The Proper Role of Emotion

In my last podcast I may have given the false impression that I am opposed to emotion, that I think it the enemy—or at least a formidably negative force—to be overcome in the spiritual life or in our pursuit of ways to improve the human condition.  I do not, of course, believe that.  Emotion is not unimportant.  We cannot and should not approach human problems with disembodied intelligence like Dr. Spock or like Sgt. Joe Friday seeking “just the facts.”  Human pain should get our attention and elicit our compassion.

Emotion is ultimately the only thing that motivates us, and a failure to be engaged by the pain of others is a failure at the profoundest level to be human.  Indeed, watching the uneasiness with which even unbelievers regard or avoid the cross, I suspect that more people have been converted by the story of the suffering God hanging on that tree than all the sermons about human sinfulness ever preached.  That portrait of undeserved suffering evokes something very deep in our human nature, deeper even than our need to see ourselves in a particular way.  When someone accuses us—even of something of which we are guilty—our first inclination is to defend ourselves.  The cross reaches out to us through the thoroughly human attribute of our compassion, bypassing our instinctive defensiveness, calling us toward communion with the one who is hurting.

Emotions are how we relate to others as human beings.  It is how we come to see them as subjects to be addressed rather than objects to be manipulated.  In the medical field, there has been a growing body of literature produced by doctors who, after having a turn at being patients and experiencing that unpleasant role in the fast-paced, money-driven world of modern mechanized medicine, are saying we must pay renewed attention to the critical role of the “bedside manner”—a doctor’s human empathy with his or her patients—in the healing process.  In the absence of the societal pressure to remain married that once existed, how many marriages have broken down not because a spouse was abusive, irresponsible, or unfaithful—the classic reasons why couples would divorce—but simply because they were “emotionally distant?”  Their partner no longer felt “connected to them.”  They came to view their partner as a functionary—someone who “job” it was to make them happy—rather than a person whose own humanity called them out of themselves and into communion.  Thus, the invisible psychological break in the relationship became incarnate in court proceedings.

Emotion is what binds us to one another as people.  As surely as the food chain or the water cycle binds together the species of the earth, so we are bound to one another through emotion.  Emotion is what takes us from being merely “people” to becoming “a people.”  Whenever unity is impossible, whenever people are in conflict with each other, those conflicts are at some level founded upon the inability of at least one of the party to empathize with—to put themselves in the place of—the other.  People who can feel no empathy for others we call sociopaths, and we recognize in them the most profound threat to any community’s wellbeing.

“Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself,” says the Golden Rule, and it is not a bad start as a guide for behavior.  Such an ethic can guide our actions and keep us from clubbing one another to death, but it still leaves us milling around as merely a bunch of self-interested individuals.  It cannot forge us into a community—a group whose identity is more than the sum of its parts.  One of the things needed for the creation of genuine community is empathy, the development of deep emotional understanding between people who may have nothing in common externally, but who slowly, through mutual commitment to the process of understanding one another, come to understand the other person at a level deeper than their surface opinions and intellectually held beliefs.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus calls us to just such a deep engagement with the people around us.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He exhorts us.  People who take His words to mean that we are to be kindly disposed toward people who dislike us fail to realize how radical Jesus is here being.  To be sure, the original Biblical word is a verb.  That verb is in the imperative or command tense, and as such, Jesus is directing our actions more than our feelings.  But we would be mistaken if we believe that we have fulfilled the moral implications of Jesus’ command by our mere obedience.  If the testimony of the New Testament catholic epistles (especially 1st John and 1st Peter) are any guide, Jesus’ command here demands of us a far more radical conversion than mere outward conformity to some new set of commands that replaces the Old Testament Law of Moses—even the command to love our enemies.

Have you ever tried to pray for someone who is persecuting you?  Not merely offer words in the form of a prayer, but truly plead for them before the throne of the living God with all your heart as though your very life and theirs was at stake, the way you might at the bedside of a dying loved one?  I have.  Not so long ago, as the dread import of the words I said every time  I mouthed the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” slowly dawned upon me, I began to ask myself who I had at the profoundest level really not forgiven in my life.  As Cheryl Crowe opined in a popular song a few years ago, “the first cut is the deepest,” and as I searched my heart, I realized that the people I had never really forgiven were mostly people I had not seen in thirty years or more, people who dotted the landscape of my childhood memories.

One face came into particularly clear focus as I scanned those recollections.  His name is not important, so for the moment I’ll just call him Joe.  Joe was a bully, a tyrant who plagued my young life from the time I entered kindergarten through at least middle school.  He was good at sports, physically larger than most everyone in our class, and seemed to possess a swaggering confidence that eluded the rest of us gawkish boys.  Many of the boys idolized him and formed a gang of what I liked to think of as sycophants, but who were probably just normal boys hanging out with their friends.  Some of us were less inclined to go along with Joe and let him call the shots, and we were often made to pay for our infidelity.  The things Joe and his cronies did were not particularly horrible, certainly by the standards of a world where school shootings regularly make the news, but they hurt, and they always involved making the person so afflicted feel ashamed, especially in front of their friends or even worse, the girls.

The last face-off I remember having with Joe was—not surprisingly—in the boys’ locker room, the scene of a great deal of adolescent mischief.  Joe was standing just inside the door of the locker room after gym class, behind the modesty curtain, where the teacher could not see him.  As the boys filed into locker room, they had to file past Joe, who used us each in turn to practice his right hook.  His friends and cronies laughed off the treatment, those outside his circle took their lumps and moved quickly to their lockers, hoping to escape that unsupervised room without further abuse.

As my turn in line came up, I watched my classmates in front of me take Joe’s unmerited abuse, and I felt an anger boiling inside of me.  Indeed, even as I recount the story, I can feel it again all these years later.  When my turn came up, I allowed myself to be hit, but did not duck away from the blow or scurry past to my locker.  I just stopped and stared my hatred at him, daring him to hit me again.

In retrospect, the scene must have been rather funny.  He had several inches and at least fifty pounds on me.  He was a well-known athlete in the school and I was an obscure geek.  It must have looked a bit like a mouse trying to scare down a cobra.  However it looked, Joe responded by running away in mock horror, shouting, “Oh no!  Oh no!  Brett’s mad!  Look out, everybody!  Look out!”  The room erupted in laughter.  My ears burned with shame as I was left to take what little consolation I could from the fact that at least the boys behind me in line would not suffer what I was suffering.

I really do not know what happened to Joe.  We had started elementary school together in the academically accelerated track, but by high school, I was taking college prep classes and the grades his dissolute habits produced had put in him constant danger of failing out.  The last I heard, he was serving jail time somewhere, the demons that drove him pushing him on toward destruction.

I on the other hand have a loving wife, two phenomenal children, and a position of responsibility and respect in my community.  I am privileged to serve a wonderful congregation and am blessed with enough material prosperity to be generous to others in need and causes I value.  When I compare my life to Joe’s, I can see how our very different habits and attitudes of the heart have borne their different fruits, and I can see now that I am more blessed in my meekness than he was in his aggressiveness.

So what reason do I have to not forgive him?  “Your anger will not produce God’s righteousness” the Book of James reminds me, and yet I find upon closer inspection that I have nurtured this anger in my heart for many years, preventing me from having the heart of God for Joe.  Indeed, even to the degree that I felt that anger again upon retelling this story, I continue to nurture it, or at least cherish it as “righteous anger” something it is perfectly normal and maybe even good for me to feel if it motivates me to battle injustice whenever I encounter it.

And yet, the words of Scripture remain.  “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” and if I examine my heart and my character, I know this to be true.  If I discovered that Joe was incarcerated at the prison down the road from me, would I go visit him, or would I call upon another pastor to do a job I was not up to?  If I wish to have formed in me the character to minister to someone who shamed me and hurt me as Joe did, I will need to learn to really pray for him.  I will need to let go of my anger and see in him a child who hurt so badly he felt he needed to make others hurt as well in order to have any chance of communion with them.  I will need to learn to see what he saw and feel what he felt in order that I might see him really as another human being.  In short, I will need to have formed in me the character of the One who said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Only the Holy Spirit can form such character in me, and what He requires of me is that I allow Him to do that work.  The refrain of a hymn I have heard more often in Baptist churches than in Lutheran ones says not “I surrender some,” but “I surrender all.”  If I am to have even the hope of the kind of real communion that can heal the deep hurts of this world, I must surrender all my self-righteous grief and my righteous anger in exchange for God’s.  I must be drawn out of myself entirely by the compassion that comes from seeing others not as they see themselves, but as God sees them.  I must surrender my insistence that I am right and cling to the conviction that God is right.

This will not be easy.  As my lingering anger for Joe shows, it will take a great deal of prayer and repentance to pry open the stony fingers of my unconverted heart, fingers that cling ferociously to my status as a victim of injustice and do not let me see my enemy as a victim of injustice as well.  But if I am ever to truly pray for them that persecute me, I must force those fingers open so that my anger may drop away and God may replace it with His own compassion.

This is the proper role of emotion in our spiritual lives:  To have our disordered passions replaced with ones that are in accord with the will of God, emotions that engender community rather than rend the fabric of it, emotions that make us more human in the original sense of that word—“made in the image of God.”  When I consider the disordered state of my heart, the false loves, unjustified anger, and half-formed fears I find there, this may seem like a tall order.  Fortunately, God is up to the job.  “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” says the Lord through His servant Ezekiel: a heart that is soft, a heart that is human, a heart that is beats and responds to the needs of other hearts of flesh, a heart that is capable of communion, a heart that can respond to God.

Praise to you, O Christ.

About Brett Jenkins