by Joel Atwood
One of my most vivid memories is of my wedding day. Much of the day is a blur, but the moment when my bride began to walk through the doors into the cavernous church building is carved into my mind. I was happy. Very happy. So was everyone else. So why did I tear up? I’m not a particularly emotional man. I’m not especially nervous in front of crowds. My normal response to good things happening is a smile, a laugh. Instead, my throat closed up. My eyes began to fill.
I could blame it on the lack of sleep, or the coffee propping me and my groomsmen up, or the sight of my mum red-eyed to my left. The truth is simply that I don’t think I could help it. This is a very strange feeling for most of us — when some part of me overrules the ‘me’ that’s usually calling the shots and seizes control of my body. I don’t want to cry, but I do. I want to speak, but I can’t. Our emotions, however briefly, seem to take the driver’s seat.
When our apparent control of ourselves is at stake, it’s no surprise that Christians have struggled to know what to do with our feelings. Depending upon the particular time and context of our history, our emotions have been dismissed, suppressed, isolated, medicated, elevated, demonized, or worshipped. I’d like to suggest two things that might help.
The first is to change the way we think about our emotions. Many would say our feelings are simply words attached to biological reactions. Others would say they are us at our most psychologically truthful. I wonder if we’ve made the mistake of seeing them as something we can isolate — as if our ‘heart’ were a completely separate part of us from our ‘mind’ or our ‘body’. I wonder if it’s far more accurate and helpful to fight for a bigger, messier view of what makes us us. If my thoughts and feelings and body and whatever-the-spiritual-bit-of-me-is are all muddled together into ‘me’, it explains why one part can affect the others so much. That would explain why it’s so hard to think straight when you’re angry, or why you’re grumpy when you’re tired, or why you can reason yourself into not being afraid, or why you feel joy in the promise of salvation.
The second is to float the idea that there are parts of the Bible that speak to our emotions and so help to ‘retrain’ them, as part of orienting our whole person to Jesus. In particular, stories and poetry carry us with them on their emotional journey. We might giggle as Saul bumbles around ineptly becoming God’s first king, only to feel the weight of his sovereignty at work (1 Samuel 9). We might weep when we identify strongly with the forsaken cry of Psalm 22. And yet the psalms and stories of the Bible so often take a different direction from where we expect, grasping our hearts as they resonate with the text, and showing us whole new arcs for our feelings. We might not expect, for example, that the Psalmist who begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) would soon proclaim that “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27).
So what are we to do with our feelings? Neither deify nor despise them. They’re an integral part of the whole person whom Christ has redeemed. And until the Day when our renewal will be complete, we strive to orient them towards him.
I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. (Psalm 86:12)
Joel Atwood is on staff with Credo, the AFES group at the University of Technology, Sydney. He almost cried when he married Tiff, and now smiles more when spearfishing or pursuing fine coffee.