Emojis. I love them. Thumbs up, thumbs down, cry-laughing, heart-eyes, blowing my top: They are so handy and expressive! Most of us have over 90 facial-expression emojis on our phones, all meant to communicate how we’re feeling with one tap of a button.
I love being able to express any emotion without actually having to verbalize it. Don’t you? After all, why take time to describe how I feel when “smiling-face-with-happy-hands” says it so perfectly and (more importantly) with such ease. Clearly, the developers of our smartphones knew something of the cauldron of emotions stirring within us. And they knew, intuitively, that we would want a simple and satisfying way of expressing them.
But sometimes, of course, our emotions are confusing, unsettling, or intense enough to defy easy expression. King David once asked, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Ps. 42:5). In their new book, Untangling Emotions, J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith set out to uncover the nagging questions underneath our emotions, the ones that keep us clicking on that crying face or the angry one with symbols over the mouth. Questions like, Why am I feeling like this? or How can I stop? They want us to know why Christians struggle with understanding their emotions and engaging with them in a productive way.
Good to Feel Bad
Believers are often tormented by an inner voice that says, If I’m a Christian, shouldn’t I be joyful? Don’t my negative emotions prove that my faith is flawed?
Not so, say Groves and Smith, two experienced counselors affiliated with the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Emotions—even the unpleasant ones—are a good gift from a loving God. “Our emotions,” the authors write, “are one of the most common and commonly misunderstood opportunities in our lives to grow in maturity and love.” Rather than ignoring our fear, anger, grief, guilt, or shame, we should focus on what those emotions reveal: first, about God and what he loves, and second, about us and what we love. “The way you respond to your emotions, including how you feel about how you feel,” write Groves and Smith, “is of vital importance to your relationship with God and others in your life.”
Untangling Emotions contains three main sections. The first helps explain the complexity of our emotions and demonstrates how, surprisingly, it might be good to feel bad. It also addresses the confusion that arises from the fact that emotions rarely arrive alone and are tied so closely to our bodily state. The second section teaches us how to respond to our emotions—how to bring them before God and share them with friends and loved ones. In the final section, the authors offer guidance on how to engage our most common and troubling emotions. Every chapter ends with reflection questions for individuals facing their own emotional difficulties, as well as a section for those who are seeking to help others.
I found Untangling Emotions hopeful, helpful, and wise. It was hopeful, in that it showed me how my experience of negative emotions can be instructive when I’m motivated to ask myself penetrating questions. One such question—What am I loving right now?—helps me identify the idols that I am striving to protect or seeking to attain. Very often, these idols are at the root of unwelcome feelings that oppress us.
When struggling with difficult emotions, it is surprisingly hopeful to realize that they’re flowing out of a heart full of disordered loves, rather than some fixed aspect of personal history or biology. These factors play a role, of course. But if the primary mover of my emotions is disordered loves, then I can hold out for my emotions to change precisely because my loves can change.
A Better Balance
For me, the book really broke out of its expected mold when it taught me to ask, What does this emotion tell me about the character of God, in whose image I have been made? Can our fear, sorrow, or anger really teach us something about the nature of divine love?
Let me offer an example. One morning, not long ago, I recognized that I had been short with my husband the day before because he had changed his mind about attending an event that was important to me. As I would normally do, I began asking myself, What is it that I’m loving more than my husband? I realized that I was overly concerned about my reputation as a person who is theologically adept—something that my attendance at this event would confirm. I could see how my love of truth resulted in anger toward him, and I repented.
But this further question—What does my current emotional state tell me about God?—offered a comforting surprise. I realized that my love of truth was really a good thing, a gift from the God who also loves truth. This wasn’t the problem. Instead, the problem was that I loved truth more than I loved my husband. That thought prompted a time of prayer, during which I asked God to help me be more like Jesus, who loved truth without sacrificing love for other human beings. Knowing that my anger, sinful though it was, had roots in a godly desire to love truth, I was able to boldly engage it and seek to respond in faith. This included having a serious conversation with my husband, expressing my gratitude for his love and loyalty and resolving to strike a better balance between love and truth in my own life. The description of Jesus in John’s gospel—that “grace and truth came through [him]” (1:17)—came alive for me in a new way.
Groves and Smith avoid superficial antidotes or empty pleas for mere behavioral change as they encourage their readers in wisdom. Their book is deeply relationship driven, with its primary goal of furthering our love for God and neighbor always at the forefront. The authors pray that “as you read this book God would nurture your emotional life in the midst of the real and troubling problems in the world around you and the real and perfect promises of God.”
If you’re interested in understanding your emotions or in helping others with theirs, then Untangling Emotions should prove a very helpful read. As we learn not to deny, ignore, or hide from our emotions, we’ll learn more about the God who has created us in his image and the neighbors he has called us to love.
Elyse Fitzpatrick is a certified biblical counselor, a frequent conference speaker, and the author of more than 20 books on Christian living.