To some, mixing Christianity and psychology may seem odd, even dangerous.
Many Christians are wary of psychologists – and with some reason. Sadly, many psychologists are skeptical about God and matters of faith.
In my life, the two blend so seamlessly that I cannot help but be both – a Christian and a psychologist. And I know I am not alone. Whether openly or in secret, there are many in the healing professions who are also devout believers.
Recently, in the comments, someone raised good questions about emotions and faith. I was intrigued. I spend much of my day working with other people’s emotions (not to mention my own) and pray that I do so with God’s Spirit guiding me.
Our emotions can be so powerful. And anything that is powerful has much potential for both good and evil in our lives.
And so the question might be raised: how do we as Christians understand and manage our emotions?
Are we supposed to control and subdue them? Embrace them and sit with them? Or perhaps disown them altogether as “deadly sins” (aka “passions”)?
Wow. Complicated questions.
But then again, emotions are complicated things.
As I ponder these questions and listen within, several points of awareness immediately jump up and take center stage.
One is that we cannot trust our emotions.
Another is that we cannot live without them.
And yet a third awareness is that to disown our emotions is to disown a part of ourselves and therefore is inherently unhealthy, spiritually and psychologically.
Hmm…this should make for an interesting discussion.
Let’s begin with defining what emotions are. I confess that before sitting down to write tonight, I asked the Google lady to define “emotion” for me. Being a psychologist, it seems like I ought to have the words to describe these mysterious phenomena, but I like the way she gives me straight answers – so unemotional is she in her computerized voice.
Here’s what she said: “Emotion: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.”
It is also noteworthy that a slight scroll down the screen revealed a bit more from Dictionary.com in which emotions were differentiated from “cognitive and volitional states”.
While these definitions seem rather dry and clinical, I think they can be quite helpful to us. Let’s begin…
Before all else, I think it important to say that our emotions are a gift from God.
This does not mean, of course, that they cannot be twisted and distorted and made to serve the evil one instead of God. All of God’s gifts can be perverted in some fashion, especially those most closely associated with human freedom.
Yet I think it is essential to any spiritual discussion of emotions to acknowledge that they are not inherently “bad”. Emotions cannot be right or wrong, good or bad, in and of themselves.
Even anger? Yes. Even anger.
I grew up – and I’m sure I’m not alone – seriously misunderstanding this very point. As I have written elsewhere, as a child preparing for confession, I once read the list of the 7 deadly sins and concluded that it was sinful for me to feel angry. Also for me to feel good about myself for any positive achievements as that would be pride.
What a mess that caused.
But I cannot really complain too much about this mess because, through it, God led me to become a psychologist. (It took a lot of therapy to work out a neurosis of that magnitude – and in the process, I discovered the beauty of this healing practice.)
OK, so back to emotions. A gift from God…
If we return to the Google Lady’s definition of emotions as an “instinctive state of mind” we may understand these notions a bit more clearly.
Emotions are indeed instinctive. Being instinctive, they are not volitional. We don’t choose them. They happen.
This may not sit well with us initially – especially with our most beloved feelings, like that “whoosh” of joy that we feel when we see the morning sun glistening on dew-drenched blossoms.
But it also may not sit well with us regarding the least beloved feelings of those around us, such as the snapping anger of a friend or spouse. You mean they can’t help it?
Yet if we stop to consider it, how many of us begin our day by thinking, “I’d like to get angry today. I think I’ll do it this afternoon when my coworker starts cracking his knuckles while I’m trying to concentrate”? Or by thinking, “I really must get sad tonight over my grandmother’s death. I haven’t done it in a while”?
It is because of this instinctive quality that we must not consider emotions as good or bad, right or wrong. We are not culpable for what is involuntary.
Surprisingly, it is in their instinctiveness that we discover that these emotions of ours are a gift from God. Indeed, “we cannot live without them” (point two, above).
On a purely biological basis, two very common emotions, anger and fear, are our protectors when we feel threatened or endangered. (Yup, good old “fight or flight” comes to our rescue.) We must have these to survive.
The two other emotions considered “basic” to humans are happiness and sadness. These too surely have some survival value. Our expression of these emotions communicates to others what we ought to approach or avoid.
And, lest this come across as too scientific or evolutionary, all four of these basic emotions are also part of what adds depth and color to our lives. They are a core part of our relatedness to one another – which, in Christianity, we call love.
Unperverted, the emotions instinctively communicate among us who and what we need, trust and value. In their many and varied forms, they mold us into community – a challenging but vital part of who we are.
And there are far more emotions than just the basic four. Could we live without gratitude, sympathy or attraction? Or even without frustration, regret or worry?
I do not think so. At least, I, for one, would not want to try. I believe that these emotions, in their pure and undistorted forms, are gifts that not only support our survival but deeply enrich our lives.
Having thus labeled emotions as gift, how then can I simultaneously say that they cannot be trusted? (see point one above) Why would God give us such a gift?
The dilemma, however, lies not in God’s gift of emotion but, strangely, in another one of His gifts: our freedom.
Yes, our freedom. It is what makes our emotions different from those of the lower animals. The animals have only the instinctive part – so the gift for them is always pure and undistorted.
But we humans…well, we have this freedom issue that opens the door for our gift of emotion to become perverted, often without our recognizing it.
[Side note: This, of course, still leaves us with the question as to why God would give us such a gift as freedom. My only conclusion after many years of pondering is that freedom is essential to love. And, while our freedom can result in some horrible messes, the supremacy of love redeems them all.]
The perversion of our emotions is a central aspect of our “ancestral sin”, the disease that has been passed down from generation to generation since the first sin. And, because we often are naturally blind to this perversion, we tend to think of our instinctive emotional reactions as normal and natural.
Unless, of course, we learn otherwise.
But, before going there, let’s consider an example of these distorted emotions that we cannot trust.
OK, pride, one of those ones I misunderstood a lot in my childhood. And my adulthood.
Suppose I get really good grades on my report card and I am pleased. I worked hard and feel good about the positive result. Anything wrong with that “pride”?
No, I don’t think so. This emotion of pride is a relatively undistorted and instinctive reaction to having my effort yield a successful result. It even has a positive value because the pleasant feeling reinforces effort, making me more likely to continue applying myself to my studies.
However, suppose something else creeps into my child’s mind. Suppose I think, “I’m smarter and better than my brother because I got better grades than he did.” And suppose I let him know it, directly or indirectly.
I do not think it is too hard to see in this scenario that my instinctive and innocent emotion has been corrupted.
First, I am attributing all of the good result to myself, ignoring the fact that whatever academic abilities I might have were given to me by God. I didn’t create the ability in myself. Second, I have departed from the way of Love by using my accomplishment to diminish another. I cannot simply be pleased; my victory has to be someone else’s defeat.
Although having learned about sin, I am unable to recognize (in this hypothetical scenario) that a disease has been passed down to me and has infiltrated my emotions. Being raised in a culture where competition is paramount (part of the disease), my emotional reaction seems as normal as rooting for the home team.
It all transpires so automatically that I do not even question it.
I don’t see the enemy at work because it has not even occurred to me to look for him.
And this is why we cannot trust our emotions.
There are many ways in which we may discover our emotions to be untrustworthy. In fact, so many ways that to do a comprehensive review would most likely feel very disturbing to us.
Some of our emotions we find quite pleasant. We can trust our feelings of joy, can’t we? Certainly there can be nothing distorted about them.
Well, actually there can be – at least some of the time anyway.
Even my deepest spiritual joy is suspect. Not because of the joy itself but because of how readily contaminants can invade even this sacred experience.
Perhaps I imagine myself being admired for my devotion. Perhaps my joy makes me feel like I am above “those other people” who are not on such intimate terms with God.
The list could continue on – but I think the point is made.
Ironically, we cannot even trust our emotions to guide us about whether we growing spiritually or not. Feeling bereft of God’s presence and consolation may be an indicator that God is actually at work deep within us, despite how “bad” it feels.
God certainly gives us some strange gifts. And leaves us so vulnerable to attack.
All for the sake of love, it seems.
If they are so treacherous, so infiltrated by the enemy, should I not just banish my emotions altogether? Better to pluck out my eye than… (See Mark 9: 47.)
And did not the Lord Jesus forbid anger, one of our basic but most troublesome emotions? (See Matthew 5: 22).
I do not think the first Scripture passage is meant to be taken literally. Jesus doesn’t want us to maim ourselves. Since all have sinned, a literal interpretation would leave everyone wandering about half-blind and missing one or both hands.
Further, the Gospels tell us that when Jesus approached a sinner, He simply said, “Your sins are forgiven.” (He did not offer to help saw off their hands.) The message, I believe, is that He doesn’t want us to value anything more than we value our souls.
Hence, if we are not meant to maim our bodies, neither are we meant to maim our minds. (Recall how neurotic I became when I tried to rid myself of all anger and good feelings about myself? A psychological maiming that resulted from not allowing myself to feel what I felt.)
And what about Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel: “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”? Doesn’t this mean we shouldn’t feel angry?
I think we can only assume that Jesus was referring to perverted emotions, since He was explaining this in the context of murder. He wanted us to understand that murder starts with the perverted emotion of anger.
Is there any other sort of anger than this distorted kind? Actually, yes. When Jesus cleansed the Temple of the money-changers, He displayed anger – strong anger. So what is the difference? And why didn’t He make the distinction, if this is what He meant?
Jesus’ anger was pure, i.e. it wasn’t bound up in ego and wasn’t a departure from the way of Love. In fact, He was angry because of Love – love for the Father and love for those who, while pretending to be observant of the Law, were actually disparaging it.
We sinners, in our perverted anger, too often like to justify ourselves by noting that “Jesus got angry too!” We can’t see the difference because we are blind to how our emotions have been twisted. Hence, we wouldn’t have gotten it, had Jesus attempted to explain that our anger, not His, would be “liable to judgment”.
In sum, banishing our emotions, despite the fact that we cannot trust them, is not the solution. We won’t succeed and, by disowning a necessary and vital part of ourselves, we may well end up damaging ourselves psychologically.
Maybe I can just control my emotions. Or at least the bad ones. Oh…that’s right. There aren’t supposed to be any “bad” ones.
So where do I turn? Does Christianity hold any answers for me? Or do I turn to psychology?
Strange bedfellows though they may be, Christianity and psychology, both rightly understood, can never be at odds with one another.
The problem in today’s world, however, is that we seldom (if ever) understand either one of them rightly.
And so I’m going to be the exception? No, I do not understand them rightly either. But I pray before I write, proceeding with trust that the Holy Spirit will enable me to write something worthy of Him.
Beginning with the Christian perspective, the teaching that first comes to mind is this:
“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5: 8)
Now that we know that our emotions are a gift from God but are often twisted by the enemy, we must be watchful. Rather than automatically trusting (or rejecting) what we feel, we stop and take notice of our emotions.
We accept the emotions as ours – but we are cautious.
We observe them with some neutrality that we might discern whether they have been tampered with. This is not unlike how a person of importance in wartime might examine their mail carefully before opening it.
While examining our emotions in this manner might seem obsessive or burdensome, we must remember that we are indeed at war, though on a spiritual battlefield unseen by human eyes.
As we become more practiced at this process of observing and discerning, it may come more automatically. However, though some may pass inspection quickly, other emotions we may need to sit with for some time before we see the truth hidden within.
Does this spiritual process have any parallels in the world of psychology? Indeed it does, though naturally the vocabulary of secular practice is quite different.
One example of this parallel might be found in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most widely researched and commonly used treatment approaches in psychology. In CBT, we acknowledge the link between distortions in thinking and emotional distress. We learn to be on the watch for these distortions so as to intercept and correct them.
Another example might be how, in mindfulness treatment approaches, we learn present-moment awareness, observing our emotions from the quiet of nonjudgment. In so doing, we learn to not drown in our emotions – but also not to exile them. We notice and accept them, while cultivating compassion for self and others.
Yes, the vocabularies are different but, theoretical underpinnings aside, we find some common truths in the Christian and psychological perspectives: that emotions are not trustworthy; that despite this, emotions are important and not to be banished; that emotions are frequently subject to distortion which can be quite problematic; and, finally, that we need to be on the watch for these distortions and the trouble they cause.
In other words, we simply cannot let our emotions run amok or they may destroy us from the inside out.
Of course all of this simply begs the question.
Understanding our emotions in this rudimentary fashion, what then are we as Christians to do with them?
Certainly, being sober and vigilant is essential. But it truly could become obsessive to try to intercept and examine each and every emotion experienced on a daily basis.
This is especially true because we have learned that we cannot even classify the emotions by content to simplify the task. There is no rule of thumb that allows us to say that anger is suspicious but joy is not.
What we must do, I believe, is acknowledge that the task before us is impossible.
I suppose psychology would call this a “paradoxical intervention”. However we are embarking on a far deeper course here.
Facing the impossible, as Christians, we turn to God – for nothing is impossible or inscrutable for Him.
Always, we pray. But especially we pray when encountering those emotions that we cannot manage on our own – the ones that confuse or overwhelm us when we try to discern whether they have been contaminated.
We pray to Christ – for He shared our emotions during His time among us and He understands. We ask Him daily to purify our hearts, our minds, our emotions.
We ourselves cannot defeat the evil one. But He already has.
We pray also to His Holy Mother and to all the saints, for they too know the struggle of being human. They are our helpers and protectors.
As we continue our lives of prayer, we cultivate the virtues. Knowing both the impossibility and the necessity of managing our emotions, we learn humility. As we grow in humility, we come to see more clearly how ego is behind so many of our troublesome emotions.
And so we pray to our Savior to help us empty ourselves as He emptied Himself.
As we become empty of self, we understand more and more how to cultivate the virtues of compassion, understanding and patience.
We begin to truly comprehend the disease that has afflicted us. We come to understand that those who provoke our most difficult emotions are similarly afflicted.
In our prayer, we ask the Lord to wash us in His mercy. And, as our compassion grows, we begin to ask Him to wash all others in His mercy as well.
Each time He washes us in His mercy, we learn a bit more about what we need to cleansed of. Indeed, in our prayers of gratitude, we begin to ask Him to help us see more clearly what in our thoughts, feelings and desires need purifying.
And He shows us.
Little by little, we learn the virtue of temperance, discovering that, as we grow in Him, many of our hungers and desires become less consuming. He Himself fills our deepest hunger, such that our other hungers becoming barely noticeable by comparison. Yet in His love for us, He never forbids us the sweet simplicity of His created gifts to address them.
What I have written here is not, of course, the end of the process, but merely the beginning.
Living a life in Christ is a continual unfolding that brings us more and more deeply into the peace that only He can give.
And in that peace, by His grace, we find our emotions becoming increasing pure. Yet, it is not merely the purity that the animals possess. It is the purity of Love.
Can psychology offer anything that parallels this?
Certainly not – at least not in its textbooks and research articles.
Yet this does not mean that we need dismiss it any more than we would dismiss medical help when we are ill.
God can and does heal our bodies and our minds.
Yet He also allows us suffering that we might be more closely united to Christ on the Cross.
But we are not to be united to Him by ourselves. He brings us into His Body with its many members that we might also be in union with one another.
This unity of the Body is not static – no, it is dynamic and fully alive. Every member has been given its own unique gifts to nourish and heal others in the Body, so that each is ever giving and receiving in an eternity of loving exchange.
A wise and holy patient of mine (who has since gone to God) helped me understand this in very practical terms.
In her Protestant denomination, members actively renounced psychology, something that saddened her greatly. She had had a very traumatic life and she knew God brought us together to help her heal. She saw many depressed and traumatized souls coming to her church every week but they would not consider doing what she so bravely did.
One time when we were discussing this, she shared with me this simple lesson: whether we are going to a medical doctor, a dentist or a psychologist, what is most important is that we find one who is “in the Body”.
She had seen me previously and was not ready. Truthfully, I was not ready yet either at our first encounter. Time brought her searching again and she saw a couple of other therapists briefly. She related how they did not understand her – and stated that she could not understand a word they said!
They simply did not speak the same language. The other therapists were kind and well-intentioned people but they were not “in the Body”.
When she and I resumed therapy after a hiatus of several years, she was ready. And I began to understand that the movement I been experiencing in my soul prior to her arrival was God preparing me.
And, as always happens in the Body, the gifts God gave me brought her healing and the gifts God gave her strengthened me in faith.
“Psychology” was a vehicle that was integral to the process, but never apart from the loving hand of God.
Having prayed for and written these words over a period of several days, I am now spent, like a woman who has given birth after a long and harrowing labor.
Harrowing – for I see how very weak I am. I am but a child wandering about on a battlefield who, by the grace of God, still stands after the shots have been fired.
Can I even trust the words I have written?
Certainly not. Nor can I trust any of the emotions I feel as I read them over one last time.
I can only trust in God. I give Him myself.
May He do with me – and these words – whatever He wills.
May God bless us and keep us. May He let His face shine upon us. May He be gracious to us and grant us His peace.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.