Emotions and the Image of God: Steadiness or Stoicism?

Emotions and the Image of God: Steadiness or Stoicism? July 19, 2021

Steadiness is not stoicism. I addressed the lack of attention to the emotional facet of our spiritual lives—a critical component to a “steady heart,”—but it might be wise if we considered what indeed a “steady heart” means. My reflections about the neglect of the heart generated a couple of long conversations about feelings. Readers wondered what to do with the wild emotions of real human life. Most of us can’t pull off the ice queen persona.

Life—three-dimensional, non-cinematic, relational life—is, let’s admit, full of chaos. Not all the time, not in every aspect, but in different ways and at different levels for all of us. We feel. Delight, anger, frustration (so, so much), impatience, hatred, amusement, grief, grief, grief, horror, fear, and anxiety. And most of that is by Monday morning.

Some have the mistaken notion that since we are in Christ, we should see everything from the point of view of the risen Lord. God has won the victory! So what business do I have feeling blue, seething with rage, or losing my marbles at the newspaper headlines?? The idea that the peace of Christ—a fruit of the Spirit and thus something we should all expect to find in increasing measures in a healthy spiritual life—precludes the roiling emotions of human life is a lie, a lie that seems to be immortalized in many Christian circles. Good theology does not make everything hunky-dory.

We lie to one another (and to ourselves) when we put on the Sunday morning happy face though our hearts are breaking. We lie to one another (and to ourselves) when we fail to confess the ways our anger has led us into violent words or attitudes or even actions. We lie to one another (and to ourselves) when we pretend that the biopsy with all its possibilities is no big deal. Such lies lead to complete disconnects between our souls and our religious sensibilities, to real depression about our apparent spiritual “failure to thrive,” to rampant hypocrisy, to shame, and, often, to anger with God who seems to expect us to turn into sterile parodies of human life. Is God a stoic replicating stoics?

I Google “stoicism” and I get this:

Meaning #1: “the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.” Similar terms include: fatalism, impassivity, dispassion, imperturbability, unflappability.

Meaning #2: “an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.”

Steadiness is not stoicism. It may be good manners not to let our emotions gush out everywhere all the time; it may be a virtue indeed to choose not to complain. All fine and good. But the idea that our knowledge of God and his goodness makes us indifferent to “the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain” is simply untrue. God himself is full of passion. God is passionately devoted to the salvation of his people; God is passionately devoted to goodness and hates evil with a pure hatred; God is delighted by his beloveds; God is grieved and joyous and loving. We live not in harmony with “divine Reason,” but in harmony with a personal God who, in making us in his image, endowed us with emotions. And those emotions must be in some way a distant echo of the reality of God’s throbbing heart.

Having a steady heart, or experiencing the peace of Christ, does not mean that emotions are always out of bounds, even very strong ones. It does not mean there are bad emotions and good ones. It does not mean that we ignore or override our emotions. It does not mean that if our emotions wildly fluctuate, and involve every hue of feelings, that we’re doomed.

Bernard of Clairvaux taught that there are four primary “feelings”: love, joy, sadness, and fear. Everything else falls somewhere within these primary passions. None of these is out of bounds. We need only read the gospels to see Jesus experience the full range of these feelings. They are all well within the reality of a steady heart.

The question for the spiritual fathers and mothers has always been what to do with our emotions. If we don’t suppress them, vilify them, ignore them, or otherwise dispute the reality of our human nature, what then?


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