“Mom, I’m caught in an emotional rip current,” my ten-year-old daughter told me the other day — her way of letting me know she needs help handling her feelings. The two of us often talk about how emotions can feel like rip currents. They lurk beneath the surface, popping up at the worst times to drag us away like a powerful tide.
You know how it feels, right? A friend shares her good news, and suddenly you’re caught in a miserable current of envy. Your spouse makes a critical comment, and you writhe in a rip current of anger. A random thought strikes your soul, stirring up feelings of fear and anxiety. Sometimes, your emotional life heaves with rip currents of despair, and you can’t seem to find a way out. Even the strongest Christian may feel powerless when caught in the grip of an emotional rip current.
Emotions Are Not the Problem
To make matters worse, we don’t always know how to handle our emotions. Our feelings fluctuate, and we don’t know why; we drift in and out of the same yucky emotions. As a result, we blame much of our trouble in the Christian life on our feelings: “My emotions were out of control today.” And we warn each other, “Don’t let your emotions get the better of you” or, “Whatever you do, don’t follow your feelings.” We tag emotions as disorderly, deceptive, and dangerous.
“Many of us have unknowingly swallowed a mouthful of misconceptions about our feelings.”
But feelings have gotten a bad rap. Many of us have unknowingly swallowed a mouthful of misconceptions about our feelings, which has led to a lot of confusion over how to handle our feelings. And so I tell my daughter: If we want to fix our feelings problem, if we want to figure out how to escape emotional rip currents, and if we want to experience an emotional life that is full of rich and godly feelings, we must start with God.
God is the one who made us to feel. He wired us up with a full range of emotions according to his wise and beautiful design. He created our faculty of emotions, together with our minds and our wills, to serve a good and useful purpose in our lives. God is the one who fashioned each of us in his image to be thinking, acting, emotional creatures. Then he declared it all, including our feelings, “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Very good? That’s not how our feelings feel much of the time. In this fallen world, we have been “grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). Physical pain and weakness can wreak havoc on our feelings. But perhaps most troublesome of all is the sin that grips our emotions. Sin seeks to unite the whole person — mind, will, and emotions — in rebellion against the holy God. Emotions are not the problem, but they do have a sin problem. For this reason, I don’t correct my daughter for being “too emotional”; instead, I try to help her see the sin that has hijacked her emotions.
Then I give her the good news: Though sin would drown us in a sea of wretched feelings, we have been rescued. Though our emotions have been corrupted by sin, they can also be redeemed by Christ. No longer do we have to keep getting caught in the same emotional rip currents. But in order to find the path of specific repentance and real change, we need to better understand how our emotions work.
“ Sin seeks to unite the whole person — mind, will, and emotions — in rebellion against the holy God.”
You see, emotions aren’t emojis. We don’t select “joy” and feel joyful. We don’t un-click “anger” and watch it fade. We don’t simply decide to feel happy or hopeful or to stop feeling sadness or shame. That’s not how God created our beautiful and complex emotions to work.
Instead, he created our feelings to operate together with our other faculties and to respond to our minds and our wills. We can choose to think true thoughts. We can choose to take godly actions. And when we do, our feelings will start to change.
Think, Act, Feel
When we choose to set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2), meditate on God’s word day and night (Joshua 1:8), and consider Christ who died for us (Hebrews 12:3), our feelings often will line up with truth. Likewise, when we present our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) and say only what is good for building others up (Ephesians 4:29), our emotions often eventually follow our actions and our words.
When we think on God’s truth and make godly choices, our feelings take on a new and different shape: they conform to and coalesce around God’s word. To get started, prayerfully choose one emotion you want to change. Meditate on one truth from God’s word that speaks to that emotion. Take one godly action that goes against your sinful feeling. While it may not happen immediately, godly emotions will begin to spring up in your heart.
“With the help of the Spirit, we can escape our emotional rip currents. We can feel what God wants us to feel.”
Godly emotions, in turn, excite and move us to greater thoughts and actions for the sake of Christ. Love for Christ motivates us (John 14:15), joy in God strengthens us (Nehemiah 8:10), and zeal for God’s word consumes us (Psalm 119:139). Our emotional life — once rife with dangerous rip currents — can come alive with godly feelings that propel us forward in Christlike character.
Fixing our feelings is the work of a lifetime. I still have much to teach my daughter, and even more to learn and apply to myself. But this much I know: with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can escape our emotional rip currents. We can feel what God wants us to feel.