Don’t be scared! Calm down! Don’t get angry! Be happy, not sad! These and a littany of other emotional imperatives are common in our day to day life. We hear them as funerals when well-intentioned people try to encourage the family of the departed. When someone is visibly emotional, a reactive “cool it” may be uttered. We exist under a set of norms that dictate what type of emotions are acceptable to express and when, if ever. Sometimes, we can control the emotions we feel and when we express it. If what we feel is only a twinge of pain that is on the margin of consciousness, then we can readily suppress our feelings and never notice any effects from it. We can only suppress stronger emotions for a short time period, but we will almost inevitably be tempted come back to the feelings and memory of the triggering events soon. However, in the end, we are not in conscious control of our emotions, only how we experience, express, and direct our emotions.
While these emotional norms may seem burdensome, they are often times the social glue that keeps people together. If one shows and expresses anger every time a friend says some innocuous that mildly irks you, that friendship will not likely last much longer. Suppressing emotions is a vital part of our social. connected life. However, the net effect is that it leaves us feeling more isolated the more we hold back. So suppressing emotions is often a balancing act between authenticity and connectedness; too much suppression may make the relationship feel fraudulent, while too little suppression may ruin the existence of the relationship.
Furthermore, we are deeply aware of the dysfunctionality of emotional haywire, whether it be depression, the persistently low-self esteem of an endlessly shamed person, persistent anxiety, etc. Even though the more adept at helping to heal those people with these conditions don’t speak explicit emotional imperatives, there is an understood emotional norm we place upon people that say they should not be sad, ashamed, anxious, scared, etc. We all have a deep sense of norms about what we should feel, when we should feel it, and how we should express it.
The end result is that we may be tempted to simply promote a gospel of emotional imperatives. We Christians are often times very eager to employ emotional imperatives. These well-intentioned imperatives are geared towards helping people managing the emotions we feel should not exist. “Do not fear!” may be followed up with a Scriptural quotation from 1 John 4:18 saying, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The Scriptures are employed as a source for emotional imperatives that are supposed to have authority or influence on our feelings in the moment. It is as if being a Christian and committing your life to Scripture is supposed to make you able to control your emotions. But I would suggest the predominant way we employ Scripture to manage our emotions is different from how Scripture calls people into a different emotional experience.
Take Isaiah 35:4, part of the lectionary reading for this upcoming Sunday in Advent. There is an emotional imperative provided there: “Be strong! Do not fear!”However, the emotional imperative is based upon a different appeal. What follows is a vision of what is happening. God is about to come to take care of the evildoers and save the innocent. The emotional imperative is provided, but the reason for people to shift their emotions is due to what God is doing. In order for people to feel as they should, God is going to act to end the injustice. This not a call to emotional suppression, however. Instead, it is what one may refer to as a cognitive reframing: God is doing something, so I should not fear. The management of emotions is grounded upon the action of God, not naked authority.
Looking closer at 1 John 4:18, it is not a naked emotional imperative about feeling love instead of fear. Rather, in context, it is more of a descriptive statement about one’s spiritual state based upon God’s love. John follows by saying “We love because God first loved us.”1 The perfected love that drives out fear is not simply our love. It is not a matter of controlling our emotions in order to vanquish fear. Rather, it is a matter of living and receiving God’s love, which draws love out from us. It is God’s love that perfects us, not our own attempts to makes ourselves love. As God’s perfect love ensues within us, our love is perfected and fear of punishment is vanquished. God’s action is the groundwork of the new, emotional experience.
There are emotional imperatives in the Bible, but the emotional imperatives are based upon God’s action to redeem us. The Gospel is not a set of emotional imperatives about trust, love, fear, hatred, etc. The Gospel is about God’s liberating action in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that creates trust and love, casts out fear and hatred, and overcomes guilt and shame. Adherence to emotional imperatives are a result of seeing God in action and then trusting, not simply saying one should feel differently because Scripture says so. The Gospel of Liberation in Jesus Christ impacts how we process emotions, not dictating what emotions we should and should not feel. Liberation assumes divergence from the ideal and so there is grace and mercy that accepts, but not celebrates or justifies, the reality of dysfunctional emotions. However, the danger in our modern society that is deeply aware of our inner, emotional realities is trying to employ Scripture as a set of emotional norms rather than as a story of God’s actions that can produce within us a set of emotions. Scripture becomes a way to manipulate and control our feelings rather than as a source of understanding to hope in the One who liberates us. Instead of being the decisive way to be spiritually formed, Scripture becomes a mere authority of imperatives.
In the end, the emphasis of Scripture and the Gospel is on God’s action, not on our inner realities; how we employ Scripture and how we direct and encourage our brothers and sisters who struggle with various emotions should reflect the liberating realities.
- 1 John 4:19 [↩]