Emotions: Windows to the Soul
Created in the image of our passionate and compassionate God who experiences deep joy and profound sadness, we are emotional beings who experience life deeply and internally. God created us to feel. God loves emotions. Jesus wept, and so do we. The Spirit grieves, as we do. The Father rejoices, as do we. We have the emotional capacity to respond to our outer world based upon our inner actions, choices, goals, beliefs, images, longings, and desires.
However, the Christian world sometimes makes emotions “the black sheep of the image bearing family.” Some people view emotions as primarily negative, typically unreliable, and best when ignored or “controlled.” Pastors and counselors at times pit feelings against beliefs by viewing emotions as “irrational passions.”
Because of our often faulty views of emotions, New Testament scholar Matthew Elliott wrote Faithful Feelings to challenge us to rethink emotions biblically. Elliott seeks to determine how emotions were perceived by the writers of the New Testament, and what role they thought emotions should play in the life of the believer. His purpose is to explore the importance of emotions to our faith.
What Is Emotion?
Elliott begins with the basic question, “What is emotion?” The answer is not as simple as one might imagine. In chapter one, Elliott presents a rather technical debate between those who view emotions as non-cognitive and those who view emotions as cognitive. In fact, overall the book is quite technical. The reader who desires a more “user-friendly” presentation might consider Elliott’s more recent book, Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart.
The theory of non-cognitive emotions states that an emotion is an impression internally experienced but not caused by a cognitive process. Emotions, in this view, are separate from the intellect.
Elliott supports the cognitive theory of emotions and frequently refers to emotions as “cognitive-emotions.” In this view, emotions are inseparably linked to cognition. Simply put, emotion requires cognition.
The difference, for Elliott, is huge. “If emotions are merely physiological impulses, they can be ignored, controlled, or trivialized, while, if they have as their essential element thinking and judgment, they are an essential part of almost everything that we think and do” (p. 31). Therefore, we ought to be able to develop our emotional capacities so that we respond naturally and spontaneously with the emotions which are appropriate to our various situations.
What then, is a cognitive-emotion? Emotions are the felt tendency toward an object judged suitable, or away from an object judged unsuitable (pp. 31-32). The key for Elliott is that we must link emotion to evaluation. His main thesis is clear: the contrast that some habitually draw between reason and emotion is false. “Emotions are not primitive impulses to be controlled or ignored, but cognitive judgments or constructs that tell us about ourselves and our world” (p. 54). Emotions are based upon belief and values.
Elliott states several times how rare the cognitive emotion view is in New Testament studies. However, it is common in biblical counseling circles for writers to connect rationality and emotionality. Eyrich (Curing the Heart, 2002), Powlison (Seeing with New Eyes, 2003), and Kellemen (Soul Physicians, 2007), are just a few examples. Readers interested in a comprehensive, holistic, and practical approach to the nature of human nature would find such authors good complements to Faithful Feelings.
What View of Emotions Do We Find in Scripture?
Having described emotions as cognitive-emotions, Elliott’s next task is to determine whether the writers of the New Testament separated emotion and reason or whether they saw them as a unified whole. To accomplish this goal he provides background to the New Testament era. He first discusses the Hellenistic view of emotion (chapter two), and then he examines emotion in Jewish culture, including the Old Testament (chapter three).
One of the ways Elliott develops his proposition about emotions and the Bible is to weave together Old Testament and New Testament words for “heart” and “love.” Elliott contends that the Bible has a cognitive view of emotions in part because a.) the Old Testament uses leb (heart) b.) with words like “love,” and c.) leb includes cognition and emotion, and d.) love includes cognition and emotion, and e.) kardia (heart in the New Testament) is a cognate for leb.
For instance, Elliott writes, “If the kardia of a person includes their emotions, it is clear that emotion must have a prominent place in the theology of the New Testament” (p. 131). While leb and kardia often are used holistically to represent a comprehensive view of human nature, and while both words at times are used with emotive words in emotive contexts, neither word is primarily linked to emotions by linguists. Wolff (Anthropology of the Old Testament, 1974) demonstrates that leb has primary reference to rational-volitional elements. There are other Semitic words (such as those translated “kidneys,” “bowels,” “inward parts,” “belly,” and “womb”) that more consistently convey an emotional emphasis.
Words, in order to communicate, have an emphasis with a semantic range. For instance, I might point to my stream where there are trees, shrubs, and weeds and say, “I’m cutting down all those trees this summer.” Technically, “tree” only refers to some of the brush around my stream. However, I can use “tree” with the semantic range of any plant or weed along my stream. But if a squirrel were in one of the trees when I pointed that direction, no one would think I planned to saw in two all animal life along the stream. Nor would it be wise in the context of buying a new tree for my wife, for me to plant a weed and say, “Look at the new tree I bought you for Mother’s Day!”
“Heart” has an emphasis with a semantic range. It can include almost all inner psychical aspects (affections, beliefs, images, motivations, actions, feelings). However, it still has an emphasis (rational-volitional) and its holistic range should not be read into every use of the word in every context.
Reading Faithful Feelings I found myself struggling because I agreed with many of Elliott’s premises about emotions, but I disagreed with how he got there. Yes, leb has a semantic range, but that does not mean that every word used with leb is a cognitive-emotion. Yes, love has emotional elements, but that is not the same as saying that love is an emotion (p. 161) or that love is a cognitive-emotion (p. 163). Not everything is an emotion. However, everything we do involves emotional elements.
Conversely, Elliott’s approach could be considered not holistic enough. If we want to highlight the holistic nature of a word like love, or a word like heart, then we need to call them affective-cognitive-volitive-emotive words. Or, we could say they are relational, spiritual, social, self-aware, rational, volitional, emotional constructs. “Cognitive-emotion” may not capture the comprehensive nature of human nature as depicted in the Old and New Testaments (compare Kellemen, Hebrew Anthropological Terms as a Foundation for a Biblical Counseling Model of Humanity, 1985).
These technicalities aside, Elliott makes many vital points. His interpretation of anger in Cain and Jonah is excellent. “Instead of just prohibiting it, God questions the cognitive basis for the anger” (p. 96).
His work on sorrow, lament, and grief is quite helpful. He shows that it is right and proper to feel sorrow over trouble and death. He demonstrates how the Old Testament encouraged the grieving to express their emotions. His discussion of the process of grieving in the lament Psalms is very instructive.
Elliott also strikes a biblical “balance” in his presentation of God as an emotional being. “To postulate a God without passion is to take the heart out of Jewish worship. . . We have often been told that God’s emotions were ‘anthropomorphisms,’ described like those of humans. In reality, human emotions are in the image of God himself” (p. 111).
Emotions and Affections
Elliott spends much of chapter 3 (Emotion in the New Testament) discussing love as an emotion. Again, I find myself largely in agreement with the basic movement of his argument. However, once again, I do not “get there” the same way he does. Elliott links emotions and affections. He often quotes Jonathan Edwards and others on affections, as if they meant by affections exactly what Elliott means by cognitive-emotions. Historically, physicians of the soul have seen a relationship between affections and emotions while still distinguishing between affections and emotions.
For example, the Puritans called our thirsts and spiritual longings “religious affections.” By “affections” they did not mean emotions per se. They saw emotions as reactive and responsive and affections as directive and motivational.
As Jonathan Edwards explains, “Affections are the mainspring of human actions. The Author of human nature not only gave affections to man, but he made them the basis of human actions” (Edwards, Religious Affections, p. 9). “The affections are the spring of men’s actions. All activity ceases unless he is moved by some affection—take away desire and the world would be motionless and dead—there would be no such thing as activity or any earnest pursuit whatsoever. Everywhere the Scriptures place much emphasis on the affections” (Edwards, Religious Affections, p. xxviii).
John Owen concurs. “Relational affections motivate the soul to cleave to and to seek relationships. The affections are in the soul as the helm is in the ship; if it be laid hold on by a skillful hand, he turneth the whole vessel which way he pleaseth (Owen, Temptation and Sin, p. ix).
I would agree with much of what Elliott says, but it seems that we need an even more comprehensive understanding of the soul—one that sees a connection between affections and emotions while seeing distinctions. Elliott might say, “I feel because of what I believe.”
More comprehensively we might say, “What I believe (rational/cognitive) about what satisfies my longings for relationship (relational/affective) provides the direction that I choose to pursue (volitional/motivational), and determines my response (emotional) to my inner and outer world.
I pursue (volitional) what I perceive (rational) to be lovely (relational) and respond and experience life accordingly (emotional).”
A more comprehensive approach might also note that if the motivational structure of my heart is mature, then I will purposely pursue God and what He chooses to provide (volitional interaction) because I personally perceive (rational direction) that He is good and great, holy and loving, sovereign and satisfying (relational motivation), and I then experience true happiness (emotional reaction). If the motivational structure of my heart is immature, I will purposely pursue Satan (volitional interaction) because I am personally deceived into perceiving (rational direction) that God is not good and great (relational motivation), and I then experience the temporary pleasures of sin for a season and the long-term displeasure of guilt, shame, and sorrow (emotional reaction).
What then are emotions from this more comprehensive perspective? Emotions are our God-given capacity to experience our world and to respond subjectively to those experiences. This capacity includes the ability to react internally and experience a full-range of both positive (pleasant) and negative (painful) inner feelings. What we desire, think, and choose (our inner world) determines our emotional reaction to our external situation (our outer world). What we think (rational direction) satisfies our longing for relationship (relational motivation) provides the direction we choose to pursue (volitional interaction) and determines our experiential response (emotional reaction) to our world. A basic formula for understanding emotions would thus include: E.S. + I.P. = E.R. Our External Situation plus our Internal Perception leads to our Emotional Response.
Perhaps it is semantics. Perhaps Elliott would concur with this more expansive description and say that his term “cognitive-emotion” includes all of these elements.
So what difference might it make? First, we want to convey accurately what the Bible says about the complexities of human nature and about how each of the comprehensive, holistic aspects interrelate to one another.
Second, when people today hear “love is an emotion,” they likely will hear that phrase through our societal grid and they are apt to interpret it to mean, “Do what you feel. Love what you feel like loving.” If we are to un-warp that warped definition, then we need to describe precisely what we mean based specifically upon what the Bible says about human nature.
The Point of the Matter
Elliott addresses a legitimate concern when he notes that some people make words like love and hope non-emotional theological terms. They rob these terms of all emotional elements. Elliott returns his readers to a more biblical understanding of these terms as cognitive emotions.
Elliott also addresses a legitimate concern that some people put emotion and intellect in tension. He is driven to bring them together. “Emotions are a faithful reflection of what we believe and value. The Bible does not treat them as forces to be controlled or channeled toward the right things, but as an integral part of who we are as people created in God’s image” (p. 264).
While Faithful Feelings is more theoretical in nature than practical, Elliott adeptly summarizes the foundational application of his view. “. . . because emotions are cognitive, people can be held responsible for having particular emotions.” “. . . it is possible to educate the emotions and there are many methods that can be used to change harmful emotions or produce healthy emotions” (p. 142).
Elliott’s cognitive view of emotions provides a solid foundation for understanding who we are and how we relate. It offers a more hopeful view of emotions than is typically present in some Evangelical Christian circles. It provides an integrated view of our beliefs and emotions that can lead to a greater level of emotional intelligence and spiritual maturity.
Perhaps most importantly, Elliott puts passion back into our souls—the passion God originally designed to be there as we relate to one another and to God. He demonstrates from Scripture that God fashioned us not to relate as soulless drones, but as soulful image bearers. Our walk with God is not one of emotionless duty stripped of all affection, but one of joyful love infused with longing.