Last year I wrote a news story about Gen Z and mental health for Christianity Today. I interviewed Robert Vore, a counselor in Georgia, about how youth pastors and mentors in the church can help students overcome challenges to their mental health.
He said we are prone to label emotions “good” or “bad.” Then we immediately place unpleasant emotions like grief, anger, or anxiousness in the “bad” or “wrong” category. But feelings in themselves are God-given, neutral responses. Underlying beliefs and motivations tell us if our emotions are an overflow of righteousness or not. We can also respond to our emotions in unethical ways. For example, I might have righteous anger over an injustice that angers God too, yet I might respond in an unrighteous way.
Vore said the church can help students by teaching them how to discern unpleasant emotions before immediately dismissing them as “bad.” He told me, “[Emotions] are a healthy part of our being… You can look throughout Scripture, and God has emotions. Jesus has emotions—even the ones that we would view as unpleasant… It’s not just a lack of faith to have those feelings.”
I needed this reminder as much as anyone when I interviewed Vore. I was in the thick of being a new mom. I’d always had emotions like grief, anger, anxiousness, and joy, but this season brought an intensity to them I’d never experienced.
Vore was right: God and people in the Bible express all kinds of emotions. Context is key in telling us whether the thoughts and motivations underneath those emotions are right or wrong. Since becoming a mom in October 2019, I’d wrestled with what God might be teaching me through my emotions, but my interview with Vore helped piece together what I’d been learning. Emotions in themselves are neutral. They require some self-awareness and time with God in prayer and Scripture to sift through those undergirding beliefs.
I know what you’re thinking. “Who has time for that in the throes of middle-of-the-night feedings or meltdowns in the parking lot?” Maybe you’re not a mom. But your schedule is packed with school assignments, work deadlines, care for a sick family member, or something else.
There’s good news. Taking time to “unpack” our emotions with God is not a one-time occurrence that can only happen through journaling for hours or visiting the counselor’s office for weeks. (However, these might be important steps for some people! I’ve reaped the benefits of both.) We’ll be unpacking them for a lifetime. As soon as I think I have a handle on my emotions as a mom, Charlee enters a new stage, and the learning begins all over again.
In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul said Christians should “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” The act of taking our thoughts “captive” can happen in the drive-thru line or the shower. It can happen at the sink while washing dishes. It can happen on a walk. God is faithful to use whatever time we have in our busy or slow seasons to teach us about our emotional responses and help us align them to His truth and the truth about the world around us. In Mama Bear Apologetics, the author compared this habit to magnetizing a compass and explained why it’s important:
The problem with using our emotions for determining truth is that they have to first be conformed to truth in order to tell us anything useful. For a compass to work, it must first be magnetized. Otherwise, it won’t point to true north. Disciplining our emotions with truth is like magnetizing our emotional compass. We can follow our emotions, but only after we have made sure our emotional compass is pointing in the right direction.
Too many people today determine truth by their emotions yet have not bothered to magnetize their emotional compasses. They say, ‘Let’s go north!’ and proceed to walk in all different directions, trying to convince everyone else to follow them. Instead of disciplining their emotions to match reality, they are trying to make reality match their emotions. When they feel scared, they assume that they are in danger—instead of perceiving real danger and then feeling scared. In this way, emotionalism mistakes feelings for facts. But there’s little assurance that those emotion-loaded opinions are indeed facts unless Scripture, wisdom, and reality are fact-checking those feelings.Mama Bear Apologetics
This blog series is about “magnetizing our compasses.” Is grief a negative emotion? When is anger sinful, and when is it righteous? What does being anxious tell us about ourselves? Is there a difference between joy and happiness?
In the coming weeks, I’ll share here what God is teaching me about these emotions through motherhood, although this series isn’t limited to mothers. There’s been an acuteness to my own emotions since becoming a mom that’s made me reckon with them in new ways, and your own seasons probably come to mind when you learned more about yourself and God because your emotions were intensified.
I’ve noticed some counselors on social media suggest using the term “big feelings” when helping children understand their emotions. A mom or dad might say, “I can tell you have some big feelings right now. Do you want to talk about them with me?”
This is what God has done for me in the last 18 months of motherhood. This momma’s had some big feelings, and God has been so patient and gracious to help his daughter work through them and understand when they are motivated by righteousness and when they aren’t.
Next week I’ll be writing about grief so I hope you’ll come back.
A final thought: I am NOT a licensed counselor. Although I’ve benefited from professional counseling, this series is an overflow of what I’ve been learning about emotions from Scripture and from other Christians wiser than me in this area. I want to give a special thanks to Christi Hagans, a counselor and friend in New Orleans, who gave her input in this series.
This is Part 2 of a blog series on emotions. Click the links below to read the rest of the series:
Part 1: Big Feelings: A New Series on Emotions
Part 2: Big Feelings: Grief
Part 3: Big Feelings: Anxiousness