I've lived and pastored near Detroit, Michigan for almost six years now. It's a city that has rightly earned the moniker “The Motor City.” The automobile industry dominates our economy, and this goes well beyond the Big 3 automakers: Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Thousands of smaller companies supply the Big 3 with everything they need to build a new car or truck. From parts to marketing and everything in between, nearly everyone's job is connected to the auto industry.
With this comes a genuine love for cars and a deep understanding of how they work. I've walked through the lobby of our church early on a Sunday morning and heard 3–4 guys engaged in a deeply passionate conversation about brake pads. We had friends from out of state come visit a few years ago, and their van started making some unusual sounds on the way to church. One of our guys went outside with them after the service, listened to the sound for a couple of seconds, and said, "You should be fine to drive home." They were.
I envy this thorough knowledge of cars. I don’t have it and most likely never will. I can put air in my tires and, I think, if everything was on the line and I had no other option, I could probably change a flat tire. I couldn’t name all the parts that make up an engine and certainly couldn’t explain how they work together to move my car forward. Now, imagine for a moment if I applied to work for a local mechanic here in Detroit. I clearly wouldn't be very effective, and if I imagined myself to be a competent mechanic, despite my lack of basic understanding of cars, I could cause significant problems for people.
Now, human beings are not automobiles. We aren't mechanical creations; we are embodied souls. It's also true that serving in pastoral ministry isn't quite the same as working as an auto mechanic. We don't simply assess a person's problem and apply the right fix to make sure everything is running again. However, I believe that as pastors seeking to faithfully shepherd God's flock, we need to have a thorough grasp of the human beings we shepherd. This means understanding one of the basic features of our humanity: emotions.
What are Emotions?
This is a question pastors need to ponder both as they shepherd others and as they keep watch over their own souls (1 Timothy 4:16). I would guess that, in recent years, most pastors have seen an increase in the number of people grappling with their emotions and how to handle them. We can’t counsel and shepherd those struggling if we don’t have a basic grasp of this important feature of our humanity.
The discussion over the nature of human emotions goes back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and has typically swung between two poles. On the one side, emotions are defined as simple bodily impulses. We have little to no control over them and they are illogical. A modern example of this would be those who see emotions as nothing more than chemical reactions that produce physical results. On the other side, emotions are viewed as cognitive, coming from our perceptions and judgments concerning ourselves and the world around us.
Christians have generally understood the Bible to teach the cognitive view of emotions, and yet, Scripture presents human beings as complex creatures where mind, emotions, and body all work together to shape and influence one another.
The Bible gives us clarity amid the complexities of human nature and provides the resources we need to navigate between these two poles.
Author Jeremy Pierre puts it like this, "No one should treat people as merely rational beings in need of instruction, nor as merely emotional beings in need of healing, nor as merely decision-makers who need the right motivation. The truth is broader than each of these.”1
The Bible describes humans as embodied souls (Gen. 2:7). We think, reason, feel, and act with our bodies and simply cannot do otherwise in this life. Matthew Lapine explains, "Because we are embodied beings, physicality always qualifies our agency. God formed us from the ground and enlivened us with his breath. We are not mere souls, but embodied beings. Our entire agency is qualified by physicality."2
So, to properly understand emotions and help those in need, we need to see emotions as both cognitive and rooted in our bodies. Here’s the way I would define them: Emotions are value driven perceptions experienced in and through my physical body.3 Let’s note a couple of important things happening when you or others have emotions.
First, emotions are perceptive. This is from the cognitive understanding of emotions. Any time you experience an emotion, it’s because you are perceiving yourself, others, or your circumstances in a particular way. Take Acts 5:41 as a clear example of an emotion arising because of a particular point of view. The Apostles have just been beaten for their faith, and yet, they leave the presence of the council with a real sense of joy. How can this be? Their emotion of joy occurs because of the way they view their circumstances. They understand their suffering to be directly tied to their representation of God, and they are awed that they have been counted worthy to suffer for His cause. This should prove helpful to us as we seek to understand the feelings of those we shepherd. Behind their feelings is a way of seeing things.
Of course, your perception of a given situation can be right or wrong, and thus, the emotions you experience may or may not be rooted in the truth.
Second, emotions are driven by values. My wife can attest that my emotional state is entirely different during the annual Michigan – Ohio State football game than if I were to sit down and watch Northwestern play Purdue. I care deeply about the outcome of one game and would only experience any emotion (joy) when the Northwestern – Purdue game mercifully came to an end. When something or someone is important to you, emotions follow. Just like our perceptions, our emotions may be driven by wrong or misplaced values.
Third, since emotions are experienced in and through the physical body, they can be felt beyond the initial moment when they arise. You’ve probably had the experience of feeling something and not immediately understanding why. Emotions are shaped and formed by your background and experiences, and since they happen in your body, they can become habits or dispositions. For example, you may wake up grumpy in a sinful way in the morning simply because over time you have cultivated a wrong emotional disposition that has become habit. Your thinking and values have influenced your physical body to the point where you have given the members of your body over to sin (Romans 6:12-13).
There’s much more that can and should be said to make sense of our emotions, but these three insights give us a good starting point from which to make application to pastoral ministry.
Why Pastors Need to Understand Emotions
First, you shepherd people who live emotional lives, and this is not a bad thing! Quite the opposite, in fact. God has given us a precious gift by making us emotional creatures. The basic idea behind the English word "emotion" is "to move," and it's certainly true that without feelings we wouldn't get much accomplished. Emotions motivate us, strengthen us, help us make decisions, and connect us to others.
I'm frequently disheartened to hear the pejorative "she's just emotional" used of people who feel strongly or exhibit any emotions at all. Emotions are not an unfortunate bit of baggage that we carry throughout the race of life. They are good gifts from God. How do we know this? By looking to the Lord Jesus Christ. Clearly, He was without sin and the Gospels present Him as experiencing a wide range of emotions including compassion (Mark 20:34), grief (John 11:35), inner turmoil (John 11:33), love (Mark 10:21), personal affection (John 13:23), anger (Mark 3:5), joy (Luke 10:21), and sorrow (Mark 14:33-34). After surveying the range of emotions Christ experienced in the Gospels, B.B. Warfield said this,
What we are given is, no doubt, only the high lights. But it is easy to fill in the picture mentally with the multitude of emotional movements which have not found record just because they were in no way exceptional. Here obviously is a being who reacts as we react to the incitements which arise in daily intercourse with men, and whose reactions bear all the characteristics of the corresponding emotions we are familiar with in our experience.4
Rather than ignoring emotions or downplaying their importance, perhaps we should embrace them as a beautiful aspect of our humanity that enriches life.
Of course, we do not walk through this life sinless, as our Savior did. Our emotional lives are fallen in specific ways. The perceptions that stand behind our emotions have been twisted by sin. Our values are aimed at lesser things, and the members of our body habituate sinful patterns and tendencies that we struggle to even recognize. And yet, emotions are a pathway to what’s truly happening in us. The wise pastor will recognize this and seek to understand the emotions of those he shepherds.
Second, instead of simply putting to death unwanted emotions like anxiety, fear, and worry, a major focus of our sanctification process ought to be cultivating Christlike emotional dispositions. We want to encourage this by preaching and counseling toward this end in those we serve. Roberts puts it like this,
Emotions can be distinctively Christian only if they can be shaped by Christian concepts and the Christian narrative. Distinctively Christian joy is joy in the Lord, gratitude is gratitude to God for his grace in Jesus Christ, hope is hope for the kingdom of God promised in the gospel, and so forth.5
In other words, as we take in the story of Scripture and the Bible’s view of reality, our emotions, driven by biblical values and perceptions, will become more consistently Christlike. We should be putting on virtues such as hope and love, which are both spiritual emotions, rightly defined. Hope is not true hope without joy (Romans 15:13) and love is not true love without affective attention to the good of the other. Growing like Christ in all of life, including emotions, ought to be high on our priority list.
So, if you are a pastor, deepen your grasp of human emotions. It will serve you well as you seek to faithfully shepherd God’s people.
1. Pierre, Jeremy., The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC; New Growth Press, 2016), p. 12.
2. Lapine, Matthew., The Logic of the Body (Bellingham, WA; Lexham Press, 2020), p. 351.
3. Roberts, Robert C., Spiritual Emotions (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), p. 11.
4. Warfield, B.B., The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1970), p. 138.
5. Roberts, p. 29.