Gospel Affections: Human Emotions and Christian Formation
On Worry (and the Stuff of Life)
If you would’ve asked me a couple of decades ago about emotions in the Christian life, I would have theologically scoffed. My response would have gone something like, “At best, emotions are not part of God’s plan to shape his people and at worst, they are a distraction from serious theological study and fundamental commitments to the gospel.” Somewhere along the way, I inherited a disposition of disdain for emotions from one of many Christian traditions that focus on “the mind” as the center of where God shows up. The mind, I believed from these teachings, is where “gospeling” takes place. The body, the heart, the emotions, I saw these as limited and limiting aspects of our mortality.
I think differently now. My answer today wouldn’t sound at all like my answer from earlier in my life. What changed? I can’t pinpoint one particular thing. Part of it is processing my own journey of emotional health. Part of it involves trends in scholarship that are looking more closely at emotions from a theological perspective. And, to be honest, part of it is recognizing how attentive Jesus and the apostles were to feelings. If you sit down and read through the New Testament from beginning to end, you are going to find a lot of material on the range of human emotions: joy, sadness, anger, grief, hatred, love, peace, and anxiety all make an appearance. Biblical writers address these feelings and even give commands related to emotion: Do not fear! Rejoice! Don’t be angry! Don’t worry! Don’t be downcast! Lift up your heart! These ancient writers were not psychologists. They never read Freud or Skinner. So, I want to be careful not to “over-psychologize” them. At the same time, there seems to be a clear reason they talk so much about emotions: our feelings are closely tied into the “network” of our being: body, heart, head, and relationships. And I think they knew that our feelings often reflect what we really believe, and our feelings can also affect how we shape our lives. And these are not just things that happen in parables, miracle stories, and epistolary flashbacks. Biblical writers talk about feelings and emotions as if they are bound up in the most important aspects of what the gospel is all about.
The ties that intertwine emotions with the gospel keep weaving tighter and tighter in my mind and that is why I am writing a series on “gospel affections.” While there was a time when I related the gospel only to theological “thoughts” (doctrines), now I see it as a much larger phenomenon, involving thoughts (of course), but also the cosmos, generations, communities, families, individuals, bodies, and, yes, our feelings.
So, being more attentive to what the Bible has to say about emotions can only help us better respond to the gospel, to form our lives faithfully in the way of Jesus and the gospel. This article series will engage a range of emotions in turn, processing what Paul has to say about feelings and the gospel of Jesus Christ; we will use Philippians as the key text of interest.
Why focus on Philippians? I have been conducting research on Paul’s letter to the Philippians for the past several years and I didn’t expect to be confronted by emotions as I worked my way through Paul’s words. I knew the book would be gospel-heavy but to my surprise, it’s also emotion-heavy. Paul writes to a community that had gone through many ups and downs. The elation of their new faith meant deep joy and love. But recent persecution and in-fighting brought challenges, suffering, and anxieties. Paul didn’t ignore these feelings. He addressed them head-on. Philippians is often considered one of Paul’s most pastorally sensitive letters, you can sense the authenticity and intimacy in his writing. It is full of pathos. Put simply, it is clear he cared about the condition of their hearts, and this was central to his gospel teaching. (That is a statement, by the way, I would have never written a decade ago.)
Gospel Affections: The Appraisal Theory of Emotions
Okay, let’s say it is true that Paul engages in emotion-oriented discourse in his letters, and especially in Philippians; and let’s say this is part of his apostolic work of “gospeling”—bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to the world, including how he shapes our emotional life. Why? What do our feelings have to do with faith? With God’s formative work in our lives? For a long time, I felt in the dark on how to answer this question. What really brought illumination is when I learned about something called the “Appraisal Theory” of emotions, associated with a 20th-century psychologist Magda Arnold. In brief, this Appraisal Theory acknowledges that emotions are reactions to phenomena (like anger after bad news, or happiness after good news), but on a broader level, Arnold observed that two different people could have completely different emotional reactions to the same phenomenon. For example, I grew up in Ohio where thunderstorms are common, so when I am back in Ohio visiting family, lightning and thunder don’t scare me. I love a good thunderstorm! My children have grown up in the Northwest where thunderstorms are uncommon, so when they encounter them, they are far more terrified. I have certain experiences and values that lead to a different set of emotional responses. Or think about the news of a particular political candidate winning an election. When the results are publicized and final, one voter may be angry, another will celebrate each emotion based on who they voted for. Emotions are tied to beliefs and values that we hold.
The Appraisal Theory doesn’t explain every element of human emotion, and there are detractors of Arnold’s approach. But what I find helpful about it is the idea that, even though we cannot and should not discount emotions or “hold them in,” there is a place to evaluate and process our feelings in terms of how they reflect and derive from our beliefs and values. No emotion should be off-limits, no emotion is inherently wrong. But sometimes certain feelings, especially in extremes, can reflect misplaced attachments or expectations. Let’s turn now to Philippians.
The “Ta” of Life
There is an interesting pattern in the Greek text of Philippians that is not as obvious in English but relates to this conversation about appraising values and our emotional responses. Paul uses the Greek definite article ta (the word “the”) in the plural without a noun—he tends to do this as a generic way of referring to the “stuff” of life. In English translations, we tend to add words to explain what Paul means. So when Paul uses ta, we might add “concerns,” or “business,” or “matters”—I like to just say “stuff.”
Phil 1:12: ta = “my circumstances”
Phil 1:27: ta = “your circumstances”
Phil 2:19a: ta = “your life news”
Phil 2:23: ta = “my circumstances”
Phil 4:18: ta = “stuff”? (NRSV: “gifts”)
A prime example is Phil 2:4: “Let each of you look not to your ta (interests? matters? “stuff?”), but the ta (“stuff”?) of others.” Another is 2:19b: “All of them are seeking after their own ta, not the ta of Christ Jesus”—here again, all that is in the Greek is the word ta which means “the.” You have to fill in the blank of what Paul is referring to— “concerns,” “business,” “worries.” Paul talks like this in other letters too, but the sheer number of times he uses this independent ta form in Phillipians is noticeable. What I gather from this is that he has something to say about “stuff,” how we process the “stuff of life.” As we walk around in life, we carry around (invisibly) our ta. I think part of what Paul is doing in Philippians is helping these believers to think gospel-y about their ta.
To Worry, Or Not?
Let’s talk a little about this ta, this life “stuff.” The truth is, this ta is what makes up our life. Our job, our families, our money, our possessions, our aspirations, our hopes and dreams, our memories. Paul doesn’t discount any of this “stuff.” He doesn’t want believers to be neutral to stuff. To live in the world is to live with stuff. Paul had his own stuff. The way we “gospelize” this is to think and respond properly to this stuff, and to put the most value in the right stuff.
It is inevitable that we are going to care about our stuff and worry about it. Is worrying good or bad? We often hear from pop psychology that worrying is bad. “Don’t worry, be happy.” Right? But worrying is a response to the well-being of our stuff. Shouldn’t we worry about our family’s health and flourishing? Shouldn’t we worry about world peace? The environment? We should. The problem actually comes in (1) worrying about the wrong stuff (don’t I need a second boat?), and (2) becoming overly anxious about our stuff, paralyzed by fear. Paul actually encourages the Philippians to be concerned, to “worry.” But where formation happens is in worrying about the right things in the right way.
It’s kinda funny—Paul tells the Philippians in chapter 4: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). So the message there is—don’t worry! But in chapter 2 he already told them: “I know no one like [Timothy] who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (2:20). The verb for “concerned” (merimnaō) in 2:20 is the same one in 4:6 for “worry.” Make up your mind, Paul! Should I not be concerned about anything? Or should I be concerned, like Timothy? Paul is not contradicting himself. I think he is saying, turn your heart away from worrying too much about the wrong things, and pour yourself into the right things, the stuff of Jesus.
I don’t think that means for Paul that we shouldn’t be concerned about paying off our mortgage, or a sick relative, or global warming, or the economy. It’s not the way of the gospel to be heartless about the lives of the people we care about and the world God created. But we can get wrapped up in pouring our soul into work promotions we don’t need, or luxury items we won’t use. We might care too much to impress our neighbors. We might be trying too hard to change our circumstances or to keep our situation exactly the same. Part of Paul’s message of not worrying about this “stuff” and latching on to Jesus’ “stuff” is maintaining a pliable spirit. Life is going to throw things at you, some good, some bad. Part of the power of the gospel is the ability to build up resilience and maintain a thankful heart, even when low times come.
I don’t know how the Philippians responded to Paul’s letter, but what I have gotten out of it is that the gospel doesn’t wash away our problems. There’s no guarantee of a “hassle-free” life. In fact, Paul tells the Philippians that more gospel = more suffering (1:29). What is promised is that life’s ups and downs, the good and the bad, have purpose and meaning in the gospel economy, and that life lived by faith in Jesus Christ will always move on the path towards God’s good gospel end, even if we cannot see the road ahead right now. We can choose to cling to the stuff that might go away and feel miserable. Or hold lightly to the transient stuff and cling to the stuff that Jesus wants us to care about. One way or another, our lives will have ta. It is only natural our hearts will respond to that ta. Magda Arnold was right—we respond emotionally to what we value. Choosing the good here and now means deciding what ta we will hold on to. So, worry! Paul says. But worry about the right ta, worry well, and worry with joy and hope in Jesus Christ. Let the good news touch and transform your whole being to conform to Christ’s own “gospel affections.”