained. Or to put this in biblical categories, emotions can be “sanctified.” How?
1) Engage the mind
Your mind is like a vacuum cleaner that’s always on. Everywhere you go, your mind is sucking up stuff. And what your mind takes in, possesses an incredible ability to influence your emotional life. The mind and the emotions are not compartmentalized. Scripture ties those two worlds together.
“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” (Isa. 26:3).
Notice the connection between experiencing peace and having our thoughts fixed on God.
“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” (Lam. 3:19-24).
Recalling to mind God’s love, compassion, and faithfulness produces hope.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so (Rom. 8:5-7).
Right thinking about spiritual realities produces peace. Your mind is like a vacuum cleaner that’s always on.
We need to learn to be proactive in fixing our minds on the right things. Too often, our emotional instincts get malformed when we allow our minds to become passive and reactive to external circumstances and internal waywardness.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones pastored a church in London during the early to mid 1900’s. His counsel is worth paying attention to.
“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?…You must take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, you have to preach to yourself, question yourself…then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done and what God has pledged Himself to do.”
Training our emotional instincts requires us to learn the art of preaching to ourselves.
We have an example of this in the Scriptures:
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God (Psalm 42:5-6).
Do you see the Psalmist taking himself in hand and preaching to himself? “Why, my soul, are you downcast?…Put your hope in God…”
In order to cultivate godly emotions, we need to train our emotional instincts. One tactic to employ in training our emotional instincts is engaging the mind and learning the art of preaching to yourself rather than listening to yourself.
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to…
2) Participate in worship
An African pastor once said of his African congregation, “When we are happy, we sing and when we aren’t happy, we sing until we get happy.” The 18th century pastor and thinker Jonathan Edwards would agree. He writes:
“The duty of singing praises to God seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only that such is our nature and frame that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”
I really believe that one of the reasons God created humans with the ability to make music and sing is that these have the power to impact us emotionally. We weren’t created to express only cognitive responses to God. We were made emotional creatures. And God wants our emotions to respond appropriately to him.
Music and singing help excite and express, to use Edwards’ terms, emotional responses to truth. Yip Harburgh wrote all the lyrics for the songs in “The Wizard of Oz” including the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Harburgh famously once said, “Words make you think a thought; music makes you feel a feeling; a song makes you feel a thought.”
Singing helps us process the emotional dimensions of cognitive thought. This is why this African pastor’s quote has merit: “When we are happy, we sing and when we aren’t happy, we sing until we get happy.” Music and singing possess the ability to help us feel the truth. And is there any better truth to feel than the good news of the gospel?
In the Bible, there is a profound link between experiencing God’s salvation and expressing the joy of that through music and singing. When God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt, Miriam take a tambourine in hand and as all the women follow with tambourines and dancing (dancing! heaven forbid!), she sings to them saying:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea (Ex. 15:21).
Exodus 15 describes an epic time of worship for the people of Israel. They were given salvation and experienced joy as a result of it. The culmination of that joy is singing. Psalm 98 and Isaiah 12 are other places where this occurs. The message is consistent: where there is salvation there is joy and where there is joy there is singing.
The word ‘sing’ or some version of it occurs more than 200 times in the Bible. That’s more than the word ‘grace.’ It’s no wonder Christianity has been called the singingest religion in the world.
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to participate in worship.
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to…
3) Commit to prayer
“Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:15-16).
Jesus knows what it’s like to be busy. With his reputation of a miracle-worker growing, people always wanted a piece of him. There were always texts and emails to be answered and people lining up at his office door. But Jesus was also the preeminent example of an emotionally healthy human being. How could that be? Even in the face of the incessant demands, the text says “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
If Jesus, the 2nd person of the Trinity, the Son of God, God in human flesh felt he needed time away by himself to pray, what makes you think you can afford not to? I really do believe there’s a direct link between a lack of private prayer and a lack of godly emotions. I’ll gladly put myself out there as exhibit ‘A’. There’s always another email to be answered. There’s always another need to be met. There’s always another task on the list or conversation to be had. When I constantly say ‘yes’ to every one of those, and never say ‘no’ in order to withdraw by myself to a lonely place to pray, I feel the joy, hope, peace, and contentment hemorrhaging out of me. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that. But if you feel a lack of joy, peace, hope, and contentment in your life right now, pause and take some vital signs. One of those has to be: how is your private prayer life? Are you often withdrawing to lonely places to pray like Jesus did?
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to commit to private prayer.
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to…
4) Be a giver
February 2004 marked the beginning of a seismic shift in our worldwide culture. Human beings will never be the same because of what took place in February 2004. In February 2004, Facebook was launched. And Facebook was just the first domino to fall. Two years later came Twitter. Four years after Twitter came Instagram. Facebook now boasts 2 billion monthly users which is an astonishing number given only 1.5 billion people live in developed countries. Social media has changed the world. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface on understanding to what depths social media has changed the world.
And with social media’s exponential growth, so have the books and articles studying the effects of social media on human life.
Maria Konnikova wrote an incredibly revealing article in the New Yorker entitled “How Facebook Makes us Unhappy.” Her article isn’t so much an original study of social media’s effects on the human race as it is documenting 16 other studies on social media’s effects on the human race. One theme Konnikova discovered in these studies is noteworthy.
“…when people engaged in direct interaction with others – that is, posting on walls, messaging, or ‘liking’ something – their feelings of bonding and general social capital increased, while their sense of loneliness decreased. But when participants simply consumed a lot of content passively, Facebook had the opposite effect, lowering their feelings of connection and increasing their sense of loneliness.”
Don’t miss what scientists are discovering about social media: being a consumer of social media leads to greater unhappiness; being a giver on social media leads to greater connection. What these social media studies are discovering isn’t new information.
The prophet Isaiah wrote about this phenomenon more 2500 years ago:
“…if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (Isaiah 58:10-11).
“…then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” This is emotional language; it’s emotional imagery. It’s poetic parallelism. ‘Darkness’ and ‘gloom’ are parallel terms. It’s describing negative emotions. Maybe included in there is despair or even depression; the doldrums. The text says when your “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted…” that is, when you are giving of yourself in order to serve others. Maybe that means giving your time, energy, attention or money; maybe it’s all of that. When you are a giver, “then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.” We experience an emotional shift from gloom to joy as we shift from consuming to giving.
In order to train our emotional instincts, we need to be givers more than consumers.
God, help us to emote in order to honor you!