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Mable came to counseling on the verge of an emotional breakdown, so she said. Marge asked how she could work through the emotional abuse from her husband. Mildred has concerns about her erratic emotional problems.
All three of these ladies have self-diagnosed themselves as struggling with their emotions. They have convinced themselves that they have emotional problems. All three of them are most definitely struggling with something, but none of them have “emotional problems” in the way they think they do.
Their emotions are working fine–just as God designed them to work. Their emotions are working well enough to signal that something is amiss in their lives. This ability to perceive truth is a mercy from the Lord.
The real issue for these ladies is not primarily about their emotions but about their thinking. Mable, Marge, and Mildred have thinking problems. Emotions cannot be damaged or abused. Unfortunately, our psychologized culture has made significant inroads regarding the way many Christians think about their emotions.
Abusing emotions can be loosely analogous to abusing smoke. If I tried to harm smoke, I suppose I could wield a ball bat and take a swing at some smoke. According to secular theorists, I would be a “smoke abuser.”
Smoke abuse, like emotional abuse, is not possible, but if you buy into the term emotional abuse, you’ll have to look outside the Bible for help, which is no help at all. But, if you want to stop unwanted emotional fluctuations, you would need to discern the real source of your emotions, which is your thinking. This approach can bring change to your “mind and your emotions.”
Let’s pretend you walked into your local bank only to find a gunman robbing it. As you enter, he whirls around and puts a gun in your face, and yells for you to get down on the floor. At that moment, your emotions will be working fine. They will be responding to how you are thinking during the crisis.
How about this: you just received a phone call saying you won a brand new digital tablet. Now you’re the one yelling, rather than the gunman in the previous illustration. You shriek and bolt upstairs to let your spouse know the good news. You are ecstatic. Your emotions are working well, and they are consistent with your thoughts in the celebratory moment.
Perhaps you received another phone call that was not as pleasant. Someone just informed you that a family member passed away in the early morning hours. You end the call and sit in your chair sadly reflecting upon the news. In all three of these illustrations, your emotions will follow your thoughts, which is normal because your emotions are normal. You are normal.
Of course, there are times when your emotions are not helpful and need to change. The process for doing this begins by tracing the emotion back to your thought life. It is in your thoughts where your emotions find their origination. Here is another illustration: suppose you held a rock about the size of your fist above your head. You release the stone. It falls to the ground.
You would not say that you had a gravity problem on your hands. Gravity does what gravity always does. Gravity is being itself, which is also the nature of emotions: they do what they are supposed to do. It’s a psychological law: thinking produces comparable emotions.
Some thoughts can lead to unpleasant emotions. In such cases, it is essential the person begins to change their thinking to have better emotional responses. Remember, emotions are consistent with your thoughts. A happy person is merry in his heart. A habitually angry person has a bitter heart. We are true to ourselves: what we show on the outside is what we are on the inside (Luke 6:43-45; Proverbs 23:7).
If you want to change your “emotional outside,” you must first adjust your thinking on the inside. For example, here is a list of bad emotions (or reactions) that point to unbiblical thought life.
Pouting – This is a manipulating emotion that a person employs to show he is not getting his way. When you see a person pouting, you should immediately have a good idea of what he is thinking. There is a level of disappointment and manipulation working in his thought life.
If this is a child, it would be easy to focus on him in the wrong way by giving him what he is manipulating you to give him. The better response to the pouter is to identify what is going on in his mind. More than likely, his thoughts are not biblical. He has a worship disorder that is motivating him to cave to his selfish desires rather than esteem others more significantly (Philippians 2:3).
You will need to call him to repentance. If you don’t, you could validate this type of behavior, which would motivate him to employ it regularly to satisfy all of his selfish thoughts.
Guilt/conviction – This kind of emotional manifestation is from a person who feels terrible about what he has done. He needs explicit biblical intervention. There could be several things going on in the person’s mind.
If it is unbiblical guilt, he must remove it because it is not from God. There are many Christians who are weighed down by some “form of guilty regret” for things that have happened in their past, whether it was because of them or because of someone else.
For example, it is common for a parent to rear their children wrongly because of lingering traces of guilt that remains in their lives. These parents parent their children from a position of fear because they feel (think) they have displeased God in some way.
Maybe they had an unbiblical divorce, or the marriage dissolution was not primarily their fault. Rather than living in the freedom of God’s forgiveness, they over-compensate and spoil their child by giving him whatever he wants. This tactic is the parent’s way of making up (paying) for what they did to the child because of the divorce.
You’ll hear them say, “I’ve asked God to forgive me many times for what I did.” The practicalization of the gospel is not real to them. They can’t believe God will forgive them by merely asking. God’s grace is sufficient, no matter what they did. But because of their poor theology, they feel a sense of guilt or conviction that is a product of their thinking rather than from the Spirit of God.
Anger – The angry man typically is the manipulative man. Most of the time, he is using his “angry emotion” to gain or regain control of his world. If you fall prey to his emotion, you will respond precisely how he wants you to react. You will cringe and give into his manipulations.
But if the situation allows and you know you are not going to be harmed by the angry manipulator, you may be able to help him understand the corrupted thinking that motivates him to emote in a manipulative way. His thoughts are where the real issues reside.
You want to speak into his thought life. I realize in these types of situations with women primarily, this redemptive opportunity is not an option. Typically the wife needs to contact her pastor or other spiritual authority for help.
The angry man is playing god. Rather than trusting God to bring about a specific preference, he is circumventing God’s way for his way. So, he can–and usually will–use any means necessary to justify his position while blaming you for the things that are wrong. Anger is a form of insanity: it’s not in line with a biblical mind. It is also a manifestation of insecurity or what the Bible calls fear of others (Proverbs 29:25).
Despair – This is the emotion of the hopeless. According to the discouraged person’s thinking, they have lost all hope and what you are observing by their emotional response is some form of despair, grief, or depression. Typically the despairing person didn’t fall into the ditch of despair.
It is usually the accumulative effect of many years of poor thinking that has gone unchecked. It is hard to ferret out this kind of thinking because a person who allows their thoughts to run along these lines is not usually forthcoming about what they are thinking due to embarrassment.
You may not be aware of how they have been processing things until full-fledged despair has overtaken them. You must remember when serving a person like this that you will need to be patient but yet firm with them (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Don’t let their emotional despair overly influence your care. You may be tempted to coddle the discouraged person when what they need is compassionate, faith-filled, and courageous grace.
Jealousy – This is another form of anger. The jealous thinker is mad about something they are not receiving. They are coveting in their thought life and what you observe on the emotional outside is a jealous attitude.
This person does not need your coddling; they need you to bring them back to the cross of Christ. How can the jealous thinking coveter continue in his coveting while responding to the cross? His thoughts need a significant gospel reorientation.
Fear – This emotional attitude is the most common emotion of them all. “Do not fear” is the most oft-repeated command or appeal in the Bible. Our entire Adamic makeup stands upon the fear/unbelief dynamic in our minds. We are born fearful, and it’s the emotion we express most often.
No person can escape this emotion. While at times it can serve us well, as in the case of the bank robbery noted above, it can also be our worst enemy. The fear-based person needs the gospel just like all of the other people that I have described in this shortlist of “dangerous emotions” and reactions. Nothing points directly to our unbiblical thinking like fear. And what does fear say about our thinking? It means we are not trusting God.
All of God’s choicest servants yielded to sinful temptations, but God was more significant than all their sin. If God is for you, who can be against you (Romans 8:31)? When you are struggling with doubt and fear, merely utter these simple but powerful five words. I realize it will take more work than this, but minimally, it is a good start.
Go ahead and say them now: “Do not fear, trust me.” God is entirely trustworthy no matter what you may be going through at the moment. Repeat this truth often. Let it transform your mind and massage your soul: Do not fear; trust God!
Make sure when you are caring for your friends that you don’t become confused by what you are observing from their behavior. Let what you are seeing be clues that take you deeper into their minds. Start with their emotions and move inward to their thoughts.
Once you get into their thought life, ask God to give you the discernment to truly understand what they are thinking and how their thoughts are affecting them. Solving wrong thinking in one meeting would be rare.
Sometimes it takes several meetings, many people, and different contexts to speak into a person’s life who has had their thinking shaped in unbiblical ways for many years. Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians has been meaningful to me as I think about people who need long-term biblical care:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all (1 Thessalonians 5:14)
Your emotions can be good or bad, but in either case, they reflect what is going on in your thoughts. If the emotions are right, the person is thinking and responding biblically. If the emotions are not good, the person needs your compassionate and patient biblical care.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).