A Review of “Untangling Emotions” by Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith

Emotions are some of the most powerful influencers in existence. What we do is often driven by how we feel, and God has designed our emotions to be those powerful motivators. It is of paramount importance, then, that we understand the emotions correctly. In what is, without question, the most thorough and helpful analysis of the emotions, Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith provide readers with a theology of the emotions and an exploration in the responsible use of them.

Christians have not always though well of the emotions. There has sometimes been an overly critical view of them, as if the emotions are sort of an embarrassment to the righteous man and ought, therefore, to be suppressed. Of course, the world has tended toward the opposite extreme: the emotions are the core of who you are and you are to indulge every feeling you have in order to experience it to the fullest. The Bible offers us, however, a more balanced approach, encouraging us to engage our emotions without being ruled by them. Groves and Smith, both counselors with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), believe that a “careful study of the Bible can help us discard faulty assumptions so we can engage our emotions rather than be ruled by or flee from them” (17). Since God created our emotions, and since our emotions are designed to reflect him, then we should look to Him and His Word to help us rightly understand and respond to our feelings.

The book is broken down into three parts. Part one sets the stage by presenting readers with a foundational theology of the emotions. The authors point out the grave misnomers regarding our emotions, especially “negative” emotions, define the subject, and explore the functional value of the emotions. One of the most valuable insights in this portion of the book comes as the authors unpack the relationship between our feelings and our desires. They note that “every emotions you ever feel reflects your loves, or what you worship” (39). That is to say, our emotions arise in relation to the various objects, things, ideas, etc. that we love. So, we get angry when something/someone we love is being attacked. We become fearful when we recognize the possibility of losing something/someone we love. Of course, as they authors point out, we love many things and so in any given moment our emotions are responding to all the various objects of our affection, which creates layers of complexity in self-understanding. This insight is important and helps us to see where our loves may need to be redirected, refined, or where they are just right.

The other value of this portion of the book is its emphasis on the appropriateness of what we term “negative” emotions (i.e. anger, sadness, fear, etc.). There is a place in God’s emotional economy for the appropriate experience and use of these emotions. Christians have tended to minimize or even discourage the experience of these emotions, condemning ourselves and others when we feel them. God, however, has given them to us to be proper motivators for action. Groves and Smith do an excellent job, in my opinion, of granting readers both permission to experience these emotions and guidance in responding to them.

Part two shifts the focus more to that issue of appropriate response. They begin by unpacking the two common ways of responding, and the pitfalls that they represent. They move then into an appropriate way to respond, giving readers a simple (but not simplistic) guide for the “engagement” of the emotions. They note, in particular, that our emotions are designed to help us both connect with God and connect with others. This portion of the book closes out by exploring both how to nourish healthy emotions and “starve” unhealthy emotions. In the case of “unhealthy” emotions they are not so much identifying specific “bad” emotions, but rather ways of thinking about emotions. So, for example, they refute the ways of thinking that say: “I am my feelings;” “I must act right now;” “I shouldn’t be feeling this;” and the type of emotional response that comes in extremes, “all-or-nothing.”

Part three rounds out the book with a short glimpse into four specifically troubling emotions. These emotions are some of the most difficult to navigate and so the authors provide us with some insight and some guidance regarding them. They address the emotions of fear, anger, grief, and shame. While the chapters do not provide a comprehensive look at any one emotion, in the context of the preceding chapters’ principles these emotions can be thoughtfully considered.

This is an absolutely fantastic resource. Other books certainly deal with specific emotions in more detail, and some books give a decent theology of the emotions. No book, however, that I know of, has so thoroughly and carefully engaged the emotions from a foundation and theological perspective. This is a book that should be mandatory reading for every Biblical counselor, pastor, and Shepherd. Indeed it should be a book that many average Christians read. The emotions are so powerful that a failure to understand them rightly, and a failure to know how to relate to them in a godly way, will wreak havoc on our lives and relationships. Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith have written an easy read with unparalleled depth and clarity on the subject. I highly recommend this book.

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