When Good and Bad Feelings Are Good: The View from Creation and Redemption
We have seen that emotions are signs of significance. They convey important information about one’s values, story, present perceptions, and sometimes one’s views of the future. Humans are meaningful creatures who live in a meaningful universe. Therefore, one of the hallmarks of a flourishing human being is an emotion-system that is functioning properly, that is, according to its design plan. From a Christian standpoint, this means that the emotions of flourishing humans will be relatively valid and fitting, given one’s present situation and history, corresponding more or less to God’s understanding and appraisal of that situation and history.
Unfortunately, as we have also seen, the human emotion-system has been compromised by sin and development in a fallen world, so that it does not correspond perfectly to God’s. Fortunately, one of the ways that Christ’s redemption brings salvation to the human soul, is by its healing of the Christian’s created emotion-system, so that it functions more according to its design plan.
This suggests that growing believers will feel positive and negative emotions that are increasingly fitting or appropriate in given situations. What does that look like? Given the complexity of God’s emotions as revealed in Scripture and the complexity of human life, Christians should be skeptical of simplistic, one-sided normative schemes—always happy or always focused on sin. Rather, it all depends. That is, a believer’s current emotion state will rightly depend on a host of variables, most importantly their union with Christ, as well as their positive actions, the sins they commit, their past history (which isn’t erased when someone becomes a Christian), their overall circumstances, and the situation they are currently faced with or focused on. Moreover, because of all this complexity, mature Christians will sometimes disagree about the most fitting emotions in a given situation.
Perhaps the best guide for the believer’s emotions is the answer to the question what would Jesus feel? (WWJF ;-), relying especially on his portrait in the gospels (btw, B. B. Warfield has written a terrific article on the topic, called “The Emotional Life of Our Lord”). However, qualifications are necessary even here. Since Christians are still sinners, guilt is sometimes a fitting emotion for them, whereas it would not have been for Jesus. Moreover, while we can read about Jesus’ emotions in the gospels, it is not always easy to deduce from those accounts how he would feel about something that we are faced with in our lives.
Nevertheless, such challenges should not lead Christians to become total emotion skeptics and conclude that they can’t know how they ought to feel. The Bible, the Spirit, human reason, and other relatively healthy people altogether can give us enough guidance to work out with some confidence a normative framework within which to cultivate an increasingly flourishing emotional life. One of those whom we should consult, I think, is that great Christian psychologist, Jonathan Edwards. In Religious Affections he argued that true Christianity was best characterized by a virtuous set of emotions. So, according to Edwards, a flourishing human being fervently fears, hopes, hates, desires, rejoices, sorrows, has compassion, is remorseful, is grateful, and most importantly loves, according to God’s heart. It should be obvious that a Christian model of the emotions differs most from modern models in its strongly normative character. Unfortunately, Edwards uber-Calvinism led him to believe that these emotions are basically directly infused into true Christians by the Holy Spirit! So, we will have to go elsewhere to figure out how, by God’s grace, we can cultivate a healthier emotional system.
It should be obvious that having fitting emotions is a goal that believers can only gradually approximate, and not attain, in this life. From one standpoint, the believer’s life could be considered a journey of the heart from lesser to greater conformity to God’s heart. What might our emotional life be in the life to come, when all sin and damage to our emotion-system is removed? Perhaps our perfected emotions will continue to grow in depth of feeling for eternity.