Emotions. Can we trust them or not trust them? That seems to be a relevant question today where we are becoming more in touch with the world of our emotions, particularly through the rise of mental health awareness.
I know what Christians have typically taught regarding this question. You cannot trust your emotions. They are too fickle, too much of the flesh, of the soul. We need to be spirit-people. Things of that nature. And these are statements I have encountered myself.
But here’s the problem, one from the very start: The use of the word trust found within the statement, “You cannot trust your feelings.”
The word trust is such an ominous word in this context. Especially when trust, for Christians, is something we do with God. So, how can we trust our emotions, especially knowing they could be fickle and out of whack, right?
I personally believe this kind of language highlights that we do not understand emotions, our feelings. And that which we don’t understand will invariably lead to inappropriate statements and problematic engagement with the thing we do not understand. Furthermore, when a word like trust is thrown into the mix of an already misunderstood arena like our emotions, things get even more complicated.
This is where I have become so grateful for my own journey of recovery, as well as my personal study of emotions, psychology, and neuroscience. This journey started about 7 years ago and I only wish it had begun earlier. But I am grateful for being introduced to some initial tools and writings that began to transform my own thinking these past years.
My overall sense is that we need to swing the pendulum toward positive reinforcement of our emotions, since there has been so much negativity within the Christian community. Perhaps a statement like, “Trust your emotions,” won’t stick. And it’s possible that’s not a helpful assertion either. But we need to take a big step away from the negative connotation surrounding emotions, specifically within the church, and building a healthy, and positive, perspective on such an important part.
There are four initial points that I think will help us take a step back and re-evaluating the goodness of emotions.
1) You are always emoting. As long as your brain is active, you have emotions. This is because our emotions are officially chemical reactions in our brains, particularly the limbic brain. Thus, it’s impossible not to be emoting always. They might not be at increased levels, like we typically think about when we speak of “being emotional”. But every human with an active brain is always emoting. I believe this reality, itself, asks us to back away from our negative ideas about emotions/feelings. How can something that’s always happening in accordance with the way we were created (including breathing, cell development, heart beating, etc) be wrong? Well, the answers none of these are wrong.
2) Emotions, or feelings, are gifts from God. I learned this primarily from Chip Dodd’s work The Voice of the Heart. Dodd states in his work, “Actually, each feeling is positive because of where it can lead. There was a time when I thought, and had even been tutored to believe, that the feelings are neither good nor bad; they just are. This is not true. All eight feelings are good.” His reference to “eight feelings” is his own perspective that there are eight core feelings, within the midst of a host of others. Regardless of whether one sees five, six, eight, or however many core feelings, the point is that our feelings are good gifts of God. Thus, if emotions are gifts, then gifts are to be received, unpackaged, and used in life. Even more, think about this: Before we could talk or use body language, our primary way of communicating was through our feelings. Could our first “language” be bad? I would answer unequivocally no.
3) What we do with our emotions is what can be wrong, rather than the emotion itself. This is so important. Feelings = good. What we do with them = good or bad. For example, we can utilize anger as our passion for what is good and right, or we can utilize it as prideful anger (not letting go of an issue). We can also push anger down and allow it to become depressed (this is where depression can be more connected to our repressed anger over and above sadness). Anger is a gift. Sadness is a gift. Fear is a gift. How will we navigate these and utilize them as gifts from God?
4) We don’t put all our eggs in the basket of emotions, but we must give space for the gifts of our emotions. This is where the word trust may come in. Trust tends to speak of putting all of our resources into the thing we trust in. We trust God and, thus, we lay out everything to him as the one in charge (or we are called to do so). But, just as we don’t put all our eggs in the basket of our rational reasoning or physical bodies, we are to do the same with our emotions. Rather, we have been given our minds, hearts, and bodies—all of these gifts—to love God and to serve others. Mind good. Body good. Heart (and emotions) good. It’s what we do with these that may be wrong.
I hope this has been somewhat helpful in navigating the question of, “Can we trust our emotions?” Perhaps the better question is, “Are our emotions good and helpful?” To this we must answer yes.
To end, I offer these words from Chip Dodd, again from his work The Voice of the Heart:
“Feelings are not impulses that need to be controlled; they are tools that we need to learn how to use well so that we do not behave impulsively and act out without the ability to take responsibility.”
Let us use the good gifts of our emotions for beautiful things.
For anyone interested in where the idea of “you can’t trust your emotions” comes from, check out this recent article from Becky Castle Miller, whose doctoral work is around emotions in Scripture.
Well written and something all need to hear especially Christians who have been taught not to trust them. It’s a very dangerous statement and can cause suppression and confusion. Seeing them as gifts invites us to explore them to navigate our path in life. Thanks for this.
Thanks, Hazel. Yes, where many have thought that it’s dangerous to “trust one’s emotions,” it is perhaps more dangerous to say, “You can’t trust your emotions.” It is deadly to the human soul.