Emotion and Spiritual Formation

Emotion and Spiritual Formation August 17, 2022

I would not consider myself to be a particularly emotive person. If you were to ask my friends and family, they would likely agree with this assessment. Having said that, I do think the topic of emotions is extremely fascinating.

  • What are emotions?
  • How do they affect our decision-making?
  • Are certain emotive states good or bad?
  • What role do emotions play in the formation of our moral judgments?
  • What role should emotions play in our spiritual formation?

In this article, I want to focus on the last question. What role should emotion play in our spiritual development? This question supposes that they do play a role. It is my aim in this post to elaborate a bit on how emotions can help or hinder our spiritual development.

Eliciting Emotional Responses

In Protestant circles, praise bands have become so polished that attending a church service is the rough equivalent of attending a free concert every Sunday. In Catholic and Orthodox churches, the building, the incense, and the grandeur of the liturgy move more than just the intellect. Music, beauty, and a sense of transcendence are a solid recipe for the arousal of our emotions. Churches know this and they leverage these devices to elicit a response from the congregation.

Having grown up in a charismatic church, I am all too familiar with the use of music and highly energetic sermons to arouse a crowd. I have seen examples of this that seemed to promote healthy spiritual and emotional development. I have also seen examples where music and sermons were used as tools of self-centered manipulation. We see this sort of thing in personality cults and in authoritarian ideologies that are currently in fashion. In these cases, emotional sensitivities are leveraged to bring about some selfish or otherwise misguided goal.

Since our affectivity may be elicited for good or for bad, more discernment on identifying when it’s good or bad is needed.

How Emotion is Leveraged for Bad Ends

To illustrate how emotions can be stirred to bring about nefarious ends, I’ll draw from my experience at a small church in northwestern Iowa. It was here that I started to learn how our passions can be leveraged by others to trick us into thinking we are doing something good, when in fact, we are doing something bad.

Present A Real, But Distorted Good

One of the more appealing features of a charismatic church is its enthusiasm. While some might be immediately repulsed by a show of exuberance, others are forcefully drawn to it. In my youth, I was drawn to it. This was especially the case if that exuberance was directed towards God. And when you think about it, how could it be any other way? If God is the greatest being there is, how could I withhold any measure of enthusiasm for the One who created me, sustains me, and saves me from sin and death?

However, this unreflective mindset set me up for the “good” lure dangled in front of our congregation: Since God is the greatest being, no measure of emotional display is out of bounds. This fine-sounding proposition was a shiny lure that came with a hook.

The hook we found ourselves on was something like this: there was no limiting principle to guide our emotional expression. Any expression, no matter how out of step with the thing that evoked the emotion was acceptable so long as it was “of the Spirit”. This resulted in spirituality being nearly synonymous with displays of passion. On the one hand, the affections can be on full throttle without a limiting principle. On the other hand, rational and critical thoughts and comments were strongly discouraged and shamed. No amount of passionate engagement was enough, and any legitimate criticism (even constructive criticism) was intolerable.

The discouraging of reasoned discourse was animated by another stated good, namely that a more mature Christian knows God intuitively and experientially. Those who use reason and logic use the tools of “this world” and display a shameful lack of faith. Conversely, those who “flow” with the Spirit are true masters of the faith.

How Cults Leverage These

So armed with these two (real but distorted) goods the leaders of the church took full control of the spiritual lives of the congregation:

  1. God is so great that no measure of emotional display is out of bounds.
  2. Christian maturity is found in intuitive/experiential encounters with God, not in the use of reasoned argumentation or speculation.

The distortion of both goods is in their implications. God is good, worthy of worship, above all, etc. But it is not the case that any emotional reaction to this truth is appropriate or good. Mature believers are ones that do have an intuitive and experiential encounter with God, but this doesn’t exclude reasoned argumentation or speculation. The cleverness of the manipulator is in pairing false implications with true claims.

The First Good

In our case, the first “good” oriented our souls to the reactive and ever-changing aspect of our person. This is useful to those who manipulate us because our passions are shaped by the narratives that are embedded in our thinking about the world. Fostering unbridled emotion gives the manipulator insight into the narratives that saturate the souls of the congregation. They can easily spot the phlegmatic naysayer in the crowd and address it at will. Additionally, they can better “read” those who are on board with what they are saying and thus target loyal followers.

What is more, the fostering of unbridled emotion makes us more susceptible to manipulation. When we are in highly emotive states, we are more suggestible and more prone to uncritically accepting things that sound good. Thus the first “good” is useful to the manipulator in at least these two ways.

The Second Good

The second “good” is a restrictive principle. It seeks to restrict spiritual goods to those that are intuitive and experiential. The benefit to the manipulator is clear – abandoning reason is to abandon your defenses against error. Without reason, it is your opinion against the opinion of the spiritual master. And in a cult-like setting, the master always wins. This is a perfect recipe for a cult: foster thinking and acting based on emotion and shame the use of reason.

Diligently Maintain the Narrative

At the church in Iowa, the pastor and his wife gathered together loyal supporters to help them re-enforce the authority of the church leadership. Elders would engage people if they weren’t going along with the program. There was a time when my mother was asked if she agreed with what the pastor said and she calmly replied, “No not really.” My mother’s response was met with immediate anger and accusation. How could she possibly voice disagreement (no matter how modest) while other people were around? She was scolded and accused of having a lack of faith among other things.

Another member of leadership had the job of “praying for the pastor and his wife so that the anointing didn’t leave them as they walked from the church office to the stage”. If anyone interrupted them on the way, they were immediately labeled tools of Satan. Mind you, they weren’t labeled inconsiderate or forgetful, no they were tools of Satan. The narrative of the leadership being spiritual masters, ordained by God, was rigorously enforced. Any criticism along the lines of “Is God’s anointing so weak that talking with the pastor on the way to the stage could rob him of that anointing” was met with stern disapproval. The criticism was dropped, not because the accuser was convinced of the merits of the position advocated by church leadership. It was dropped because it “felt” wrong.

They Must Always Reinforce the Narrative

Since humans are rational, it will be a constant struggle for cultic leaders to keep people from questioning them. There must be a constant reinforcement of “emotion and experience = good” and “reason and criticism = bad”. This is where the skillful manipulative leader leverages his or her reason and social skills to read the audience and regularly address possible criticisms. It is imperative for the leader to draw the congregation back to “good feelings”. They point you to all the good things the church has done for the community. They invest more time in the “worship experience” which feels great and has the added benefit of drawing your attention away from the manipulations of the leader.

Less Obvious Example

In the examples above, the manipulation is relatively clear. But when it comes to emotion and spirituality most errors are more subtle.

Unfortunately, we usually have nebulous ideas about what emotions are and the role they should play in our Christian life. Because of this, we are more susceptible to poor discernment on these matters. Christians see “passionate” as obviously good and then illegitimately adopt the vague notion that “being passionate about God is what it means to be a genuinely deep Christian”. This is an ill-formed notion that once adopted, requires every part of our lives to be infused with some kind of passion. Our new unofficial creed adds “passionately” to everything.

We must:

  • Serve our fellow man PASSIONATELY
  • Read our Bibles PASSIONATELY
  • Evangelize the world PASSIONATELY
  • Write Python code PASSIONATELY
  • Feed our dog PASSIONATELY

If it’s not done with passion, it’s not of God. How incredibly exhausting!

Thinking about Christian maturity in this way can throw off the trajectory of your Christian life and leave you wandering in a sea of unfulfilled longing. Passion isn’t necessarily an indicator that you are spiritually mature or doing something right. Hitler was very passionate and very evil. Beyond that, thinking about the Christian life this way can lead you to think that you aren’t mature or godly unless you have loads of passion. Neither of these notions is true or helpful.

How Emotion is Leveraged for Good Ends

Lest we conclude that emotion is intrinsically bad or that it is only leveraged for nefarious ends, something needs to be said about how they are properly understood and elicited.

Emotions are Good

Life without emotion would be a life that is missing something. Our emotions, moods, and passions contribute something to our quality of life. They are not merely aspects of our person that inhibit reason. They are God-given gifts that enrich our experience of the world. Thus, while I take issue with those who leverage these gifts for personal gain or misguided ideological fervor, I don’t think we should see emotions as inherently bad. Quite the opposite, I take them to be natural and good.

Problems that arise due to the manipulation of our passions don’t imply some kind of per se problem with emotions. However, without some understanding of what it is that perfects the affective aspects of our soul, it is hard to see what we should be doing to develop that part of us.

In general, we have a picture of how intellect and will are developed and perfected. The intellect is perfected by knowing the truth. The will is perfected by willing the good. But how would the emotional life be developed? To answer this, we need to know what emotions are.

What Are Emotions?

While there isn’t a single view on the nature of emotion, I will be working with Dr. Robert C. Roberts’s definition of emotion. He says that emotions are concern-based construals. That is, they are cognitive construals of some situations where that construal is grounded in some concern. For example, an instance of fear might be a construal that someone is going to harm someone or something which concerns you. Your family, for example.

The construal part seems to be a kind of lower-level cognitive narrative that we are either aware of or not aware of at the time. For example, anxiety might be occasioned by your husband’s drunken stupor around your children. But it’s not the drunken stupor itself that causes anxiety, it is the threat it poses to you or your children that produces the anxiety. There is an underlying “danger to myself and those I love” that sets up your disposition for anxiety.

Controlling Our Emotions

If we have some control over what we are concerned about and if we have some control over how we frame or construe events, then we have some means of forging a path toward emotional development. Concerns are usually hierarchical in structure. We are more concerned about saving our lives than we are about ensuring that we see the most recent episode of a TV show. We are more concerned about our kid’s education than we are about the color of our carpet. Even if the color of our carpet is important to us, it shouldn’t be as important to us as our kid’s education.

Maturing Our Emotions

This hierarchy can become disordered. Things that should be of more importance are prioritized under less important things. When this occurs we set ourselves up for potentially violent emotional responses to trivial matters. The path to emotional maturity then begins with getting our concerns ordered in accordance with what is most important. Emotions help us to identify what is higher or lower on the hierarchy of concerns. What we say matters to us and is tested by our emotional reactions. Do I get unreasonably angry when someone snubs me? What concern underlies that affective response and is it properly ordered?

Regarding our construals, if there is some measure of control we have over these low-level narratives that animate our reactions, then perhaps we can have some ability to grow and mature here as well. If I am concerned about the new paint job on my car and I see a group of seemingly unruly teenagers heading towards my car, I can assume the worst about the teenagers which would likely produce a negative emotion. Or when I find myself assuming the worst about a situation, I can be intentional about infusing charity in my characterization of an event. The ladder is one example of how I might make efforts to grow and mature in my emotions.

Emotional Growth as Spiritual Growth

The Christian notion of spiritual development is not less than the proper ordering of our human faculties to their natural ends. The intellect seeks knowledge and is perfected when it discovers the truth. The will seeks the good and is perfected when it readily chooses the good. Emotions are perfected as a byproduct of the proper ordering of the intellect and will. We don’t perfect our emotions directly, rather we mature emotionally by reflecting on our emotions and seeing what proper or improper concern is motivating our reaction. Thus emotions are windows into our soul. They are often more accurate barometers of our spiritual state than what we verbally affirm or deny.

The maturation of the intellect and will are primary and essential for the formation of mature passions. If you skip the development of the intellect and will in search of a “passionate Christianity” then you will spend your life grasping for vague notions of spirituality upon which you can hang your passions. In the end, you will not experience the mature passions that come from rational ordering and willful formation.

What Sort of Emotions To Develop

The sort of emotions produced at concerts and lively worship services are often dramatically different from the sort of emotions produced in normal life. However, your normal “everyday” emotions are usually more accurate indicators of your spiritual state.

The sort of emotions you have in your normal life are precisely the kind that need to be developed and reflected upon in order for you to grow. How angry do I get at my boss for deciding to do something I don’t agree with? What does that reveal about my attitude towards those in authority? What does that reveal about my charity? Do I have any compassion for the lady in my office who just had a fight with her daughter? What does that say about my concern for others? More importantly, what does that say about my concern for this lady in particular?

Your emotions are God-given tools for experiencing the world in a more textured way. But they are also excellent indicators of how badly ordered our desires are. If you do not take time to reflect on how your reactions mirror the state of your soul, then you neglect to leverage the emotions that God has given you. You fail to see the fruit that your emotions are meant to produce. Thus in seeking to be passionate (unnaturally), you neglect the natural and proper use of the passions!

Browse Our Archives