Sunday, September 9, 2007

Clouds and Oceans: The Role of Emotions in the Christian Life

by JM
Throughout the Scripture, Christians aren’t just encouraged to have joy, but commanded to have it. Strangely enough, this particular form of mental serenity is commanded during times of significant distress. For example,

“6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:6-8).
Peter says, “Even when you feel sad, grief, and pain (that’s the meaning of “distressed” in verse 6), you greatly rejoice with a joy that is unearthly and glorious.”

This seems quite odd that someone can simultaneously experience distressing grief and inexpressible joy. Yet, this appears to be quite normal in the life of a believer. At first this is relieving. Often we are guilted by perpetually happy Christians when we fail to follow their remarkably pathetic disregard for real evil in the world and in our lives. It’s relieving to hear Scripture declare that Christians do and should experience genuine distress of heart.

"22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body" (Romans 8:22-23).
On the other hand, this is also puzzling. How can someone be joy-filled when they’re undeniably joy-less? Is the apostle telling us, “Saints, don’t worry about your depression since you’re happy and don’t yet know it.” Like the women in World War II who said that the bread shortage wouldn’t affect her because she ate toast. This would be a denial of the worst kind, and one forbidden by Scripture. So how do we make sense of the simultaneity of joy and grief?

I think that to make sense of this, it would serve us well to distinguish between emotion and affection. I want to suggest that though our emotions are subjected to the ups and downs of life, both to the pinnacles of ecstasy and the depths of depression at different times, our affections are to be the unmoved abiding anchor whether our emotions are storm-tossed or still. Happiness relates to emotions, Joy relates to affections.

I want to hold that emotions are more of a surface phenomenon, whereas the affections seem to refer to something abiding, deeper, and more significant. By "emotions", I refer to our natural reflex to external circumstances. For example, “I’m depressed because of the eviction notice.” “I’m elated because of the tax return.” These are built in natural reflexes to life. By "affections", I refer to the product of a certain conditioning of the soul that enables a person to process the outside world so as to give the subject perspective. This is that unnatural poise that we find in a few amazing people who can cope with the most difficult life situations, situations which would easily send one of us to an asylum. Emotions are formed and fueled by instinct. Affections are formed and fueled by values. What we value shapes how we respond, interpret, and face circumstances in life. The less we fail to cultivate our affections positively, the more we will be driven by our emotion (or the more we’ll reinforce and strengthen our visceral emotional reactions by our mismanagement of our affections/values).

Jonathan Edwards contends that we always do what is our greatest affection (or what we value the greatest); that is, the will is always the same as our affections. Emotions, however, are often very different from what we will. I may hate rigorous exercise, but something deeper moves me to do what I hate: my value of good health. My value of good health (or my affections for good health) trumps the emotional allergy to exercise.

Emotions are to the affections what clouds are to the ocean. Certainly, the deep is far more abiding than the puffy white heights. Clouds come and go; they morph and shift from the least perceptible whisper to the most ominous roar. The ocean, on the other hand, is relatively stationary. These are two things that appear very different from each other, yet they have a concrete causal relationship. Who hasn’t witnessed the ocean whipped up into a life-threatening frenzy by the sky above? With that said, all admit that the ocean is causally primary in the relationship. Clouds (most of them) have the ocean to thank for their existence. From the harmless shade-giving cloud cover above, to the perilous hurricane, we have the ocean to thank for each. Master the sky and you may impact the ocean. Control the ocean and you command the sky

In a similar manner, emotions may flux between tranquility and turbulence. But whatever their condition, their impact on the affections is marginal compared to the impact that the affections have on the emotions. Master the affections, and you control the impact of your emotions on your will. The affections will largely determine the degree to with the emotions impact a person as a whole.

Here’s another illustration to help. Consider a mangled marriage. In the case of one spouse cheating on another, a spouse may be thrown into an emotional hurricane; wrestling with feelings of anger, betrayal, and sometimes hatred. Yet, we’ve often seen the offended spouse do something quite remarkable, something quite opposed to what emotions are demanding: we’ve see a spouse forgive and give extraordinary effort to rebuilding the marriage. They are simultaneously loving and hating. Emotionally, they want to kick, bite, scream, and maim; they hate. Yet, they choose forgive, mend, love, and restore; they love. This love is rooted in a deeper part of their soul which enables the spouse to manage the emotion.

When we look at the passage in Peter, we see the secret of what enables believers to experience joy in the midst of grief: the same occasion for temporary grief is the occasion for eternal joy. The same persecution that injures the emotions complements the affections or values. Or put differently, the same challenge that is life-destructive is soul-building. The persecution that stifles the freedom and liberty of life is certainly a drag. Yet Peter says, “as much as you value comfort, freedom, and life, you have a far greater value: the condition of your soul. God is using discomfort to strengthen what you value more. As such, you have inexpressible joy in the midst of suffering.”

When Scripture mandates that we have joy in his world, this is none other than the command to put all of our energy into shaping our affections with the values of heaven. It’s the mandate to diffuse that natural reflex to come undone when the world comes undone. This is accomplished by allowing God-entranced affections to give us a God-like perspective on what appears to be godless circumstances. This is that unworldly and unnatural peace and stillness often referred to in Scripture.

Philippians 4:7-8 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.