What role do emotions play in your faith?
For most of my life, I would have said “none.” After all, our emotions are transient and often deceitful. Far better to centre my faith around what does not change—God’s Word. Far better to learn to obey God regardless of what I feel in the moment.
There’s some merit to that point of view. Our emotions are temporary. Our hearts can be deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). Our confidence should be based in God’s character and promises, not in our own feelings.
But sometimes we go too far to the other extreme, and disregard our emotions entirely.
It’s easy to reduce Christianity to a purely intellectual exercise in which we acknowledge that certain truths about Jesus Christ are true and commit to obey His commands. Both those things are good, even necessary to a healthy Christian life. I don’t want to diminish the importance of our faith being based on Scriptural truth; after all, we are to love God with all our minds, and a key part of that is applying our minds to understand His Word. Nor will I ever undermine the importance of obedience in our actions and in our attitudes; we are commanded to love God with all our strength.
But we are also to love God with all our hearts—with our emotions.
I struggle with this.
I tend to think of my emotions as either “good” or “bad.” In my mind, “good” emotions are things like joy, hope, and gratefulness, while “bad” emotions are things like fear or anger. For much of my life, I assumed that the godly thing to do with these “bad” emotions was to push them aside, to focus only on positive things. I thought this was what the Bible meant when it instructed me to be anxious for nothing
If I had been regularly reading the Psalms, I don’t think I would have come to the same conclusion.
Psalms—the longest book in the Bible—is a collection of poems. Like all poetry, the Psalms use descriptive language rather than telling a story or making a list of points. The writer of a psalm uses vivid imagery to bring to life concepts that might otherwise be difficult to understand. Consider how much more real the psalmist’s time of hardship feels when he describes it as the valley of the shadow of death. // Psalm 23:4
One of the most important things about the Psalms is how honestly they describe human emotion. When I read the Psalms, I see that godly people experience all kinds of emotions. Yes, they feel joy and hope and gratitude, but the writers of the Psalms also experienced and expressed emotions like sorrow, anger, fear, and even envy.
And they expressed these emotions to God.
I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. // Psalm 6:6
I often feel guilty to admit that I’m afraid. I don’t even want to acknowledge my anger, much less tell God directly how I feel! Yet that’s what the psalmists did: they were completely honest and transparent about what they felt in the presence of God. And God included their honest prayers in His own Word, telling us that they were not only genuine expressions of the human experience but also inspired by Him.
The Psalms show us how God wants us to pray: not as robots who never feel anything uncomfortable or hard, but as real, authentic human beings who feel the entire spectrum of human emotions.
Pretending we don’t feel sad or angry or afraid isn’t healthy, and it certainly isn’t godly. The God who is Himself the Truth does not expect us to be anything less than honest when we express ourselves to Him. That means it’s okay to go through times of sadness and fear. It’s okay to question why God allows certain things. It’s okay to feel abandoned by God and to tell Him so.
It’s okay to feel all our emotions.
And what we choose to do with those emotions matters.
The Psalms give us a perfect example of how to deal with hard emotions in a godly way. Feeling an emotion isn’t right or wrong—it’s just part of being human. How we respond to those emotions is another matter. When I feel afraid or angry or sad, what do I do with that feeling? Do I respond in a way that honours God? Or do I use my feelings to justify sinful behaviour?
Throughout the Bible, God tells us to bring everything to Him in prayer. Processing your emotions with trusted friends is good; processing them in the presence of God is even better. This is what the psalmists did—they expressed the most vulnerable and raw aspects of their experience before God. And as they did so, something remarkable happened. Over and over again the psalmists prayed through their fears, doubts, and frustrations. And over and over again, they ended the psalm rejoicing in God’s goodness and faithfulness.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me. // Psalm 13:5
In most psalms, there is a turning point where the psalmist transfers his focus from his own experiences and emotions to God’s character. Usually, the characteristic of God the psalmist focuses on connects with the psalmist’s circumstances or emotions in some way. If the psalmist was afraid, he is now meditating on God’s power or on his faithfulness. If he was angry that wicked people seem to prosper, he is now meditating on God’s justice. If he was feeling guilty or remorseful over his own sin, he is now meditating on God’s mercy.
Something extraordinary happens when we choose to invite God into our hardest moments: we start to see sides of Him we hadn’t seen before. His compassion becomes more real to us; we become more aware of His faithfulness. When we express ourselves to God in complete transparency, we learn to see our circumstances and our emotions in light of who He is, and this fundamentally changes our experience of whatever hard thing we’re currently going through. We don’t stop feeling those hard emotions—but we learn to hope, even in times of deep sorrow and discouragement. We learn to rejoice in who God is, no matter what difficult circumstances we may face.
Today, let’s express our emotions to God before we express them to anyone else. Instead of lashing out in fear or anger, let’s allow those emotions to draw our attention back to God and to His character. Let’s learn to rejoice in Him no matter what hardships we may be facing today.
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! // Psalm 30:11
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