Making ourselves vulnerable is dangerous. It’s dangerous because many of us have theological lenses that prohibit us from seeing those who are emotionally overwhelmed as deserving compassion. Too often we see their anxiety, depression, or anger as guilty until proven innocent. They don’t deserve our compassion or even our curiosity. And this prevents us from really listening well.
When a person is overwhelmed emotionally—perhaps lying on the floor unsure what to do or say next—there is nothing so terrifying as “the conversation.” The conversation happens when they finally muster the courage to cry for help, to tell someone what they’re experiencing.
The outcome rests on a knife edge. When I tell my story, the confidant will buy it or not. I will have a friend or I will be alone. I am sane or I am crazy. I have good reasons for feeling this way or it is my fault.
What’s worse is that the outcome seems to depend on my ability to tell a convincing story. Will I find the right words? Can I make them understand why I am stuck? What if I tell it poorly?
Too often a sufferer finds themselves confessing their feelings to a person who is gauging how bad the situation is—is repentance or therapy necessary? A bad case of anxiety may need licensed therapy or anxiety meds. A more manageable case may need to be exhorted to trust God and his promises.
Seeing this as a zero-sum game of therapy or theology tends to minimize or maximize blame for the emotion. Either my body is broken in some way (a materialist view) or my soul needs to fight the sin of unbelief (a cognitivist view). Overwhelming emotion is neurochemical and involuntary or it is cognitive and chosen. Either I am suffering or at fault.
Often this dilemma comes from faulty psychological assumptions.
We all have psychological assumptions whether we recognize it or not. For example, do my feelings reveal the state of my heart or the difficulty of my circumstances? Or perhaps both? Is my heart just my soul or is my body a source of feeling? The real questions are, do I know my assumptions and are they true?
When evangelicals speak explicitly about emotion they tend to endorse a cognitivist view. But there seems to be an uneasy truce in the pastoral practice of many evangelicals between a cognitivist and a materialist view of emotions. Manageable emotions are mental and unmanageable ones involve the body. Healing this truce would improve pastoral care.
Choosing Emotion: The Cognitivist View
The cognitive theory of emotion teaches that we can choose our emotions. This choice is possible because emotions are judgments. Emotions express what we think and value, and so, may be true or false. Therefore judgments are open to scrutiny and to alteration. If emotions were blind bodily reactions, they’d be out of our power to change. This is emotional voluntarism; it assumes that I am in full control of my emotions.
Let’s say that I am waiting to hear from my doctor about a scan and I am anxious. From the cognitivist point of view, my anxiety stems from the belief that my doctor’s diagnosis presents a not-unlikely possibility I want to avoid.
For the last three decades many evangelical pastors and theologians have advocated something close to this cognitive theory of emotion. For example, Brian Borgman, author of Feelings and Faith, writes, the emotions “tell us what we really, really believe.” Again, if our emotions are or reflect our beliefs, these beliefs may be changed. Borgman suggests, “I overcome anxiety by focusing on the consolations, the promises, you have given me in your Word.”
From Borgman’s perspective, I might overcome my anxiety, by remembering God’s promise that he “will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5). I will need to remember that Matthew 6:28–34 tells us three times, “do not be anxious.” Similarly, Hans Dieter Betz argues these commands are “meant to be categorical with no exceptions allowed.”
Notice three features of the theological version of the cognitivist view, which I call emotional voluntarism. First, emotions are judgments or beliefs. Second, because emotions come from our hearts they can be changed by shifting our attention or by talking to ourselves. Third, because the Bible commands or forbids emotions, we ought to change our emotions.
So if I’m having “the conversation” with a friend who holds this cognitivist view. What default stance will he have toward my anxiety? He will likely push me to align my emotions with “truth” assuming that anxiety is itself a sinful act. Other external circumstances don’t matter, because the problem is in my heart not in my circumstances. I am the problem.
This approach can work for relatively trivial forms of emotional distress (cognitive therapy is very effective in many cases). For significant emotional distress or trauma, it can cause great harm. Emotional voluntarism leaves a traumatized person alone and ashamed.
The approach has three problems: First, emotions are never merely judgments, but involve the whole body. The overall climate of the body matters for an emotional storm. Second, emotions are less like actions and more like something that happens to us (passions); our actions, mental or otherwise, do not always directly change our emotions because our judgments are unconscious and automatic. Third, if we can change our emotions, we need to know how long it will take. Do I have a moral obligation to change my emotions in the next fifteen minutes or the next two years?
Bodily Emotions: The Materialist View
Often those who suffer significant emotional distress leave the church when church leaders brand them as “emotionally immature.” These leaders confuse emotional instability with emotional immaturity. It’s assumed that the person ought to be able to control their emotion. Sufferers can have a kneejerk reaction to this: I am not the problem, my circumstances are.
They often embrace the opposite side of the dilemma, the materialist view of emotion. According to this view, overwhelming negative emotions are disease or dysfunction brought on by stress. If the first view makes emotions about the heart (soul), the second view makes them about circumstances and the body.
A secular perspective on emotions tends to see them as bodily reactions, “biological functions of the nervous system.” Emotion is about health, not morality. Emotions signal dysfunction, imbalance, or unhealthy social relationships. Because they are fully involuntary, they are amoral. They simply happen to us; we do not will them.
Notice the features of the materialist view. First, emotions are bodily events. Second, emotions are reactions to our environment through the tint of our particular body. Third, emotions are amoral and related to health, mental and physical. The problem is not with my heart but outside of me or with my body.
Now suppose, I am having “the conversation” with a friend who holds the materialist view. What default stance will he have toward my anxiety? He will likely adopt a far more empathetic stance. He will probably listen actively, attentively, and in a non-judgmental way. Empathy is therapy according to this approach. And he may suggest active steps I can take to manage my stress well.
A person suffering significant emotional distress will find this approach deeply consoling. Emotional distress produces alienation and shame, which are debilitating. Empathy communicates you are not crazy and you are not alone. On a surface level, this approach is more humane.
But in the long run, the materialist approach commits the opposite error of assuming our emotional problems are entirely outside of us, a combination of genetics and environment. The pathway to healing often runs through personal responsibility and significant revision of our ways of seeing or acting in the world. For example, the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous include a “fearless moral inventory,” admitting “the exact nature of our wrongs,” and making amends.
A Thomistic Psychology: Embodied Logic
So how do we crack the paradox of feeling? It is possible to reconcile the best insights of the two approaches. Observing creation and the Christian tradition help us to reassess our assumptions for a richer reading of the Biblical text.
The Bible sees human persons as husbanding our bodies, in the older sense of the word. People are like trees (Gen 2-3; Ps 1), cultivated for fruitfulness and reliant on God and his gifts. So following this analogy, we can choose our emotions in the same way that an Iowa farmer can choose to grow corn.
Thomas Aquinas advocated a view of the emotions that sees emotions as embodied and meaningful. For Aquinas, emotions are passions. Passions happen to us and are only partly voluntary. They are responsive to the quick judgments of perception. If I see a stick in the woods that looks like a snake, my body will react with fear before I’ve even registered what it is. Our emotions embody a sort of intelligence or logic.
Trying to directly change our thinking can affect our perception and passions, but this happens only indirectly and incompletely because thinking is conscious while perceptive judgments are unconscious. Thinking with a goal of correcting our emotions may help and may not. Because perception differs from reflective thought, no amount of thinking “it’s not a snake,” will prevent the reaction next time around. But perhaps learning about snakes and handling them could help to soften it.
While we have responsibilities to govern our bodies and emotions, this responsibility has two significant limits. On the one hand, we are enabled only by the common grace of functioning human capacities, by the saving grace of God in Christ, and by the gifts of the Spirit. On the other, our expectations for wholeness are modified by the futility to which our bodies have been subjected through the sin’s curse.
The Bible tells us that “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” and he “will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). The Spirit could bring our bodies to life totally and completely at this very moment.
And yet we wait with patience for the redemption of our bodies. Our bodies are under the bondage to decay from the curse on the ground and that the Spirit helps us in our weakness (Rom 8:18–27). In these bodies we must wait with patience for the harvest of resurrection (1 Cor 15:42-44; James 5:7). Help and hope are already given, but suffering is not yet removed.
So, to return to “the conversation.” What default stance will listeners who hold this Thomistic view have toward my anxiety? First, listeners will be compassionately curious about the internal and external dynamics in any human pain. They will try to imagine what it is like to be someone suffering by asking empathetic questions about both circumstances and feelings.
Second, these listeners will practice patience. “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:25). Significant suffering like trauma may do damage to a person that only heals with time. If we govern our emotions like the Iowa farmer governs a field, a storm or flood may produce lasting damage. Healing after trauma may take years.
Third, they will feel free to care for others with the tools of common and saving grace. We are neither bodies nor souls, but embodied souls. The means of grace for healing and sanctification include word and sacrament, individual and communal practices, all mediated by the indwelling Spirit of God. But there are also common means of grace such as rest and food, exercise and nature, medication and physical touch. These too mediate God’s loving care. In some moments, physical touch may communicate the husbanding love of God better than words.
We have an obligation to extend kindness to our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible says, “He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty” (Job 6:14–15), and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). But apart from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we are powerless to extend such kindness and bear such burdens. We must extend it in the vine and through the care of the divine husbandman. We live only in Christ and minister only his life and gifts.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. … Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. John 15:1, 4–5
Adapted from The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology, which will be released on November 4, 2020 with Lexham Press. You can order it here.
The philosopher Robert Solomon pioneered the cognitivist view. See his “Emotions and Choice,” The Review of Metaphysics 27 no. 1 (September 1973), 20-41. ↑