It’s Okay that our emotions are Complex

How we feel is often a source of self-condemnation. There are many scenarios where we judge ourselves for the feelings we have, or we condemn ourselves for not feeling something which we think we should. This is particularly true when we go through suffering. We often think that either we should be joyful, or we think that we should not be joyful. We then find a way to condemn ourselves accordingly. But emotions are complex. God made them that way. And it is possible to feel more than one emotion at a time. If we can learn to embrace our emotional complexity it can help alleviate some of our emotional suffering.

To be sure, there are scenarios where God commands us to feel certain things, and where he rebukes people for feeling the wrong thing. Jonah comes to mind as a clear example where God rebukes the prophet for being angry about God’s destruction of a plant (Jonah 4:9). God is pressing on the prophet to see his hypocrisy. He is more concerned for the dead plant than the people of Nineveh. In general, however, we shouldn’t judge our emotions. Rather, we should feel them and attempt to understand them. And where we find a mix of emotions, then we should acknowledge all that we feel, accept all that we feel, and attempt to understand such feelings.

The Bible encourages us to see our emotional complexity. Ecclesiastes 7:3, for example, tells us that “by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” Meaning joy and tears can coexist. The expression of sadness can be good for our souls and bring about “gladness” in the heart. We do not think this way. We believe tears are bad and should be resisted, but God created us with the capacity to cry and it is an important emotion to express. I think about my own tears and how they brought about comfort from others, connection with others, and strength from the Lord. To think back now about those tears brings comfort and even some joy. I remember holding my young brother as we both wept over the loss of my dad. I remember feeling the Lord’s nearness as I waited for my daughter’s spinal surgery to be completed. Tears and joy coexisted in such moments. Ache and gladness.

Likewise, Proverbs 14:13 says:

Even in laughter the heart may ache.

Here we have the flip side of the emotional coin. We can be, in a single moment, experiencing laughter and yet inside also feel the deep ache of some sorrow. I can rejoice externally and yet still feel the deep sorrow in my heart. I can be enjoying a special moment with friends, and still grieving inside over a lost friendship. We do this often a funerals as we laugh and yet sorrow during the post-memorial meal. It is possible, then, to feel more than one emotion at a time.

A few examples may help illustrate this in for us. Think of someone who on their wedding days is excited about getting married and yet at the same time sorrowful that their deceased father could not be present for the wedding. Aren’t they both happy and sad in that moment. And shouldn’t they rightly feel both of those emotions? Or, consider someone who is grateful for the repentance of their spouse after an adulterous relationship. Perhaps they have seen months of progress and change, repentance with real genuine fruit to prove it. They have experienced the joy of a renewed, perhaps even a stronger, relationship. Yet, when they think about all that precipitated this great change it brings tremendous anxiety, anger, and tears. They feel both sorrowful and glad. The mixture of feelings can be so confusing, sometimes even distressing, and yet they don’t have to choose which feelings are real. They are both real and both appropriate.

It is okay that our emotions are complex. Their complexity illustrates our own complexity as creatures, and it highlights the complexity of life which requires more than one simplistic response. We can be both sad and happy, angry and joyful, anxious and grateful. You don’t have to pick and choose between seemingly conflicting emotions. They can both be real and you can honor both emotions. This is how God has made us and Scripture encourages us to embrace all the complexity of our emotional makeup. 

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