Emotions are exceedingly powerful. They are powerful in our own minds and bodies and can tempt us to do, say, and believe all sorts of things. Our emotions can also be powerful in the lives of others. How we feel is not as individualistic as we sometimes suggest it is. How we feel impacts those around us. Often this impact is unintentional, but many times we can turn our emotions into weapons to use against one another. What you do with how you feel can either demonstrate or distort the gospel you believe.
We can use our emotions as weapons in three general ways. We can use our emotions to excuse or justify our behavior. We often do this when we acknowledge that something we did or said was wrong. We say things like: “I didn’t mean what I said, I was just angry;” “I am sorry I was so cold yesterday, I was just having a bad day;” “I know I shouldn’t have gone to that website, but I am just so lonely.” Our emotions become means of justifying sinful behavior, making excuses that forbid others from correcting, rebuking, or challenging us. If my emotions “made me do it,” then I can’t really be held responsible. After all, you can’t just change how you feel.
We can also use our emotions to manipulate others. Our emotions can be passive-aggressive tools to get our way. Kids learn this at a very early age. If they cry or throw a fit then they might get their way. Adults do the same thing, though we attempt to do it in more socially acceptable ways. If I complain about how nobody loves me then others will start to spend more time with me. If I am distant and cold towards others then they will make a bigger effort to befriend me. If I throw a fit with my spouse then they will give me what I really want. We can manipulate people into doing what we want, giving us our way, or surrendering their desires to our demands.
Finally, we can use our emotions to punish others. When we choose to dwell within our bad emotions and make others live in them too then we can make them “pay.” So, my broken heart can become a means to make others feel my pain. When I live constantly downcast, remind others of how they’ve wronged me, and refuse to let them experience joy by constantly expressing my sorrow then I am forcing others to live in my emotional state. If I am angry and I pick a fight, even when the other person is trying to resolve things, then I am forcing them to live in my emotional state. When I resist forgiving, retain bitterness, spew negativity, or make others walk on eggshells around me then I am using my emotions to punish. I am making sure that no one feels better than me, that no one forgets how they hurt me, and that no one sees the goodness of God in the midst of my life. I am using my emotions to make you feel exactly like I feel, even if my emotions aren’t your fault.
We often believe that our emotional state is beyond our ability to control. There is, of course, some truth to that. We can’t flip a switch and just turn off and on our emotions. But it is not true to suggest that we have zero power over our emotions. In fact the Bible commands us to feel certain things. We are commanded to be joyful or rejoice (Ps. 110:2; Matt. 5:12; Rom. 12:8-15; Phil. 4:4). We are commanded to fear (Luke 12:5; Rom. 11:20; 1 Peter 1:17). We are also to be at peace (Col. 3:15). We are to be compassionate (Eph. 4:32), to mourn (Rom. 12:15; James 4:9), and to “forgive from the heart” (Matt. 18:35). Ultimately, the Bible calls us to be self-controlled (Gal. 5:23; 2 Tim. 1:7). The Bible expects us to exercise our emotions in godly ways. Nowhere does God allow us the out or option of saying, “I just don’t feel like it.” So, while we can’t just flip a switch and change how we feel we are nonetheless expected to feel certain things. How does this work? The answer is found in the cultivation of godly emotions. In other words, to some degree we can change how we feel.
Note that Paul is able to rejoice in prison. How is that possible? Not because his circumstances were good, nor because he necessarily couldn’t find anything about which to express concern, sorrow, or disappointment. Rather, he knew how to be “content” in all things, because he knows how to “rejoice in the Lord” and how to find strength in Him (Phil. 4). He can cultivate godly emotions when his mind and heart are being directed towards God. We have a responsibility to regularly confront our bad emotions with the truths, promises, and hopes found in the gospel. When we fail to do this not only do we deny that gospel by our lives, but we tempt others to see it in a distorted way too.
The gospel calls us to love as we have been loved. It tells us plainly to “consider others better than ourselves” (Phil. 2:3). When we use our emotions as weapons we are not considering the interests of others as more significant than our own, we are making our emotional state the most important issue at hand. We are forcing others to consider our emotions as more significant. We are living as if the gospel, in which Jesus humbles himself (Phil. 2:8), was accomplished so that we might exalt ourselves. The gospel calls us to lay down our lives for others, and to love them as we have been loved. Weaponized emotions are the complete opposite of this gospel call.
There is an important balance here that should be mentioned. How we feel is important and when we are grieving, in sorrow, and/or in need we ought to seek out brothers and sisters to support us and help us. Confessing our emotions is not the same as using them against one another. The intent behind the expression of our emotions is significant. As with many things in the Bible, the issue is not the emotion itself, but rather what we do with it. How you respond to your emotions matters. What you feel can be an opportunity to grow, to find fellowship in the body of believers, to increase your trust in and dependence upon God, and to demonstrate the gospel. If you use your emotions to justify sin, manipulate others, or punish others you will distort the gospel message. Think about your emotions, friends. Consider how you express what you feel. Consider the motives that may drive your various expressions. Seek to cultivate godly emotions, and seek to respond to bad emotions in godly ways. What you do with what you feel matters.