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a primer on emotions

Have you ever found people’s emotions just a little too overwhelming? Or maybe you’re shepherding someone and talking about an issue and then they get really emotional and you’re not sure how to handle it?

Emotions are a window into people’s hearts. So if in your work as an elder in a local church you want to help people to grow in the Lord and mature as Christians, then becoming more skilled at working with their emotions is going to help you understand how to better help them.

Learn to Trust Emotions

I want to dispel one of the most common myths being promoted from local church pulpits today: the claim that we cannot trust our emotions.

It is ironic that in major life decisions, many of the men who make this claim will consult their wife to ask how she feels about the decision being made. A lot of us put a great deal of trust in our wife’s intuition — a largely emotionally-driven compass that we learn (over time, and after many erroneous choices to ignore it) is incredibly accurate and insightful.

What is happening here?

As men, we are socialized to restrain our emotions from our early days on the playground and into our adulthood. I pointed this out in my episode on overseer loneliness and noted there how this perpetuates our loneliness and isolation. The same issue also creeps into our teaching and we ourselves perpetuate our emotional stuntedness by telling others that emotions cannot be trusted.

The Heart Is Desperately Wicked

The passage of Scripture most often used to support the deceptiveness of emotions is, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV). The problem with interpreting this as a Biblical statement about the unreliability of emotions is that the heart in Scripture is the seat of more than just emotions. In the context of this verse, Judah has gone after idolatry and forsaken the Lord. In so doing they have neglected to put faith in the living God and have placed their trust and confidence in men. The problem is actually one of misplaced devotion and dependence.

In this context then, the propensity of the heart towards idolatry is what draws the scathing criticism from the prophet. It is not the capacity of the heart to produce emotions which is in the crosshairs of his rebuke.

Having said that, there is one possible trap the believer may fall into. It is possible to trust in your emotions…not just trust your emotions. Allow me to clarify: I will often encourage people to trust their emotional response to something. Your emotions are a God-given, valid barometer of your perception of a situation. For example, the Lord Jesus validated His own emotional experience in the Garden of Gethsemane when he noted the extreme sorrow he felt and asked the disciples to remain with Him. He identified His own emotion, acknowledged it to them, and asked them to respond in a way that would provide support for the difficulty of the situation He found Himself in. This is an amazing insight into His humanity and I would suggest that he trusted that His emotional response was appropriate to what He was considering (the forthcoming agony of the cross).

At the same time, it is possible to take things a step further and not just trust our emotions but to trust in them. This is where we can run into trouble. It is easy to go from experiencing an emotion to assuming that one should act out of that emotion. An early example of this in our Bibles is when Cain slew Abel because of the anger and hatred that was in his heart. He trusted in the emotion and acted on it. Had he paused to reflect on that emotion before God, he would have had the opportunity to recognize his own sin in disobeying God and could have experienced the mercy and grace of God instead of making a horrible decision.

It is interesting that the Lord actually identified Cain’s emotion and emotional expression when He asked him, “…Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” (Genesis 4:6, ESV). Cain had the opportunity to pause and reflect on how changing his behaviour (from disobedience to obedience) could correct his emotional distress. Instead, he continued in disobedience by acting on his anger and disappointment.

A better response would have been to answer the Lord’s question about why he was angry. He might have said, “I am angry because I disobeyed You and thought I could get away with it and I got caught. It’s hard to be confronted with the reality of my own wrongdoing and the fact that my heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. I would rather remove the voice of my conscience than humble myself to be obedient.” But Cain did not respond to the Lord’s question about his emotions.

Instead, he slew his brother.

If anything, this passage should underscore the need to pay attention to our emotions and to deal with them before the Lord.

Not All Emotions are All Good or All Bad

Another lesson we can take from Cain’s example is that not all emotions are good or helpful. In fact, some good feelings and some negative feelings are maladaptive and can even lead to sin. Desire is an emotion: in a marriage relationship, it leads to pleasure and blessing and love and many good things. The same emotion of desire outside of marriage leads to sin. Hatred of sin is an emotion that often leads to justice and protection and good things when it is directed at injustice and wrongdoing, especially when that injustice is against the defenceless and vulnerable. However, in the story of Cain, the hatred led to a gross sin.

Ephesians 4:31 points out three emotions that are often unhelpful: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger…be put away from you” (ESV). However, let us not forget that God is angry with the wicked every day and that his wrath is righteous. There is no set of exclusively bad emotions: but most often when we feel bitterness or wrath or anger against a fellow believer we need to pause and put those emotions away: typically in favour of softer negative emotions. For example, Joseph’s brothers’ bitterness would have led to a better outcome if they had identified the underlying grief that was caused by Jacob’s blatant favouritism. If they had taken this grief up with their father rather than acting in anger towards Joseph they would not have been guilty of engaging in human trafficking.

Emotions Are Based on Perception

As we become more comfortable with the nuanced reality of emotions the next thing we want to understand is that emotions are probably always based on perception. And perception is just one person’s reality.

For example, Elijah’s dejection in 1 Kings 19 was based on his perception that he was unprotected (by the Lord) and isolated (the only remaining prophet). Given that perception, his emotional response was valid. If you were extremely isolated and vulnerable you would easily feel the same. However, Elijah discovered that his facts were wrong: the Lord was with him and was protecting him and the Lord also had 7,000 faithful followers in Israel besides Elijah. Exploring a person’s feelings helps you to understand their perception. Sometimes you will find (not always) that this perception is incorrect and when you can help them see the truth their feelings will follow.

When Elijah’s perception shifted to accommodate a more accurate reality than his own, it seems that his emotions improved. Nevertheless, the Lord met him in his emotions. The Lord did not dismiss his emotions out of hand; rather, he moved towards them to understand the underlying perception before shifting that perception. Often the people of God need this help from shepherds: a change of perception.

Moving Toward Emotion

This brings us to one of our key points. Moving towards emotion, not away from it, is often the key to helping believers become unstuck.

Elijah was very stuck in that emotion because of the perception he held. The Lord started working with Elijah right where he was and twice the Lord asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Following the first question, the Lord demonstrated His power: that ministered to Elijah’s sense of vulnerability. Following the second question, the Lord asked him to anoint two kings and pointed out there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. This addressed Elijah’s sense of isolation.

We would easily write Elijah off. “Oh, he’s off in the cave? Well, let him stew for a bit: he’s just being dramatic. He just wants attention.” Sometimes, we respond to struggling believers in this way because we don’t know what to do with their emotionality.

It might have been the same with Cain. Anger is very intimidating for some of us and we want to avoid confrontation. But the Lord asked Cain directly about his anger. We often avoid stronger emotions when we should be taking courage and moving towards them.

There is always a reason why people feel the way they do. So when you see emotions that are strong or emotions that don’t appear to make sense, or emotions that are not resolving then it’s time to dig into those emotions rather than avoid them. In practical terms, a shepherd might then take the initiative to ask about the emotions they are witnessing:

  • A brother is very angry about a seemingly trivial matter. “I can see that you are really upset by this. There must be something important going on here that I don’t understand. Can you tell me why you feel so angry about this?”
  • A sister is upset but having troubles describing what is wrong. “I see your tears. Can you tell me what those are about?”

Emotions Are A Language

You see, while we may be intimidated by the negative emotions of others, we need to understand that emotions are a language. Emotions provide information. The Psalmist said, “…the LORD has heard the voice of my weeping” (Psalm 6:8, NKJV): emotions have a voice. They speak to others. They describe a person’s visceral response to their experience. This is we must respond and acknowledge emotions.

When we fail to acknowledge and respond to emotion then we tell people we are not listening or else that we cannot handle their emotions. That is a clear signal that they are not safe to be vulnerable with us. The only reasonable conclusion from this is they need to put those emotions away and/or take them somewhere else. The last thing we want to do is to communicate (even non-verbally) that we cannot tolerate the voice of their weeping.

Emotions are a language. They are a voice. As such, they must be responded to and acknowledged. For us menfolk in particular who grew up being taught to be emotionally restrained, this can literally feel like we are learning a new language. It is hard and it can feel overwhelming and a little scary for us.

We will look at how to respond to emotions shortly but first, a quick primer on the range of emotions humans are capable of. Learning to identify emotions is a very helpful skill in working with distressed people. This is a skill that is refined by use. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that it is only for more sensitive folks: learning to identify and work with emotion in yourself and others is the core of developing greater emotional intelligence. And having greater emotional intelligence is a key building block for understanding. No, it is not a replacement for walking closely with the Lord, it is not the new spirituality, nor does it trump all of the other spiritual resources you are already using. However, how often have you or I as shepherds made an error of judgment in shepherding someone because we didn’t really understand what was going on in their heart? Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (ESV).

Naming Emotions

Borrowing from the work of Robert Plutchik, there are 8 primary emotions:

  1. anger
  2. fear
  3. sadness
  4. disgust
  5. surprise
  6. anticipation
  7. trust
  8. joy
Plutchik-wheel

Plutchik Wheel

Primary emotions are felt universally across cultures. However, they may be expressed differently in their secondary forms. For example, a secondary form of sadness is grief. Grief may appear as a loud wailing in some cultures but as silent tears in others. Nevertheless, the same primary emotion is sadness.

As noted in this diagram, there are other emotions that stem from these 8 primary emotions. I often recommend to couples and families that they print a copy of this diagram and put it on their fridge just to expand their emotional vocabulary. Again, this helps us to better understand one another, and with that understanding, to know how to proceed with wisdom. All of the range of emotions that humans are capable of being represented in one or in a combination of these emotions.

Anger

Another aspect of primary versus secondary emotions is particularly evident with anger. An angry person is often experiencing their anger as a secondary emotion to a different primary emotion: usually sadness or fear. For example, a husband who is very angry with his wife’s constant nagging may actually be deeply afraid that he will never measure up to her. However, this deeper fear is a very vulnerable emotion to express in the face of constant criticism so he only shows her anger that serves to protect this vulnerable part.

In this case, the anger is an emotional reaction to his own fear. He hates feeling vulnerable or weak and anger restores his self-perception of strength. I would say that nearly all of the time the anger that we see in others and the anger we express is secondary. This is why James notes that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20, ESV). This is moderate anger: in some cases, you may be confronted with something that looks more like rage. A raging person cannot be consoled or appeased and is often completely defiant and even destructive with their words and actions. In these cases, it may not be possible to access the primary emotions until the rage has abated.

However, there is primary anger that is valid and legitimate for believers to experience: for example, anger against injustice. In this case, an overseer would want to validate the anger and give the person full permission to feel that anger. However, the caution would be to be angry but sin not (Ephesians 4:26). The imprecatory Psalms are a good example of righteous anger. In some cases, the oversight may also do well to even join in the anger and yet deal righteously with the injustice or oppression or cruelty that the anger is in response to. Anger is not always wrong.

So, learn to name emotions. It is OK to guess at them — “It looks like you might be feeling very sad about this issue?” — and people will correct you if you were inaccurate. Once you have identified one or more emotions it is important to respond to them.

Responding to Emotions

So here are a few things that you can try just depending on what you are comfortable with. I’ll focus mainly on responding to negative emotions.

As I stated earlier, the most important part here is just responding to the emotions somehow. Your response or words do not have to be perfect. You do not even have to name the emotions correctly…people will correct you if you are not quite tracking them correctly. But acknowledging and responding to emotion indicates that you are seeing and acknowledging their experience and that you are interested in helping them.

There is always a reason for a person’s emotion. That part is not always immediately apparent but rest assured that nothing comes out of a vacuum. Sometimes the emotion you see will just be a quick flash of sadness across their face; other times a person may weep openly.

The first part of responding well to emotion is with body language. Be willing to keep your body turned towards someone. If they go towards a more vulnerable emotion it is helpful to open up your own body language. Uncross your arms; lean towards them a little. Perhaps tilt your head to the side in sympathy if that feels natural. Continue to look at their face. On the other hand, if they are angry or disgusted try not to pull back — you may have to hold onto your own fear about anger or people being unhappy with you by committing that to the Lord.

Often it is distressing for us to see distressing emotions in others: but you need to let them have their emotion without becoming lost in your own. In other words, if they just lost their dad you may weep with them but don’t dogpile your own unresolved grief on top of theirs. You know that you have lost track of who is shepherding and being shepherded when they are comforting you…that is not a healthy role reversal.

Be Curious, Reflect and Validate

It is easy to jump to conclusions about a person’s emotions but it is often wise to pause and be curious. Try simple questions to open the conversation:

  • “Can you tell me what your tears are about?”
  • “It looks like you have a lot of sadness coming up right now. What is that about?”
  • “You seem very angry. Can help me understand why?”

Often you can just prompt the conversation along by reflecting the emotion. In other words, stating what you are observing:

  • “It looks like you are really disgusted by that”
  • “So that brought you a lot of joy then, hey?’
  • “…And that made you really angry”

Additionally, wherever possible you want to validate the emotion:

  • “I can see why that would make you angry”
  • “If that happened to me I’d be weeping right now too”
  • “That is truly heartbreaking news, isn’t it?”

The emotion they feel needs to be validated even if it is based on misperception. Often, you cannot take people where they need to go until you meet them where they are at. For example, say that someone was lined up to speak in the gospel and you announced someone else. They might feel slighted or even betrayed a little. You could just dismiss their anger as “I made a mistake in planning speakers — we all make mistakes, can you give a guy a break?” It would likely proceed better if you understood and acknowledged the anger: “Ok I know I made a mistake but please help me understand why my mistake made you so angry…OK, so you had put a lot of work into this message and you are disappointed your time has been wasted. I can see how that would be really frustrating. I am so sorry. I would be frustrated too.” Once they have been acknowledged they would be much more able to hear your explanation as to how it happened.

Leaning Into the Emotion

Often when we are working with someone on a state of heightened emotional arousal it can feel overwhelming or even like the situation has the potential to spiral out of control.

My tendency in these situations used to be to pull back a little or to try to calm the person down. I needed them to move away from their emotions so that I felt more comfortable. However, I have found some help with the idea of leaning into the emotion. Quite often people need to really feel what they are feeling before they can move on.

Those of you who have buried a loved one will know what I mean: the only way out of the grief is to go through it. We need to walk with people through their difficult emotions: not ask them to put it away or shut it down. We can do this even in subtle ways: even the act of handing someone a kleenex or handkerchief immediately is a way of sending a signal that we may be uncomfortable with their tears. Telling an angry person “Just calm down!” often just heightens their state of angst.

We can often lean into emotion just by giving permission. Saying things like “You don’t have to apologize for your tears” rather than “Don’t cry: it’s going to be OK.” You might even say, “Just stay with your sadness as long as you need to. I’m right here with you.” Or in the face of anger, “This is really frustrating you, hey? I can see that you are really angry about it.” rather than “Calm down and let’s talk through this rationally” (which clearly implies that you find them irrational).

There are some cases where you will choose not to “lean into the emotion”. For example, rage (as mentioned earlier). If the anger is destructive in nature and feels threatening it would be reasonable to end the discussion and advise the believer that the discussion will continue when they are able to present their thoughts in a safer fashion. This is a situation where an out of control emotion is dangerous to you and to them: it is not the time for empathy or compassion. Rather, set kind but clear boundaries and establish the terms under which the discussion may continue.

Aside from an extreme scenario like rage, when you lean into a person’s emotion you are also going to get a window into their hearts. This is an honour that sheep will bestow on their shepherd when they feel understood, heard and protected. It will make it easier for you to do soul work and you will often get to the root of issues much more quickly.

Containing Emotion

Having encouraged you to move towards and lean into emotion, you likely have anticipated that there will be times when someone’s emotion can become overwhelming.

In this case, your job is to contain the emotion. That simply means that you will stay with the person and keep yourself calm and engaged while they process this very difficult situation. You can calm yourself by praying while you are sitting with them, focussing on keeping your breathing regular, reminding yourself that this is their emotion and not yours, and calling on God to be present with them and you as you face this very difficult matter together.

If the person appears to be abreacting: a deep and ongoing discharge of very strong emotion then after a period of time you may choose to help them calm themselves. Again: you want to be careful that you are doing this for their benefit and not your own. Perhaps someone has just opened up about childhood sexual abuse or maybe they just found out they have been grossly betrayed by their spouse. Those kinds of matters will bring out profound sorrow. While that is healthy to express, this is also where professional counsellors are helpful. If you don’t know how to help them contain that emotion and process it in a safe way where they can access internal and spiritual resources to calm themselves, they may end up re-traumatizing themselves.

In any case, if you find yourself in a situation where the emotion is very deep and it’s been more than half an hour or so of strong crying and tears, it may be a good idea just to say, “Ok, let’s work together just to help you breathe again and to feel a little calmer in your body.” Just encourage them to slowly rub their palms forward and backward along the top of their legs. Ask them to breathe: inhaling slowly through their nose (3 seconds in) and out gently through their mouth (3 seconds out). Offer encouragement and breathe with them.

Debrief them after they’ve calmed down. Do not just leave them hanging. “How was that for you? It looked pretty intense” might be a good way to start that part of the conversation.

Bringing Emotions Before God

We have been talking about emotions extensively as they relate to shepherding individuals through different challenges and times of crisis. In focusing on this topic I do not want to leave you with the impression that this is an alternate method of shepherding. I certainly do not want you to think that this is a replacement for godly counsel or wisdom. Nor is it to replace spiritual discernment. Nothing like that, rather, learning to work well with people’s emotions is just another tool in the shepherd’s toolkit to help us be more effective overall. Shepherding the heart requires using the language of the heart: which is emotion. Emotion does not run on a separate track from devotion: we all want to “feel” close to the Lord.

Really, we cannot separate our emotion from our devotion. So it behooves us to become adept at incorporating emotions into the work we do with others.

Sometimes this can be an entirely new thought for people. You may even need to encourage the Christian to bring his or her emotions before the Lord. There are many examples of this in the Psalms but the believer is always able to call upon the Lord. He is always there to hear their cry: encourage them to speak directly and frankly to the Lord about what they are feeling and to ask the Lord to join (draw near) them in their sadness/fear/anger.

A good verse to have on hand is, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18, ESV). That is a very emotive statement and it tells us that God is not afraid of our strong emotions. It also tells us that when we need Him most, He is near. One of the ways He draws near is through shepherds who are godly. In this context, that godliness may look like a willingness to be near broken hearts and crushed spirits.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.