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Emotions and Biblical Counseling

I remember watching Sarah weep. She came from the abortion clinic straight to my office and from what little I understood, she had gotten yet another abortion. “What is wrong with me?!” She threw herself on the ground, wailing in grief. I didn’t stop her.

As Sarah wept on the floor of my dingy Manhattan office, her palpable, overwhelming emotions were warranted. The whole situation was grief-worthy, even if Sarah didn’t yet understand exactly why. So, I got down on the floor and wept with her.

 

The Goal for Emotions

When we do biblical counseling, we deal with the heart: the cognition, affections and will of our counselees. While it can be tempting for us to perhaps focus chiefly on the will (what can they do to follow Jesus more faithfully) or the cognition (what can they think to follow Jesus more faithfully), the overflow of faithfulness will be displayed in bearing God’s image with appropriate emotions. When Christians believe God’s Word and are changed by it unto faithfulness, emotions will be wisely and biblically explored and expressed.

Sometimes in counseling, we misconstrue God’s goal for emotions. We promote pleasant emotions rather than godly emotions, controlled emotions rather than faithful emotions.

Jesus manifested perfect emotions. Like him, Christians should neither disregard nor over-esteem emotions. When we counsel one another, we have a unique opportunity to lead others in imitating Christ with our emotions by feeling them under the authority of God’s Word. Jesus’ perfection did not negate his emotions; it enhanced them. He experienced and expressed perfect emotions that flowed out of a perfect knowledge of his Father. To follow him in feeling faithfully we need to remember three things.

 

Emotions are a gift.

When we encounter strong emotions in ourselves and others, we can be tempted to stifle or ignore them out of fear of what they might mean. In doing so, we can fall into the lie that cognition is good and emotions are bad; cognition, we feel, we can control. This is a false dichotomy and will hurt us in the counseling room. Ignoring our emotions will not make us godlier, it will make us less human and therefore less like Christ. Far from being a hindrance to our faith, emotions help us image God (Gen 1:26-27), having them is a human privilege. Our emotions are a gift because they help us be the relational knowers and lovers of God and others; in other words, they are an expression of Christlikeness.

 

God’s Word is the baseline for all emotions.

If emotions are a gift then like all gifts, we must look to God to understand how to steward them.

Not all emotions honor God. Not all emotions are good. We should strive to feel congruently with God’s emotions.

God displays a wide range of perfect emotions throughout Scripture. We read about Jesus having compassion, rejoicing and grieving with those he loved (John 11:35). Jesus pleads with God when he doesn’t want to do something, but chooses trust over rebellion (Matt 26:42). We also read about God the Father exhibiting anger, love, hate and joy (Ps 7:11; 134:14; Gen 6:6; 1 John 4:8; Zeph 3:17). Therefore, every human made in his image should expect to have these emotions. But as imitators of Christ, our goal should be to then wield them to display God’s glory.

The Bible is truly brilliant. It provides stability in God’s perfect steadfastness. God is steadfast in every situation, showing his emotions to be steadfast in every situation. We then can be emotionally stable as we imitate him. Christians should help one another exhibit emotions, never hide them. There is no fear in exposing wrong emotions because exposing them is what helps us uncover wrong thinking. When we help counselees express their emotions, we use God’s faithful Word to determine if they are right or wrong (Rom 12:2). When we bring our thoughts in alignment with God’s Word, our emotions rightly flow out of the Christian’s biblical reality.

 

Right emotions bring glory to God.

When our emotions flow out of truth, they bring glory to God. We weep with those who weep and rightly rejoice with those who rejoice. When we behold God’s glory, we become more like him and reflect him. This includes our emotions. Emotions do not control the Christian. When our hearts are rightly worshipping God, so our emotions will follow. There is eternal significance to this because Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Heb 1). When we submit our thoughts and emotions to glorify God, it enables us to then function as Jesus functions.

When Sarah came into my office that day, I was glad she was weeping. Not because I liked what she had done. I hated it because God hated it. But, I rejoiced in the fact that she was miserable so it would deter her from continuing down the same path. Sin produces misery that deserves weeping. Sarah’s sin and unhappiness deserved weeping.

As we continued to meet Sarah worked hard to figure out what led her to make sinful decisions. And when she did, she kept weeping, but why she wept changed. Her emotions went from worldly sorrow to godly sorrow as she aligned her heart with the truths of God’s Word (2 Cor 7:10). As her weeping continued from session to session, we slowly explored the thoughts leading her emotions and I was given the distinct privilege of watching Sarah’s heart miraculously shift to be more like Christ in its sorrows.

If you would like more information on handling emotions in counseling, join us for the ACBC Annual Conference in October, where Rebekah Hannah will be teaching a breakout session on this topic.

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Rebekah Hannah
Rebekah Hannah is an ACBC certified counselor on staff at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling at First Baptist Church Jacksonville with more than ten years of counseling experience. She received her Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Following the completion of her degree, Rebekah served Drs. Stuart Scott and Heath Lambert in various counseling entities, supervised counseling students at SBTS, and taught women’s ministry courses at Boyce College. Rebekah came to Jacksonville from Columbia University in New York City where she served as a Women's Ministry Fellow for Christian Union. Originally from Texas, Rebekah is married to Andrew and has three daughters.
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  • Jerra Dooley
    July 22, 2017

    This is such a good reminder to counselors who have the spiritual gift of encouragement. When a counselee comes in with tears and agony, we need to discover the cause before we jump to soothe them into feeling better. There is an appropriate time for tears of sorrow and as your article states. We need to help the counselee understand what God says through Scripture regarding how to address the situation. This is what true encouragement is – edification in the Word that leads to obedience followed by God’s favor (blessing).

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