Not all emotions that go by the same name are the exact same. When I get angry, I have this deep sense of discomfort that comes with my angry. I don’t like being angry. If you were to do something that would be hurtful and crossing boundaries, I might express my anger but feel uneasy about it and try to figure out when and how to express it. However, another person may be angry and enjoy the feeling it provides them; it can be a rush of pride to feel one is better than the person one is angry at or a feeling of power that comes from how anger can motivate you to take control. So a person feeling an “exhilarating” or “prideful” form of anger may go all out in expressing their anger.
I have heard this phenomenon described that we have “we feelings about our emotions.” While this has some practical usage, my feelings about my emotions are a part of and impact what emotion I am feeling. So, say you are angry at a loved one, you may feel uncomfortable about this feeling because you love this person, so you then the experience of anger shifts a bit. But then say you are angry at a subordinate at the job who you feel has shirked you in the past; you may feel a sense of power that comes from your anger than changes the experience of anger. My emotional experience changes based upon the perceptions I have about that emotion, who or what the emotion is directed toward, and what reasons my emotion is there.
What is happening is something more subtle than we generally realized We are inclined to think all emotions of a certain type are the same because they bear the same name. Why do they bear the same name? Because there are similarities between one emotional experience and another, such as the way I generally feel anger and the way the hypothetical person may experience anger. Despite this similarity, there are significant differences in what experiences we are having and the way these emotions will impact our behavior and the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional habits that will form in the future.
This phenomenon is described as emotional construction, as proposed and popularized by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett.1 At the core of the idea is that each emotional experience is different, that the way we talk about emotions is more based upon stereotypes, and that there are no basic emotions as proposed by psychologists like Paul Ekman. While I do think emotions have specific patterns that tend to fit certain patterns that we know as basic emotions around due to biological and neurological reasons, I would hypothesize2 that emotions are a composite experience from the different neural systems that are responsible for different aspects of emotional experience firing together at different intensities.
As an analogy to this, imagine a person who both plays guitars and does vocals. Sometimes, the strumming of the guitar is more prominent in the music, particularly at the points where they are not singing. Then, at other points, their vocals become more prominent, including the end of the song where they stops strumming and just sings to end it off. The guitar and vocals combine in different ways to produce different musical experiences moment by moment that share a lot of similarities between each other,4 All of these views have a tendency for various reasons to treat all instances of a certain emotion as the same, and therefore to treat them all as equally good or bad.
However, if we take a closer look at a few of the places where the New Testament addresses emotions, you will note that there can be a difference between emotions that come under the same name. Consider Paul’s distinction between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow” in 2 Corinthians 5:9. Or consider how James 1:20 says “human anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” implying that there is a godly type of anger. Or, we can even distinguish between the type of love that is only reciprocating love versus the type of love that is extended to one’s enemies that Jesus refers to in the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5:43-48. Or, if we go to 2 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul distinguishes between the faith in human wisdom, and thus in the teachers, from the faith that is in the power of God.
Now, what is the critical difference between these different emotions that share the same name and so may be experienced similarily? God in some capacity impacts the nature of these emotions, whether it is an ’empathetic’ sharing in God’s way of seeing ourselves, others, and the world, as in sorrow, anger, and love, or an emotional experience that takes God as known in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as the focal attention of one’s experience, as in faith.
For a specific illustration, imagine the emotions of guilt and shame that comes with a recognition that one has done something wrong. Often times these emotions of guilt and shame can put ourselves at the center, with feelings of fear and anxiety about what people will think of and do to us. This type of experience of guilt and shame can be very damaging to us, as we develop a habit of thinking that we are going to be rejected and discarded by others, even God. However, if one has an experience of guilt and shame in repentance that has God as a gracious and merciful God at the center of our attention, the experience of guilt and shame may motivate change of behavior but due to the focus we have on God. Furthermore, if we are grieved in our repentance due to the fact that we think we are going to be punished, it will be different than if we are grieved in our repentance due to us sharing God’s sorrow and disappointment and even indignation over the harm our actions have caused. While the experience of guilt, shame, and grief may bear some similarities in each instance, it is the difference between them taking God as the center of our attention and empathizing with God’s view that shifts the nature of the emotional experience. Trusting God is merciful will not prevent all feelings of guilt, shame, and grief and the pain that comes from those emotions, but it will change how that emotional experience impacts us and forms us into the image of God in Jesus Christ. Allowing ourselves to be lead by the Spirit of God can change how the underlying reasons for those emotions of guilt, shame, and grief such that they are formative tools to change what type of person we are, reducing the inclinations for similar type actions in the future, and lead us to empathetically have the type of love and concern that God has instead.
At the end of the day then, this view suggests that each instance of a specific classes of emotion are not all inherently good or inherently evil, but that each emotion can lead to a good, life-giving direction when they are rightly ordered around the will of God, and each emotion can lead to a evil, death-dealing direction the more they are ordered in a way that opposes the will of God. Thus, the goal of the Gospel in lives of individual people is not a specific set of emotional experiences that we describe by a specific linguistic label, but rather the transformation of the person such that their emotional experiences point towards and lead us to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our language and reasoning about groups of emotions are guides to help us understand, but not rules to determine what is ultimately good and bad.
- The Psychological Construction of Emotion is a good source academic source on the topic, but Barrett’s How Emotions are Made is a good book that bridges the acadmic and popular level. I have my qualms with some of Barrett’s theory, argument, and style, but nevertheless I think the substance of her book is a good introduction to the ideas about emotional construction.
- I do have a psychological background in my education, although I am not a scientist, so I am relatively qualified to hypothesize, but I recognize that my hypotheses may not be as robust as some other hypotheses and may be unaware of the most recent research on emotions.
- Otherwise we would find the music disjarring as each moment was musically dissonant with the previous moment.p/note] but we obviously hear each point of the song differently. This is how we can imagine emotions potentially working, with the neural systems responsible for anger firing at the same time with the neural systems responsible for anxiety or joy. The result is that I may have a moment where my anger is the strongest emotional component, so my thoughts, physiological states, facial expressions, and actions all are perceived to be anger, but there are other less pronounced emotional components of anxiety or joy influencing my specific emotion experience at that specific point of time.
I think this idea is particularly important for understanding the Christian life. There are been a marked tendency of the past few centuries to treat all experience of certain emotions, or even cognitive, states as the same. The most salient expression of this is the argument for progressive sexuality that “Love is love,” as if every emotional experience we label as love is perfectly equivalent to all other emotional experiences by the label of love. Such thinking has a tendency towards the fallacy of equivocation. We see it in the tradition of liberal Christianity that extolled the virtues of faith or as with Schlerimacher, some notion of dependence upon God. What was lost is the specificity of who or what one trusted. We see it in modern conservative Christian circles today in the face of sexual harassment and abuse coming to the forefront due to the #MeToo movement; there is a predilection to treat all anger as equally wrong with calls to forgive, not allowing that one can experience anger and express the cause of that anger and yet also have forgiven because some people’s anger causes them to take vengeance.3Of course, there is a bit of self-interest in this way of construing all anger as unforgiveness and wrong as a way to control the perceptions, actions, and speech of the victims.