Servants or Slavemasters? A Biblical Perspective on Emotions

By: Natalie Thomas

I was making cherry pie from scratch. It was going to be my first Thanksgiving with my future husband and his family. I had so much invested in that pie, you’d think I was working on the cure for cancer. I’d made the recipe many times before successfully, but my crust kept falling apart. When I realized it was not going to turn out, I promptly put my fist through it. Imagine cherry pie filling everywhere

Clearly, my emotions had gotten the best of me. It wasn’t the first time, or the last. Though I have seen much improvement, I still struggle with overcoming my emotions. My conversations with others (women and men) suggest that I’m not alone in that. So, what is a biblical perspective of emotions, and how do we go about managing them in a godly way?

Emotions Aren’t Inherently Evil

First, consider that man was created to reflect the very nature of God, and that the vision we often have of God as a stoic deity could not be further from the truth. God emotes. Scripture speaks of Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus. (John 11:35) It tells of his great compassion for the ones who have no Shepherd. (Matthew 9:36) All throughout the Old Testament it shows the gut-wrenching agony of a holy God as he shows hesed (steadfast love) to a people who continually spurn him. God is not cold or unfeeling.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a tendency in conservative evangelicalism to view emotions in a negative way. We think that the minute we feel something we should immediately shut it down. I disagree. The Bible says there’s a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:4) We should consider what’s appropriate given time and place, but emotions are not necessarily wicked. In fact, they often serve as a gauge or indicator of where our heart is at any given moment.

Sin Can Make Us Slaves To Our Emotions

The problems come when we allow our emotions to rule us, rather than being guided by the word of God. It’s as old as the garden of Eden. Our first parents were provided with everything they needed in life, and yet, they were seduced by the serpent’s craftiness. (Genesis 3) Desires should have been countered with God’s word, but they disobeyed and sin entered the world. It fractured all of God’s creation, including mankind. Our minds and bodies are broken, and we now have a default of going with what we feel first.

Yet, we are meant to exercise self-control when it comes to our feelings. We bring great heartache and disaster upon ourselves and others when we don’t. The Bible says that a man who has no control over his spirit is like a city that’s been broken into and is without walls. (Proverbs 25:28) In ancient times, a city without walls was highly vulnerable to every kind of malice from her enemies. Likewise, we are vulnerable to our adversary’s schemes when we allow emotions to overtake us.

The Gospel Enables Us To Put Feelings In Their Proper Place

Thankfully, we have not been left to the ebb and flow of our feelings. Change is possible. We worship a Savior who felt deeply, but always did what his Father commanded him. He endured emotional distress in such a way that no one has ever experienced. He sweat drops of blood. (Luke 22:44) He pleaded for God to take the cup of wrath from him, and God said, “No.” For those of us who have put all our hope in Christ, his perfect sacrifice has purchased our freedom.

We have the ability to relegate emotions to their proper place as servants, not masters, because the power of sin has been broken. We’re no longer slaves to sin. (Romans 6:6-7) His righteousness has been imparted to us. (2 Corinthians 5:21) We have the Holy Spirit residing in us, moving in us to obey the will of God. (Ezekiel 36:27) We have a High Priest who is sympathetic concerning our weaknesses, and who is able to offer mercy and grace in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16) The gospel has granted us access to God. We can and should run to him immediately when we find ourselves overwhelmed by our feelings.

The reality is many of us don’t. I often don’t–it can be frustrating. Thankfully, the gospel isn’t about our perfect performance. It offers us grace where we have sinned, as God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness when we repent. (1 John 1:9) Not only that, his grace fuels our attempts to change and to bring our emotions under the will of God. So be encouraged if you struggle with your emotions. Change may feel impossible, but it’s not. In Christ, it’s an absolute certainty. (Philippians 1:6)

That being said, what are some practical helps for managing emotions in a godly way?

Practical Tips For Managing Emotions

  • Practice self-care. People balk at that when I suggest it. Aren’t we called to be selfless? Well, yes… And no. I don’t know who decided that it was holy and righteous to be bleary-eyed and propped up by caffeine all the time, but it’s not. Things we often neglect such as diet, exercise, and proper sleep habits matter. The world can look vastly different when such things are managed well. It’s biblical. See 1 Kings 19.
  • Be able to identify when your emotions are getting the best of you. I often say to myself, “That’s an emotion, but I don’t have to respond to it.” Take the time to decide what to think, what to say, and how to act. Refrain from speech (face-to-face or electronic) and avoid making any major decisions until you have better control of your feelings.
  • Ask yourself, where’s your heart? David Powlison has a series of X Ray Questions that have been immensely helpful to me. When my emotions are off the charts, I go through the questions to get a gauge of where my heart is in that moment. Almost always, they reveal my need to repent and believe.
  • Filter your thoughts through Scripture. We’re called to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5) If you’re spinning out emotionally, consider what’s on your mind. Is it true? Is it right? Is it pure? (Philippians 4:8) No? Then it’s not worth your time. Our hearts are deceitful. (Jeremiah 17:9) Be prepared to counter lies with the truth of the Bible.
  • Have your deepest needs met in Christ. Too many people (including me) have a tendency to rely on people before God to pull them out of an emotional pit. When we look first to others–a spouse, a friend, a pastor–we are asking them to fill a role they were never meant to fill. God is the only one that can satisfy your deepest personal needs. You will be an emotional basketcase, and you’ll frustrate those closest to you if you’re constantly depending on them to meet all your needs. Run to Jesus in prayer and Scripture first.
  • Know when it’s beyond you. If your emotions are taking over your life, as in affecting your sleep, your studies or work, or your relationships then you might need to seek outside help. There is absolutely no shame in seeking counsel in the form of a physician, or a biblical counselor, or both. If you think you need it, then let that be your starting point for managing emotions in a biblical way.