MAT 2021 / A Hermeneutic of Emotions

Greetings! You’ve found your way here from the 2021 Ministering In An Age of Trauma Conference (2021-06-19). Glad you’re here. This is a page of support resources for my talk called:

Destroyed for Lack of Knowledge: The Desperate Need for a Hermeneutic of Emotions.

The Premise & Definitions

All of us come to ministry with pre-existing assumptions and expectations about emotions. The people you serve in ministry are no exception. Many of them are coming with beliefs about emotions that are just not true. These pre-existing ideas shape how they hear you, interact with your ministry, as well as how they see themselves, others, and God.

As a metaphor, I’ve borrowed from Biblical studies the concept of Hermeneutics. In Biblical studies, a hermeneutic is the set of assumptions one brings to the text that inform the way the text is read and interpreted. One’s hermeneutic shapes the way one reads and applies scripture.

In much the same way, we each have a “hermeneutic of emotions” that shapes how we experience and relate to our emotions and the emotions of others. If we are going to minister well in an age of trauma, we have to understand this, and come prepared to help people develop a more helpful, more accurate hermeneutic of emotions.

The Parade of Myths About Emotions

This is an incomplete list of common misconceptions, misunderstandings, and outright myths that people you work with may hold about emotions, as well as a healthier replacement. I’ll include links to helpful resources for each.

Some of the resources are things I’ve written, but I’ve also tried to give you other original sources for further study.

#1 Emotions Always Lie

#2 Emotions are Transient and Subjective

  • Not true. Emotions have real meaning. Ignoring them is just as effective as ignoring the check engine light on your car, with similar outcomes.
    • (Book) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, By Daniel Goleman. This is a classic in the field, and would be helpful to anyone wanting to grow in this area of life.
    • (Book) The Emotions, By Dr. Robert Plutchik. This is the seminal academic work where Plutchik laid out his model of understanding emotions. Definitely not for everyone!

#3 Logic is superior/more mature/more spiritual than emotion.

  • Not true. The way your brain works, it is literally impossible for you to experience the world or make a decision without your limbic system being involved, which means, emotions are a part of every decision. Even the ones you think are based on data and logic.
    • (Book) Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart, by Matthew Elliot. This is a book that was recommended to me, when I was in deeply painful places, and it was one of the influences that started me on the journey of learning about emotion in scripture.
    • (Book) Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament, by Matthew Elliot. Feel, the book I recommend above, is a popular treatment of the subject that will work for most every reader. Faithful Feelings, on the other hand, is a bit more academic. If you’re wanting to study the topic deeply, I recommend this one too.

#4 Emotions are temptations, the influence of Satan.

#5 Following emotions always leads to sin.

  • Not true. Because of the way your brain works, emotions are a part of every decision. So, if you choose to do sinful things, your emotions played a part. If you choose to do Godly things, your emotions played a part. There are no saints who followed God well strictly on the basis of propositional truth and unemotional obedience. That’s not a real thing.
    • (Book) The Feeling Brain by Johnston & Olson. Not a Christian text that speaks to the issue of sin, but an accurate and accessible scientific text that explains how feelings work in the body and the brain. Once you understand the limbic system, you have to rethink your theology about emotions.

#6 God Isn’t Emotional.

  • Not true. The Bible drips with emotional language when describing God, and if we must interpret all that emotional language anthropomorphically (which I dispute), we cannot escape Jesus’ words that if we’ve seen him, we’ve “seen the Father.” Jesus was incontrovertibly emotional.
    • (Book) Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels, by Stephen Voorwinde. This is an academic treatment of the subject that is thorough. If you’re wanting to really capture the full topic with some deep study, go here.
    • (Books) Both Feel and Faithful Feelings, which I linked in Myth #3 above address this topic at length and with ample scripture.
    • (Book) God is Impassable and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion. By Rob Lister. This is definitely a book by a theologian, and so not every reader will find it easy reading. But this is a great discussion of the issue I raised about the “impassability of God” and the clear presentation in scripture of God’s emotions.

#7 Becoming More Spiritual Means Becoming Less Emotional

#8 Emotions are Gendered.

  • Not true. All humans have access to all emotions. Emotions are a bodily experience and simultaneous mental interpretation of that experience. Nothing about that belongs to gender.
    • (Blog) The Chapter I Forgot to Write. While the limbic system of men and women function in the same way. No emotion is stronger for either gender in general, although specific individuals based on their own wiring and live experiences may feel certain emotions more or less deeply. Our culture has assigned gendered meaning to emotions, at great cost to all of us. This article talks about that distinction.
    • (Study) Are women more emotionally expressive than men? This article talks about a study that points out the complexity of this issue. Because of deep enculturation around certain emotions, men and women do express them differently, but this is not a matter of biology. It is a matter of cultural training.

#9 Showing Emotions Is Weak.

#10 Talking about past trauma is just a victim-mindset and doesn’t allow us to move on.

#11 Having feelings like anger, sadness, or uncertainty shows a lack of faith.

#12 If I have faith, God is going to heal my emotional pain.

  • Neither of these is true. Having those feelings shows that you are human. Faith is how you trust God in the midst of such experiences. Emotional discomfort is part of how we grow. More often than not, God works in and through our pain.

Resources to Help you Make Progress.

Here are some additional resources that may be of help.

  • Additional Books.
    • Everything by Dan Allender is helpful. To be told, is a great starting point.
    • Leading with a Limp, (Also Allender) talks about the implications of your story on your leadership. This is one of the best books on leadership ever, and that is specifically the case because it comes from the angle of weakness, and emotional growth.
    • The Healing Path (Also Allender) is another of his that is excellent. 
    • Outgrowing the Pain by Eliana Gil focuses specifically on people dealing with trauma in their early life. For a more conservative Christian friendly angle