Why did God create us with emotions?
Have you ever thought about that? He could have easily made us without them, but in His sovereignty, He chose to let this be one of the ways that we image Him, understand Him, and glorify Him.
Do emotions function like a thermometer or a thermostat in your life? Thermometers take your temperature; they provide a read on how you’re doing internally. In contrast, thermostats set the temperature for the building; they control how the building is doing internally.
God designed our emotions to operate like thermometers, not thermostats. It’s why He fills Scripture with commands about what to feel and what not to feel. The very fact that He gives commands about our emotions means that we have the capability—by the power of His Spirit—to obey Him with our emotions. So how do we do that? How do we obey Him with our feelings when we often don’t even know what we’re feeling or why we’re feeling it?
First, we need to understand what our emotions are. Simply put, they’re the consequence or the result of our thoughts and beliefs. We feel the way we do because we think the way we do. This also means that just because we feel something doesn’t mean it’s true, because we can believe wrong things and think irrational things.
Just like sin affects our physical bodies, sin also affects our emotions and our thinking. It’s significant that the greatest commandment is to “’love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’” (Matthew 22:37). We’re to love Him with all our minds, which means we believe and think right things about Him.
Now, we can probably all agree that changing how we feel is not like flipping a light switch. (If so, we’d get over breakups much faster!) Philippians 4:8 provides us with a filter for what should fill our minds. Why? Because whatever fills us controls us. If you fill yourself with bitterness, you’ll be controlled by bitterness. If you fill yourself with anxious thoughts, you’ll be controlled by anxiety. But if you think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” like Philippians 4:8 commands, then you’ll behave how you believe.
Sometimes we even have to set up physical reminders to check our thoughts. I do this daily during my half-hour commute to work. There’s a mile marker along the way that cues me to assess my thoughts. I consider whether they line up with Philippians 4:8 and redirect them if necessary.
The four-legged table
As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at a coffee shop in Birmingham, and the table in front of me has a wad of napkins under one of the legs because the table was wobbling. Humans are like four-legged tables. The legs represent our physical body, our human relationships, our emotions, and our relationship with God. If one of these legs is off in life, it affects us. It throws the whole table (us) off-kilter.
I work in ministry to young women, and one has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her physical “leg” has been affected by this illness, and it affects the whole “table”—her emotions, her human relationships, and her relationship with God. Another girl was sexually abused as a child, causing the whole table—all of her—to be affected.
Do you see how we have to think about people—about ourselves—holistically? When examining why we feel the way we do, we have to consider what might be going on with our biology (nature), what has happened in our environment/past/relationships (nurture), and what we are believing about God, ourselves, others, and the world.
The good news is that neither our biology, nor what we’ve done, nor what’s been done to us determines our behavior and emotions. Ultimately, what determines these things is what we worship. Our behavior reflects what we love the most, fear the most, and desire the most.
In his book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul David Tripp gives the Principle of Inescapable Influence: “Whatever rules the heart will exercise inescapable influence over the person’s life and behavior.” This parallels what Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
What do you worship? What rules your heart? What fills your mind? Even today, what have you spent the bulk of the time thinking about? What does that say about you? How have those thoughts and beliefs affected your emotions?
Take heart, sister. Your emotions can change because your thinking can change. What you worship (if you’re worshipping something or someone other than the Lord) can change. But it won’t change without action. Sanctification is not a passive activity. As Eugene Peterson put it, it’s “a long obedience in the same direction.” But thankfully, it’s not something we do alone. We have the Spirit of God in us, the Word of God to guide us, and the people of God to journey with us. And on that future day when we are with God in Heaven, we will think rightly, act rightly, and feel rightly. So, sisters, let’s endeavor today to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Your Friend, Ashley
Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Singles 20s/30s Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. While Ashley has a passion for discipling young women, she also loves her city and wrote a children’s book about it called Down in the Ham: A Child’s Guide to Downtown Birmingham. When she's not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer's market or trying some new local restaurant.