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What Aquinas Can Teach Us About Shepherding Sufferers

Theological insights on the nature of human emotion and how to interpret it.
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What Aquinas Can Teach Us About Shepherding Sufferers
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Lucas Sankey / Unsplash / Wikimedia commons

When I was ten, I remember my dad offering his hand to a man who resolutely put his hands behind his back. The man was a former member of our church who was angry at my father.

This uncomfortable scene taught me about what it means to be a pastor. I remember my dad explaining to us without bitterness why the man was angry. He did it in such a way that helped us see this man’s pain.

There is a common saying in psychology that behind anger there is fear, and we might add, behind fear there is pain. I observed in my dad a healthy capacity to reevaluate someone’s anger as pain. My dad didn’t take the man’s emotion as clearheaded judgment against himself. Instead, he chose a perspective that opened up the possibility of empathy.

In this cultural moment, we are engulfed by anger, fear, and pain—and pastors are no exception. Our calendars are filled with a steady stream of angry people. This is exhausting. It is all too easy for us to internalize their anger or to view them as deliberately fractious. But this is a mistake. When charged with negligence over the illness of Lazarus, Jesus replied to Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:21–23). He saw the pain underneath the rebuke.

We all need some help understanding the jumbled emotions of our people and of our own hearts. How can we shepherd angry, anxious, or hurting people? One theologian has taught me more about how to shepherd sufferers than any other: Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas is perhaps a surprising source because he is primarily known for his fine theological distinctions rather than for his pastoral heart (although G. K. Chesterton attributed both to him, writing that Aquinas “inhabited a large heart and a large head”). What Aquinas chiefly offers us is clarity about the nature of emotion and about how to interpret it.

Aquinas had several insights about human emotion that can help us in our pastoral work. To begin, he emphasized that human emotion is always embodied. He insisted that we cannot truly understand the internal dynamics of anger, fear, or inner pain without understanding the body. Further, Aquinas emphasized that emotion does not operate on a deliberate, conscious level like thinking and choosing do. Emotion involves unconscious reactions and ways of seeing.

Emotions Are Embodied

What does it mean to be anxious? My heart is racing; my stomach is upset. My mind is whirling with negative possibilities. Are the feelings anxiety? Or are the thoughts? Does my body determine whether I am anxious, or does my mind?

Thomas Aquinas says that both are a part of my anxiety. He argues in his Summa Theologica that our souls are responsible not merely for thinking but for life itself and all its capacities. The soul is the “first principle of life” in all living things. All our powers flow from a body-soul union, from our digestive or healing powers to our emotional and perceiving powers to our thinking and choosing capabilities. We are holistic beings.

So anxiety, for example, is a movement of the soul that comes “through a bodily change.” In Aquinas’s view, we must not separate the body and soul—and neither alone makes an emotion.

For this reason, poor health of the body affects emotions like a leaky carburetor affects how a snowblower runs. But unlike a snowblower, the body is continually remaking itself. Our thoughts, actions, and experiences form habits that contribute to future emotional states. Further, our bodies form habits through our neurological pathways and our hormonal climates.

As a pastor, I need to remember that emotion is not the same as deliberate action. When we confuse the two, we assume that people have more immediate control over their feelings than they actually do. Emotional habits are the accumulated embodied responses to what a person has been thinking, hearing, seeing, and experiencing over time. They arise from the mysterious interplay of nature, nurture, and agency. This full-body reaction of emotion can affect how someone experiences all of life. Neurological chemicals also color a person's perspective, for good or for ill. Acknowledging the role the body plays in emotion can help a pastor respond with compassion to someone who is overwhelmed.

Emotions Have Their Own Logic

My palms are sweating, but I am firmly locked into the roller coaster by a sturdy, over-the-shoulder harness. I know that I am fine, but does my body know it? How is it possible for me to disagree with my body about my danger? The body must have its own logic.

Thomas Aquinas helps us understand our internal conflict—how we can feel something while at the same time rejecting that feeling. In Summa Theologica, he distinguishes between two forms of judgments we make: the “quick judgment” of the body and our rational judgment. We might call these perceiving and thinking. This is similar to his distinction between emotions and choice. The truth is that most of our emotional reactions come from unconscious perceptions.

This is why emotions often seem to happen to us. For example, when we see an angry and aggressive face, we do not think, This person might be a danger to me. We simply feel afraid. When traumatized people are triggered by an experience, they do not think, Is it rational for me to have a panic attack right now? They simply experience it.

As a pastor, I need to remember that perception also is not deliberate action. It helps to distinguish between automatic, unconscious thoughts people may have and their reflective, conscious thoughts.

Emotions Respond to Experience

Human beings are both like and unlike Pavlov’s dogs. Yes, sweet or savory food can make us salivate. But we also can react to complex stimuli like the prospect of going to the gym. How do we come to feel positively about the gym? It is not merely by talking to ourselves about it. It is also by experiencing the gym—perhaps through personal fitness or being part of the gym community. Experience can form our desires.

In Summa Theologica, Aquinas emphasizes that our emotions respond directly to concrete objects and that we learn experientially from these objects. For example, we learn fear of burns by touching a hot stove. As a result, our emotional formation depends partly on our actions and partly on our thinking.

Our words frame our experiences, and our experiences give our words emotional content. Telling myself The spider is not dangerous is not enough to change my emotion about it. My emotion changes when I act on that belief by picking the spider up without harm. Experiences teach us.

As a pastor, I need to remember that the lessons people learn by experience may be wounding or healing. For example, experience may have taught a church member that men or fathers or pastors are not to be trusted. This member may react to your shepherding in ways that are consistent with her past experience and have little to do with you. Understanding the wounds of experience can open up a pastor’s compassionate curiosity toward the sufferer.

But a sufferer may also find healing through the experience of spiritual life in the body of Christ. A church community has a role to play in sanctification and healing. The body of Christ ministers the nourishment of its Head by the gifts his Spirit supplies (Rom. 12:3–8; Eph. 4:11–16; Col. 2:19). The liturgy also teaches the body about death and resurrection in Christ and about constant dependence on spiritual nourishment from Christ.

God’s Healing Presence

There is a final way that Aquinas can teach us to help sufferers. I have learned from Aquinas that real healing and joy comes primarily through communion with God. Communication is for communion. As helpful as it may be to understand ourselves and our pain, ultimately joy comes through the presence of the Beloved.

All humanity is estranged from God and hungers for the source of all goodness and joy. Aquinas puts it this way in a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “The ultimate perfection, by which a person is made perfect inwardly, is joy, which stems from the presence of what is loved. Whoever has the love of God, however, already has what he loves, as is said in 1 John 4:16: ‘whoever abides in the love of God abides in God, and God abides in him.’ And joy wells up in this.”

For Aquinas, humanity’s great hope is that Jesus brings us into the triune fellowship. Jesus’ incarnation, life, suffering, death, and resurrection restore us to our Beloved. By taking on flesh, “the impassible God suffers and dies,” uniting us with himself in his death and resurrection, Aquinas writes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. And in Christ, we also have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit heals our emotions by his presence and by his gifts. Aquinas says, “The Holy Spirit dwells in us through love.” This love heals and orients our emotions.

Good pastoring models and ministers God’s presence. We meet the sheep where they are, often lost, angry, and afraid. And we lead the sheep to the Shepherd who is gentle and humble in heart (Matt. 11:29). This Shepherd gives a Comforter who groans with us, interceding for us (Rom. 8:23, 26–27).

God is, we might say, a non-anxious presence for us in our need. Aquinas teaches us that God enters into fellowship with us not to fill some deficiency in himself but to strengthen us. We are meant to experience goodness and wholeness in him. Aquinas writes in Summa Theologica, “God intends only to communicate his own perfection [to us], which is his goodness.”

As we minister Christ’s gifts to his flock, we need to embody his gentle and humble wisdom that is “pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). We can do this through nondefensive, compassionate, and curious listening even in the face of emotions like anxiety and anger. We comfort the afflicted “with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).

Aquinas helps us comfort others well by teaching us wise questions: How is the body involved in this emotion? What judgments are being made automatically? How has experience taught this person to make these judgments? Ultimately these questions enable us to lead sufferers gently into God’s presence, both now and for eternity. For one day, God “will dwell with them. … ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:3–4).

Matthew LaPine is the author of The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology. He’s pastor of theological development at Cornerstone Church and lecturer at Salt Network School of Theology in Ames, Iowa.

[ This article is also available in Português. ]

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