Controlling Emotions

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This past Sunday I preached a sermon on affections. My main goal was to communicate how believers can get off the roller-coaster ride of affections and keep a passion for and delight in Christ that runs through our emotions, desires, and will. In my own pursuit of thriving delight I have found my emotions to be a persistent problem area. I have often noticed that my emotions are profoundly linked to and often direct my desires and will for better or worse. In the worse moments–once I’ve come out of my emotional stupor– I often stop and ask, do I have any control over my emotions or am I simply left to deal with what I have?  After asking that question more times than I care to admit, I have come to believe that we do have the ability–in Christ–to control our emotions.

For most of my life I’ve tried to do just that in the wrong manner. I’ve tried to tackle emotions head on. You know, tell yourself to stop being sad, just start being happy, make yourself care more (in retrospect it’s like the emotional equivalent to saying ‘walk it off’). What changed my thinking was a paper written by Jonathan Edwards titled Religious Affections. In his work Edwards points out that emotions have to be tackled from a ground up approach. Mark Talbot illustrates Edwards teaching in the diagram below.

The point of the diagram is to show us that our emotions don’t appear out of thin air. They arise from the beliefs and concerns working in our every day life. Think about the following scenario: I have a loving concern for my wife and daughter. Say you come up to me and tell me both of them have been in a car accident. If I believe you, my concern for my family and belief in the accident will produce emotions like anxiety, fear, desire for their well being, and love. The emotions won’t come from thin air. If I didn’t care for my family, or if I didn’t believe your report, I would not have the same emotions. If what I’m saying is right, our emotions are a window into our deep beliefs and concerns, often revealing things we wish were not there.

What I took from all this was a lesson on how to fight for right emotions. My aim is not to go straight for the wrong emotions; instead, I should be looking at the deep beliefs and concerns that give rise to my undesirable emotions. I truly believe that if you and I have right beliefs about Christ (that he is the most valuable, beautiful, and desirable thing in existence) and right concerns in life (like the realty of eternity and our role in God’s master plan), then right emotions will follow. That’s why the purpose of our church is ‘to know and delight in Christ.’ That order isn’t an accident. We must first know Christ, getting our beliefs and concerns in order, and then we will delight in him. So when you find your emotions are out of order, stop and ask what beliefs and concerns are driving your emotions, replacing anything false with the truth of God’s glorious gospel.

(The diagram was taken from A God Entranced Vision of All Things, p.235, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor.)

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