Untangling Emotions:

Untangling Emotions: "God's Gift of Emotions"

by J. Alasdair Groves, Winston T. Smith


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This book sets forth a holistic view of emotions rooted in the Bible, offering a practical approach to engaging with both positive and negative emotions in a God-honoring way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433557828
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 03/31/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 337,612
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

J. Alasdair Groves(MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the executive director for the New England branch of the Christian Counseling& Educational Foundation (CCEF). He is also the director of CCEF's School of Biblical Counseling.

Winston T. Smith(MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) istherector at Saint Anne's Church in Abington, Pennsylvania. He is the author ofMarriage Matters.

Read an Excerpt


Sometimes It's Good to Feel Bad

Jesus wept.

That was kind of a strange thing for him to do, don't you think? We don't know how you picture Jesus, but your mental image is probably not of him wracked by sobs as tears run down his cheeks into his beard. Jesus bleeding on the cross yet forgiving his enemies? Sure. Jesus with children in his lap, smiling compassionately down? You bet. Jesus wailing loudly or shaking with silent tremors at a funeral? Not so much.

Yet that is exactly what the Bible says. Standing with Mary, the sister of his close friend Lazarus, and staring at her brother's fresh grave, Jesus is stabbed by grief and breaks down in tears (John 11:32–36). Now think about this: As God, Jesus controls the entire universe and can change anything at any time. In fact, he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead in around five minutes. Why on earth would Jesus weep when he's about to do an amazing miracle and fix the problem?

Because he's perfect. He cries at the death of his friend and is deeply moved by Mary's anguish because that is what love does when confronted with loss. Jesus is the only perfect human being who has ever lived, and that is why he does not refuse to share the pain of those he loves. Not even for ten minutes. Not even when he knows their sorrow is about to turn to astonished exultation.

Have you ever thought about grief (or anger, or discouragement) as something that could be right and important? Even if you could fix the problem? It cuts against every instinct in us, doesn't it? Yet the Bible teaches over and over again that sadness, anger, dismay, and even fear have a good and right place. Most of us are deeply uncomfortable with negative feelings and assume something is wrong with us whenever we do feel sad or mad or bad. Surely, we think, if we just had more faith, a better perspective, more strength of character, we wouldn't feel this way. Or, at the very least, we'd get over it faster.

The Bible takes a radically different view. Unlike our assumption that the most faithful people will be the most carefree and emotionally upbeat, Scripture is full of aching, grieving saints who tear their clothes and sit in the ashes when their world gets upended. The basic logic in the Bible is this: if you care about others and the kingdom and mission of God in this world, you will be and you should be full of sorrow when you or those you love are injured, suffer loss, or die. You ought to feel angry in the presence of injustice. Your heart should beat faster when your family is in danger. As counterintuitive as it seems, awful feelings like grief can actually be exactly the right feelings to have, feelings that honor God and would be wrong not to feel. Christian author and thinker C. S. Lewis put this vividly when he said:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Indeed, God so loved the world that he made himself vulnerable to it, even to the point of losing his beloved Son, of sending him among us to take on our pains, weep our tears, and ultimately die the death we should have died. God loves, so God grieves. God cares for us, so he hates the sin that separates us from him. God is perfect, so he hurts when his beloved creation and precious people hurt each other and are hurt by the hurts of this hurtfully broken world.

Hurt, hate, grief, and fear are terrible things to taste. What is more — as you are no doubt aware — the Bible does command joy, gratitude, contentment, peace, and the like. But that is not the whole story, and the missing pieces are vital. As strange as it seems, we have to start by understanding what is good about our negative emotions if we are ever going to handle them well when they are out of order.

Negative Emotions Are Not Always Bad

The basic reason we need negative, unpleasant emotions is that we live in a fallen world. God made us to respond to things as they actually are. Human beings should be distressed by what is distressing, horrified by violence and abuse, deeply concerned (we'd call it "anxious") about the possibility of injury to someone or something we love, angry at arrogant injustices. To not feel grief when someone we love dies, to not feel discouraged when we find ourselves falling into the same pattern of sin yet again, to not be upset when our children lie or hurt each other would be wrong. Even Job, the man who lost everything in a day and still worshiped God and submitted in faith to God's control, "arose and tore his robe and shaved his head [a sign of grief] and fell on the ground" when he heard about the death of his children and the ravaging of his vast wealth (Job 1:20). You were made in the image of God himself, and that means you were made to see the world as he sees it, to respond as he responds, to hate what he hates, and to be bothered by what brings him displeasure.

That doesn't mean that godly grief or righteous anger or holy discouragement will feel pleasant! It does mean that a whole host of uncomfortable feelings can be deeply godly, right, and holy.

As if that isn't counterintuitive enough, we need to recognize the flip side of this: sometimes it's actually bad to feel good! Obviously things like cruelty (taking joy in causing pain) are wrong, but any kind of positive feeling can be warped. To be glad when someone else suffers a setback because it gets you ahead is wrong. To feel content and peaceful because you have enough heroin for another couple of days even though you're about to lose your kids is a travesty. To feel hopeful that your affair is going to stay secret is a bad thing indeed.

Seeing good in our negative emotions becomes somewhat easier when we realize God displays a whole range of negative feelings in the Bible. For example, he is described in countless places as angry or wrathful. This is hard for most of us. We feel somewhat uneasy and embarrassed by the idea that God is angry at anyone. But what kind of parents wouldn't be angry when someone was taking cruel pleasure in abusing their children! This wrath is exactly what the prophet Nahum, for example, recounts. He writes about God coming like a warrior against the Assyrians who had invaded Israel and were famous even in the ancient world for creative cruelty to conquered peoples. In Nahum, God comes like a SWAT team descending on a group of terrorists who have captured and tortured helpless children. If you are a helpless, abused child, God's anger on your behalf is good news. If you have suffered and been mistreated, God being upset by your pain and furious with those who have harmed you is deeply comforting.

Or think about God's grief. He is grieved in Genesis 6 when he sees the unrelenting arrogance of Adam and Eve's descendants as each passing generation becomes more violent and self-centered. Thousands of years later, in Matthew 23, Jesus mourns the sin and foolishness of his beloved Jerusalem, and he laments that these people have rejected God's loving help and correction again and again and again. And, as we observed a moment ago, Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus his friend.

It doesn't stop with anger and grief. God is frequently "jealous" for the affection, loyalty, and worship of his people. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus trembles and sweats blood from some combination of dread, anguish, and loneliness. The list could go on.

Here is the big idea: Our negative emotions, like God's, play a necessary role in our lives. They tell us that something is wrong. Just as happiness, joy, peace, and contentment look around and conclude that things are as they ought to be, so disgust, annoyance, discouragement, and fury are designed to identify places where this fallen world is fallen, where disorder, damage, and destruction have broken something we rightly hold precious. Evaluating the world as fractured and being moved in response are deeply Christian experiences.

This doesn't mean our anger or sadness always points us in the right direction — far from it, as we all know from countless personal experiences! Still, we need to understand that our darker feelings are not a curse but a gift. A dangerous gift — sometimes it feels like giving permanent markers to a toddler — but a gift nonetheless. Our emotions — all our emotions — give us the chance to share God's heart, purpose, and perspective and so to truly be his "friends," as Jesus calls the disciples at the Last Supper (John 15:15).

A day is coming when we will never again feel sorrow or anger or fear or disgust, because there will be nothing at which to be sorrowful or angry or afraid or disgusted. Until that day, however, it is only by entering into both the joys and the pains of God's love for his children that we can live in honest, wise relationship with the One who made us. Only those who love the Lord enough to open their hearts to the pain in his world will be able to enter into his joy as well.

Questions for Reflection

As you face your own feelings:

1. Have you ever thought of your bad feelings as having a good purpose? How does that idea strike you right now?

2. What are the most uncomfortable emotions for you to feel? Why do you think that is?

3. Would you describe yourself as a highly emotional person? As numb? As stable?

As you help others:

1. How does this chapter change the way you look at people in your life whose emotions have been a source of suffering for you?

2. Think about someone you are trying to help and love. What do this person's negative emotions say about how he or she sees the world? What specific things do this individual's emotions identify as broken, warped, or damaged?


What Exactly Are Emotions?

So far, we've learned that all our emotions, even the more painful and scary ones, can be good. They are part of our equipment as God's image bearers. They help us to understand and connect to the world in the same way God does and so engage it as his children, serving his purposes.

But what exactly are emotions?

Defining emotions is easier said than done. In fact, the debate over exactly what emotions are and what they are supposed to do is as old as philosophy itself. No joke. From the ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle, through the medieval and early modern periods with Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal, to the modern era, there have been weighty debates about the nature and purpose of emotions.

In broad strokes, two general theories prevail.

One holds that our emotions originate in our bodies as physiological impulses or instincts to which our minds give meaning and shape. That's the general argument Plato and his followers make, and it reflects a common notion that the mind is superior to or more pure than the body. The implication is that our emotions are not to be trusted, because they come from the "animal" part of our nature, and we must use our minds, or philosophy, to master our bodies. If you are a Star Trek fan, you might imagine Mr. Spock making just such an argument. Though he was half-human, he learned to master his emotions (for the most part) using his Vulcan mind.

The second theory is the opposite. It argues that the way we think about and value things is reflected in our bodies. In other words, the mind is the locomotive that drives the emotions, not the body. This is often referred to as a cognitive understanding of emotions. This view doesn't assume a negative view of the body but, rather, suggests that we can manage our emotions with our minds. If you are troubled by your feelings, you need to change how you think, create a new perspective. Here you might imagine humming a few bars of "Hakuna Matata" from The Lion King. Exiled in the jungle with a meerkat and a warthog? Simply learn to appreciate the beauty of responsibility-freeliving and dining on insects. As Timon would remind us, Hakuna matata "means no worries for the rest of your days."

When given a choice between these two understandings, Christian thinkers usually argue that the Bible teaches a cognitive view of emotions. After all, how can the Bible apparently command us to be joyful or admonish our anger if our minds aren't in the driver's seat? That wouldn't be fair. But, as you may already suspect, things are never as neat and tidy as we would like. Sometimes it seems impossible to tease apart what is happening in the body from what is happening in the mind or to understand which comes first: what I feel in my body or what I think with my mind.

For instance, imagine you're driving home from work. It's Friday, you're looking forward to the weekend, and you're in a good mood. Suddenly, a driver swerves in front of you, forcing you to slam on the brakes. Your tires squeal as the rear of the car fishtails. Inexplicably the other driver makes a vulgar gesture at you as he speeds away.

Wait, what just happened? That doesn't make any sense! That was his fault, not yours! Fear and relief are quickly swallowed up by indignation and fury.

Minutes later you pull into your driveway and walk through the front door. The family dog faithfully greets you, jumping up on you as he invariably does, pawing at your legs, licking your fingers, and getting dog hair all over your office clothes. You immediately scream, "Get down, you idiot! You are ruining my clothes!" Fido slinks away and your family looks up wide-eyed and dismayed.

Your reaction even shocks you. Fido didn't do anything he doesn't do every day. He always yips and dances when you walk through the door. It usually warms your heart, even if it is a bit irritating. But today, road rage has followed you home. You know that Fido isn't the one who cut you off or insulted you, but your body and mind are engaged in a complicated emotional dance. Your body is still "angry" — your heart rate is still elevated, you feel hot, and adrenaline is still coursing through your veins. Your body is ready for a fight. (And your brain, by the way, is part of your body, so it's also shaping the way you think.) You are responding not just to the other driver but to everything with an angry mind-set. It really does irritate you when Fido jumps on you, but your body has amplified your normal irritation, which usually dissipates moments after he bounds off.

Making a tidy distinction between mind and body and assigning one as the source of emotions just doesn't fit. In any given situation one can seem more powerful than the other, and in most cases we can see how both are at work forming a kind of feedback loop. But does this really matter? Isn't this kind of a pointless philosophical debate? No, it really does matter, especially if you are looking for help with your emotions. Understanding what "causes" emotions is a critical step in learning to deal with them.

Theology of Emotions

So, does the Bible provide any clarity?

We should begin by remembering that the Bible isn't simply an encyclopedia of facts about emotions or anything else we're interested in. What the Bible "says" on any subject is part of an ongoing story about God and his people and should be understood in that context. In other words, the Bible doesn't offer a technical answer to the question What are emotions? — as if testifying before a panel of psychological researchers. We have to remember that what the Bible can teach us about emotions is there to guide us in our relationship with God and others.

Biblically, then, the question of whether emotions originate in the mind or the body isn't the central issue. Instead, the Bible places the focus on how emotions facilitate (or impede) our role as God's image bearers, helping us love him and one another (or hampering us from loving). Our emotions, in all their dimensions, body and mind, are meant to function together in a way that serves his purposes. And in that context, the Bible speaks to us as essentially unified persons, who were created with minds and bodies designed to work together seamlessly in our image-bearing tasks.


Excerpted from "Untangling Emotions"
by .
Copyright © 2019 J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 11

Introduction: How Do You Feel about How You Feel? 13

Part 1 Understanding Emotions

1 Sometimes It's Good to Feel Bad 23

2 What Exactly Axe Emotions? 29

3 Emotions Don't Come in Single File 41

4 Emotions Happen in Your Body 53

5 You Relate to Others When You Feel with Them 67

6 Why Can't I Control My Emotions? 75

Part 2 Engaging Emotions

7 Two Pitfalls 85

8 Engage: A Better Option 93

9 Engaging Emotions Means Engaging God 101

10 Engaging Relationships 111

11 On Nourishing Healthy Emotions 123

12 On Starving Unhealthy Emotions 139

Part 3 Engaging the Hardest Emotions

13 Engaging Fear 151

14 Engaging Anger 169

15 Engaging Grief 183

16 Engaging Guilt and Shame 197

17 A Museum of Tears 209

Appendix: Does God Really Feel? The Doctrine of Impassibility 213

General Index 219

Scripture Index 223

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“You might not put a book on emotions at the top of your reading list, but given how everyday life is crammed with our emotions and those of our families, friends, and enemies, the topic is highly important. This book will lead you to engage with emotions in good and fruitful ways.”
Ed Welch,Counselor and Faculty Member, Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

“Theologians and philosophers have often given highly oversimplified advice to people about emotions: Subordinate them to the intellect! Welcome good emotions (joy, peace) and suppress bad (fear, anger)! Such oversimplifications are not true to Scripture, and they hurt those who are struggling with difficult situations. Here Groves and Smith help us enormously as they untangle things, relieve confusion, and help us think through these issues in a serious way. We’re enabled to see that in Scripture every emotion (whether we think of it as good or bad) has right uses and wrong ones. There is good anger and bad anger, good fear and bad fear. We’re shown how to engage our emotions and how to act (or not act) on them. The authors have a deep understanding both of Scripture and of human experience, and they have put their insights into a strikingly well-written book, dealing with difficult questions through vivid metaphors, illustrations, and stories. Most importantly, this book is God-centered. It even contains an appendix showing us the senses in which God does and does not have feelings. I recommend this book to people who are struggling to understand their own feelings and to help others deal with theirs.”
John M. Frame, Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary

“God made us emotional beings. We love and we hate. We rejoice and we lament. We experience guilt and shame. Sometimes, maybe often, we struggle with unwanted emotions. Groves and Smith bring their considerable wisdom as counselors and students of the Bible to bear on the subject of our emotions, helping us to understand and engage our emotions and enabling us to move closer to God.”
Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Westmont College; author, Confronting Old Testament Controversies

“When it comes to navigating personal emotions, Groves and Smith are like river guides on a rafting trip. They understand the currents and get you where you need to go. Particularly helpful is their recognition of the link between what we feel and what we value. In my experience, that link has often been the key to unlocking complex emotions for the people I care for.”
Jeremy Pierre,Dean of Students, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky

“Steering a wise middle course between exalting and ignoring our emotions, Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith develop a biblically rich understanding of emotions as a gift from God, an essential aspect of our image bearing. But they don’t stop there. With practical insight and winsome examples, they demonstrate how to evaluate and direct your emotions in ways that deepen love for God and others. If you have questions about the role of emotions in the Christian life, or if you sometimes wonder why you feel too much—or too little—of a given emotion, you will profit immensely by reading this book.”
Michael R. Emlet, Faculty Member, Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation; author, CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet and Descriptions and Prescriptions

“I've been a counselor for twenty years, and I still don't get emotions. I need help to figure them out, and I’m sure you do, too. Untangling Emotions is now my go-to guide on emotions. It packs a lot into one book, and page after page honors Christ.”
Deepak Reju, Pastor of Biblical Counseling and Family Ministry, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC; author, The Pastor and Counseling and She’s Got the Wrong Guy

“Grab this book. Dig deep. Let the Lord have your heart, for Groves and Smith are spot on: it’s time we engage our emotions. Isn’t it obvious that times are changing? The danger we face— Christians and pastors alike—is that we follow culture and let the love in our hearts ‘grow cold’ (Matt. 24:12). But this book leads us to Jesus. Its life-giving counsel—rooted in Scripture, reliant on the Lord—helps us deal with our most difficult emotions. Read this book. Embrace the process. Live it loud so we can help others—including those lost without Jesus—do the same.”
Thad Rockwell Barnum, Assisting Bishop, Diocese of the Carolinas

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