Is It Wrong to Show Emotion When Helping Someone?

Is It Wrong to Show Emotion When Helping Someone

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I was chatting recently with a Christian counselor who said that her mentors taught her that Christian counselors should not show emotion during counseling sessions. She asked me what I thought about this kind of teaching. What do you think? It is okay to cry in front of the person you’re helping? What about laughter? How does emotion relate to God and Him making us in His image?

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The Encouragement of Tears

Wayne Mack was one of my counseling professors, and he told a group of us one day, “Christian counseling is neither Christian nor counseling if it is done without tears.” I appreciated his words because you can back them up with the Bible, and he’s an “old school” Christian counselor, whom you might think teaches how emotion is a sign of weakness. There has been a “traditional American idea” that men don’t cry.

I have never forgotten his encouragement about tears. It reminded me of when the Savior was standing outside the tomb of His good friend Lazarus. Several believers and unbelievers were standing with him that day. A few were curious, some were despairing, and others were cynical. All of them needed leadership at the moment. What did Jesus do? He cried (John 11:35).

Jesus wept with those who were weeping (Romans 12:15). His emotions were appropriate to the need of the moment. Jesus was in tune with His friends and knew what they needed from Him. The unbelievers were so taken aback by his emotion that they essentially said, “Wow, He loves this guy” (John 11:36)! The best counseling that the Savior could offer at that moment was to cry, which is what He did.

Biblical Emotion

The typical counselee lives in various forms of chaos, which is why they come for counseling. They want the counselor to address their chaotic situation, hoping that a reordering of their lives will be the result. One of the ways a counselor brings order to chaos is by presenting an authentic snapshot of biblical Christianity to the counselee. Showing proper and biblical emotion is one of the more effective ways a counselor can do this.

The counselee lives in a world of emotion, which is part of what it means to be an image-bearer. God is an emotional God. To think all emotion is wrong is a denial of biblical image-making. The answer to unbiblical, inappropriate, or out-of-control emotion is the person emoting at the perfect time for the right reasons.

The person who does not show proper emotion is shrinking their God-design image into something that takes away from the Divine. The best course of action is to understand biblical emotions and to learn how to emote so that your sphere can observe, learn, and imitate a fuller range of what it means to live out practical image-making.

Emotional Examples

Another example of biblical emotion is laughter, which is part of the overflow of joy. How odd is it for a person to be full of the joy of the Lord but never laugh? I’m not talking about 24/7 cackling or the serial joke-teller but rather about an individual who does not give a lot of attention to his controlled dignity when it’s time for laughter. This person is typically overly-concerned about what others think of him.

Laughter in counseling works like medicine. Imagine the broken person living in out-of-control dysfunction. Think about how badly they need joy in their lives. I’m not speaking of contrived humor to manipulate artificial laughter but instead of a pneumatic counselor who senses the Spirit’s work, which enables him to bring organic lightheartedness that creates a redemptive moment.

Laughter can be one of the hooks that the counselees hang onto after they leave the sessions. When they re-enter the chaos of their lives, a reflective moment of their time with you can serve as a breath of fresh air in a gray, moldy world. Humor is quite the opposite of their experience; it’s sunshine that feels like hope.

The Weeping Emotion

Then there is weeping. There were decades in my life when I did not cry. It felt weak, un-American, and vulnerable. I understood humor and laughter. I enjoyed comedy. And I regularly popped the lid off my anger. But to show tears in front of others was too revealing, as it could provide them access to areas of my life that had a “no trespassing” sign placed over it.

Then the Lord broke my heart on April 8, 1988. It seems as though I have not stopped crying since that day. One of the many benefits of a broken heart is that it connects you to others in ways that have depth, meaning, and potential transformation. The tears become the portal to others, which makes tears some of God’s benefits of grace to you.

No person understands evil like a Christian who has been broken by it and has experienced the redeeming hand of God on the other end of it. A counselor who does not have the “gift of crying” needs to ask the Lord for it. I’m not talking about crying on demand for effect. I’m speaking of a person who has wrestled with God in the crucible of suffering and came out the other end with heartfelt compassion. Brokenness is the genesis to this kind of humility.

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It’s Not about the Tears

Then some people are not criers. Good for them. You don’t have to be the weeping prophet. To mandate that there is something wrong with your Christianity if you don’t weep is as wrong as saying that there is no place for emotion in the counseling office. The better word that describes all biblical disciple-makers and the issue I’m addressing here is compassion. The essential question is, are you compassionate?

To cry or not to cry is not the main idea that I want you to address. If you don’t have compassion for a fellow image-bearer who is struggling with personal sin or the sin of someone else, then you’re not counseling biblically. Evil is real, painful, and deadly. It affects all of us in profound ways. Not having compassion for those who are struggling under the weight of evil is not the heart of Christianity.

The gospel declares the profound difficulty and cost of evil: the Father executed His Son because of our high crimes against Him. The person you’re helping has been affected by evil, and you want to show compassion for him or her. There were times when Jesus would not hold back the tears. Perhaps you’re not like Him in this way. But whatever your reactions are, those who observe your care should come to similar conclusions as they did when they saw the tears of the Lord (John 11:36).

Being Too Serious

The opposite end of the emotional spectrum—the person who does not believe in unbridled silliness—is the super-serious person. We can err on either extreme. Typically, what you will find under the hood of the overly sober-minded person is fear. They are afraid to let down their guard.

These people can smother the life out of those around them, which is even worse in the counseling office. The heavy-hearted counselee needs for you to weep with them or to give them something that shows you care. But they need more than that: you want to show them some light that is at the end of their dark tunnel. Some of the elements of that light are joy, happiness, humor, laughter, and lightheartedness.

The careful counselor wants to model these things, which become part of their leadership package. Leaders take folks beyond their present circumstances by showing them something that is outside their grasp at the moment. If you don’t possess some of these good qualities, your modeling and leadership will lose their force. They need to see the good qualities of Christ in your life and your message.

A Path to Un-Seriousness

You must address this problem if you are not able to provide those around you with the joy-filled confidence of the Lord because you’re wrapped too tight around the axle. The most effective way that you can start your path to recovery is by reacquainting yourself with the gospel. The most profound implication of the gospel is our unworthiness to stand before a holy God.

Perhaps you may find that self-deprecating humor to be a good antidote if you take yourself too seriously. Perhaps this approach will release you from the chains of over-serious guardedness. Stoicism is a monkish, anti-gospel attitude for people that the Lord has pulled from the pit of sin and freed by the power of His gospel. It’s an indescribable gift that should push all your emotions to their limits as you attempt to say “thank you” for what He did to you.

Ask the Lord to help you convey the power of the gospel in all the appropriate emotive ways that you can. Ask for the gifts of tears and joy-filled laughter. You don’t have to be a weepy, emotional basket-case or a silly humor machine. But perhaps you can image your emotive Creator more effectively.

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Call to Action

  1. How do your emotions affect people? Your humor or your tears? The ideal is for your friends to experience freedom when they are around you. For example, if you “cry at the drop of a hat,” folks will feel guarded around you. They will not want to “set you off.” If you are a joke machine, people will withhold their desire to go deep with you.
  2. Do you overreact to your experience? The person who has seen silliness run amuck may over guard against being that way, or they are part of a legalistic culture that downplays “fun” because they see it as worldly. Rather than overreacting to your experience or other shaping influences, are you growing up into the fullest measure of Christ that you can?
  3. How does insecurity come into play when you think about showing more emotion? You know you should be free, but you aren’t. You choose to sit out, becoming a spectator when you know you should be part of the action.
  4. How has social media altered your emotions? E.g., you’re more reactionary now—too emotional. You operate today without a social filter when there was a time when you had more self-control.
  5. There is an element of contentment that connects to weeping, joy, happiness, and laughter. The contented person is at peace, and a person of peace is free. Their freedom releases them to be the way God has made them while always maturing into greater Christlikeness. Think through contentment, peace, and freedom. How do these things release or hinder you from being a properly biblical emotive person?
  6. Describe some instances in which the Lord “made you cry,” and it was the perfect medicine for the hurting soul you were helping.

I’ll leave you with my all-time favorite quote about laughter from Terry Lindvall.

Laughter is a divine gift to the human who is humble. A proud man cannot laugh because he must watch his dignity; he cannot give himself over to the rocking and rolling of his belly. But a poor and happy man laughs heartily because he gives no serious attention to his ego. Only the truly humble belong to this kingdom of divine laughter. Humor and humility should keep good company. Self-deprecating humor can be a healthy reminder that we are not the center of the universe, that humility is our proper posture before our fellow humans as well as before almighty God. – Terry Lindvall (Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis)

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