The role of emotions in biblical counseling is important and not something to be minimized or ignored. Because of the way we have been created in the image of God, emotions are part of what it means to be human. They play a dominant role in our lives. We can respond with positive emotions of joy, love and delight but we can also experience heartache, confusion and tragedy that results from a mishandling of our feelings. Although this, by no means, is a comprehensive handling of the topic of emotions, I’d like to share some foundational truths the Scriptures teach that I gleaned from Faith Biblical Counseling Conference which I recently attended in Lafayette, Indiana, that I trust can help us compassionately handle this area in ways that bring clarity, hope and life to counselees.
A biblical theology of emotions starts with an acknowledgment that God Himself expresses emotion. All of God’s emotional responses are perfect and holy, pure and right such as delight (Is. 42:1, Zeph. 3:17, Mt. 3:17), anger (Ps. 7:11), compassion (Is. 49:15-16), grief (Ps. 78:40) jealousy (Deut. 4:24, Jms. 4:5) hate (Prov. 6:16-19) and more. Unlike fallen humanity, God’s emotional responses do not rule Him but rather He is always in complete control of them.
In the same way, Jesus also expressed emotions in a perfect and sinless manner. We are told in the Scriptures that the incarnate Son is the image of the invisible God and the perfect representation of God’s nature, which would include Christ’s emotional responses (Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3). But Jesus is also perfect in His humanity. Because of this, He expressed an entire range of human emotions but He did so without sin.
Since mankind was created in the image of God, our emotions are an inherent part of who we are. Like God, we respond to our environment, to people, to situations with a variety of emotions. However, like everything else about us, our emotions were corrupted by the fall. What was initially good and right and meant to enrich and enhance our lives is now tainted by sin and has the capacity to rule our hearts in ways that are ungodly and enslaving and that are contrary to God’s character.
The Scriptures reveal that emotions arise out of what is most valued. This is true of God and, as we’ll see in a bit, is certainly true of us as well. What God values most is His glory (Is. 42:8), His Son (Mt. 3:17), His people dwelling in fellowship with Him (Is. 62:5, Rev. 21:3), knowing Him (Jer. 9:23-24), righteousness and justice (Ps. 33:5), His will and redemptive plan (Eph. 1:7), grace and mercy (Mic. 6:8), meekness and humility (Mt. 5:3, Jms. 4:6, 10), love for Himself and others (Mt. 22:36-40, Rom. 13:8). Are these the things our counselees value? Are these what our own hearts treasure and pursue?
God responds in righteous and just ways when we, as His image bearers, pursue whatever is not in keeping with His values. He expressed grief over man’s overwhelming wickedness and rebellion before the flood (Gn. 6:6). He responded in wrath against the idolatry of the Israelites when they worshipped the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Deut. 9:8). Conversely, God also responds with pleasure when we treasure His values and follow His will here on earth “as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10, 25:34-36).
The Bible also reveals that what we as image bearers value most will determine how we respond and what emotions we express. Our emotions expose what we treasure and are a window into what is going on in our hearts. When we cultivate and pursue what the heart of God values most, our emotions will respond in a righteous manner in keeping with God’s character and values. When we pursue and treasure our own selfish desires, our emotions will be expressed in sinful and ungodly ways, revealing what our hearts most crave.
This has implications for me personally as a counselor even in the counseling setting as I seek to value the image bearer in front of me, to love them well, to respond joyfully as I see godly fruit being produced or grieve over a lack of repentance. These emotions are windows into my own heart as well and reveal what I treasure and worship (1 Jn. 2:15-17). Am I displaying the heart of God and what He values as I respond to counselees?
As a counselor I also need to draw out and help counselees identify the kind of “emotional fruit” displayed in their life. By God’s grace and through His Word, I can lead them to make the connection between what their heart values (the root) and their particular emotional response (Lk. 6:43-45). It is easy to distinguish between righteous and sinful emotions by the kind of emotional “fruit” produced in their lives.
Distorted or sinful emotive responses are the result of wrong thinking and desires. The degree to which a counselee can or cannot obtain what their heart treasures most will determine their emotional responses. One example of this would be Cain’s response of bitterness, anger and ultimately murder of his brother Abel, because he did not receive the approval from God he thought he deserved and wanted on his own terms. Even when challenged by God over his anger that “if you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” he still refused to repent of his anger and comply with offering an acceptable sacrifice by faith (Gn. 4:3-8).
We want to help counselees bring their emotions and hearts into alignment with the will and heart of God, not just to conform externally to certain behaviors. It is not enough to perform the right actions and have hearts that still remain resistant and rebellious. We need to teach them what God values and help them desire what matters most to Him. When counselees value and pursue what the heart of God treasures their emotional responses will be righteous ones and the fruit displayed in their lives will be godly fruit. Our God has always cared about the condition of our hearts more than simply desiring our outward conformity.
A great example of this can be seen in Acts 16:19-25, as Paul and Silas demonstrated a peace that passes understanding in the midst of great trial and affliction (Phil. 4:6-8). Although they had just been beaten, were thrown into prison, had their feet fastened in the stocks and were placed under guard by a Philippian jailer, they were joyful “praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:24-25)! This is not the emotional response one would expect after what they just endured. How was this possible? The apostle knew that the Lord was with him. He knew he wasn’t alone there in the prison cell. In Philippians 4:4-5 Paul is able to exhort others who suffer, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is at hand.” Paul knew Christ was present with them in their suffering and trial. He was believing and relying on this presence of God and this truth was precious to him. He valued Christ’s presence more than he valued life itself … “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21)! Either way, he knew that God’s presence was sure and could not be taken away from him. His trust and activity of prayerful dependance on God resulted in peace.
Emotions are the result of something I’m believing and staking my life on. When my heart is longing after other things and I don’t get what I’m treasuring, my state of being results in anxiety, stress, worry, anger or fear. However, if what I value most is God’s presence and know that it is mine, I will experience peace.
So how can we help our counselees?
We can help them identify values by asking good, relevant, heart-probing questions such as:
· What are you afraid of losing?
· What are you dreading?
· What do you believe you need to be happy?
· What hope has been crushed?
· What do you want that you aren’t getting?
Are they treasuring security, respect, approval of man, wealth or position more than they are loving God and what He values?
We can also lead counselees to renew their minds through the Scriptures if they are to grow and change in what their hearts most desire (Rom. 12:1-2, Eph. 4:22-24, Heb. 4:12). We can point them to the example of Christ and godly characteristics he valued and lived out, such as humility, and the result of how God responded (Phil. 2:5-11). We can point out the fleeting, destructive and deceptive nature of pursuing worldly pleasures and personal ambition rather than pursuing love of God and what He values and then lead counselees to repentance.
There is so much more that can be said about this subject. Hopefully this has provided some challenging food for thought as we partner with God in offereing compassionate, wise and godly counsel to help counselees break free from being ruled by sinful and distorted emotions, for their good and God’s glory.
Written by Helen VanSumeren, M.A.