In the modern world, we take great stock of our emotions. We measure emotional intelligence, we train our children to listen to their feelings and empathize with others. Emotions are a part of who we are and what we do, but how can we best understand them Biblically?
Biblical Definition of Emotions
Though the word ’emotion’ does not appear in the Bible, scripture has plenty to say about our thoughts and desires, as well as the range of specific emotions that we experience.
In our culture, we view emotions as feelings of the heart and reason as the thoughts of the mind, with a clear partition between the two. But in the Old Testament, thoughts and emotions were more closely interrelated. Consider the words of the psalmists:
- May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight. – Psalm 19:14
- Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. – Psalm 139:23
Here, thoughts and meditations—which we would associate with the mind—are seated in the heart, where we place sentimental emotions.
In the post-Hellenistic New Testament, we see a separation of heart and mind that is more consistent with our modern understanding. Still, certain emotions were seated elsewhere entirely, which is most evident in the King James Translation:
Here, the King James Version renders ‘compassion’ as ‘bowels of mercy’ because it is a direct translation of the original Greek. Compassion, this phrase wants us to understand, is something that we feel with such visceral intensity that it compels a response.
Examples of Emotions in the Bible
Emotions are a part of who we are because they are a gift from God. And emotions help us to process and manage different events and situations in our lives. That is why in Ecclesiastes the teacher writes that ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1), but does not limit the seasons just to the things we do. He also provides for seasons to feel different emotions:
- A time to weep and a time to laugh (v 4a)
- A time to mourn and a time to dance (v 4b)
- A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing (v 5b)
- A time to be silent and a time to speak (v 7b)
- A time to love and a time to hate (v 8a)
All of these emotions—plus many more—are an inherent part of our makeup, and are meant to manifest at the appropriate times.
Women and Emotions
While we are discussing emotions as a part of our design, let’s take a quick detour to address the question of whether women are, by nature, more emotional than men. Our observations in everyday life show that women generally express emotion very differently and more outwardly than men, but does the Bible give us any insight into why this is?
Where the Bible addresses emotion, it does so in the broadest way possible, never singling out men or women exclusively as being more prone to emotion. Clearly, emotion is a part of us all.
But some people have read Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus less carefully than they should, and concluded that women’s emotions must be managed more diligently:
Yet if we read carefully, we find that the culprit in the flaws that Paul addresses is not emotion, but idleness.
This is understandable when we consider that in the first century (as well as in many modern cultures), men were laborers—working with systems and things, while women were caretakers—working with people and their needs. So Paul was speaking to women who, because of their role in society, made greater use of their emotions in their everyday dealings.
Negative Emotions in the Bible
In addition to the emotions listed in Ecclesiastes, which are all appropriate in their seasons, the Bible cautions us against negative and dangerous emotions, which often lead to sinful actions and negative outcomes.
- Anger: Anger is useful if it is brought on by genuine injustice and informs a righteous response. But the Bible cautions against ungodly anger (James 1:20), teaching that ‘a hot-tempered person stirs up conflict’ (Proverbs 15:18a).
- Envy: The Ten Commandments forbid covetousness. When we covet what other people have, whether their possessions, their prestige, or their lifestyle, we allow envy and bitterness to take hold and destroy us from the inside, because ‘envy rots the bones’ (Proverbs 14:30b)
- Fear: The Lord invites us to worship Him with reverent fear. But we are saved by God through His unconditional love expressed in Jesus’ death on the cross. So we need not be afraid of Him—or anything else—because ‘there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ (1 John 4:18).
- Guilt: The guilt of remorse that leads to repentance is a good and useful emotion. But worldly guilt that comes from the accuser (not from our Spirit-driven conscience) inhibits our faith and leads to spiritual death (2 Corinthians 7:10).
While proper emotions such as joy and sorrow are right and useful in their seasons, the negative emotions above demand more careful attention and management. Fortunately, scripture provides practical tools to help us identify and reign in the emotions that can lead to harm:
Just giving ourselves a moment to listen and respond insulates us—and those around us—from a multitude of emotion-induced harms. This is not always easy and usually does not come naturally.
Sometimes our emotions are so strong that we feel like we have to fight to keep them under control. Fortunately, God has equipped us for this very fight so that we may be prepared to ‘stand against the devil’s schemes… against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:11-12).
Therefore put on the full armor of God:
- The Belt of Truth, to stand against deceiving emotions.
- The Breastplate of Righteousness, to overcome guilt.
- The Shoes of Peace, to walk without fear.
- The Shield of Faith, to extinguish the darts of anxiety.
- The Helmet of Salvation, to secure your mind from worry.
- The Sword of the Spirit, God’s Word, to guide you in all wisdom.
How to Deal with Emotions Biblically
Wisdom is the key to dealing with our emotions—good and bad. So we look to God, His word, and His kingdom to guide us in wisdom. It is here that we recognize the value of emotions and their proper seasons. By wisdom, we turn our minds to heavenly things because we recognize that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (Jeremiah 17:19). That is why the Proverbs remind us:
- Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe. – Proverbs 28:26
- Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end. – Proverbs 29:11
- Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. – Proverbs 3:5
The more we depend on the Lord, the more our emotions align with His intention for them, and the more we may know peace and rejoicing instead of anxiety and fear. For what He promises to the Philippian church, He promises to all who trust in Him, lean on Him, and seek Him in all situations: