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Emotions as Vital Indicators

Truth in Love 301

What we feel is a direct result of what we think.

Mar 8, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I am so grateful for a couple of gentlemen, who I have loved building relationships with—Dr. Sam Stephens here in the office at ACBC (he’s our Director of Training Center Certification) and then also a special guest, Dr. Nic Ellen who serves as Professor of Biblical Counseling at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston. He also helps us here at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaching as an adjunct. I look forward to their conversation on this very interesting, and often maybe even controversial, topic on the emotions. We all have them, we all wrestle with them. Listen in as Dr. Stephens and Dr. Ellen discuss these vital parts of our humanity.

Sam Stephens: Well, Nic, it is so great to have you on the Truth in Love podcast, brother. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to catch up, so I’m glad to have you with us today. 

Nicolas Ellen: Good to see you brother.

Sam Stephens: And this is a really important topic. This is one that we get requests about all the time from our certified counselors, because I think it’s something that we see in the counseling room all the time. It’s something that’s part of our normal existence, our life. Emotions. How do we think about emotions? How do we help people think about emotions? Interestingly enough, I find that it can also be kind of a controversial topic a little bit depending on perspectives and approaches. 

Nicolas Ellen: That is so true. 

Sam Stephens: I think a great way to get the ball rolling on covering a big topic like this would be, first off let’s define our terms. We learn this in the PhD world, right? Define our terms. What are we talking about? How would you define emotions? What are emotions? 

Nicolas Ellen: Well, there’s a Latin word called emovere. “E” meaning out and “movere” meaning to stir up. Together, emotions will be the stirring up of one to a particular action. That action could be negative or positive, but the latin emovere means to stir up. If we were to think about emotions, we would say that it is the interexperience that stems from attitudes that stirs you to a particular action or response.

Sam Stephens: I think it’s really important to define emotions this way because I think there’s almost a mystical approach to emotions. Most people think about emotions as something that happens to them. We talk about waves of anxiety—something from the outside coming in. But what you’re talking about is, at least from a definition standpoint, and I think you would probably say as we understand this topic biblically, it’s actually quite the opposite, right? It’s something that’s coming from the inside.

Nicolas Ellen: Absolutely. When you think about the fact that we are created in the image of God and when you think about prior to Jesus Christ taking on the form of a man, again being the second part of the Trinity, “let us make man in our image.” Well, when you study Scriptures, it’s clear that God had emotions. Those emotions, not the physiological pain and pleasure, but just the emotions—sadness, joy, anger—those are things that come from the heart. When you look at man being made in the image of God, you can see that we have the same emotions. The fact that they are something that are coming not from just the experience, but the thought processes of the human heart, I mean that is incredible because that gives us a lot of responsibility as well as a lot of power with God to begin to exercise what the Scripture calls self-control. 

Sam Stephens: I think that’s really important too. We always really emphasize this in biblical counseling; when we engage the problems that people are coming to counseling with—I know in talking to you, Nic, this is a big part of your model in biblical counseling—we need to be using biblical terminology and concepts. But I find that, especially in a lot of psychological parlance and a lot of the language used, we have things like emotional wellness, emotional intelligence. That can be very confusing for a lot of people, especially if there is a lack of self-control maybe in their lives where they feel pushed and pulled and controlled by their emotions. 

What you’re saying is, especially with the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we have responsibility regarding our emotions. You brought up the idea of thoughts. How does that interrelate? The idea of thinking well, thinking rightly, taking thoughts captive perhaps and emotions—how do those relate to one another? 

Nicolas Ellen: Well, one of the beautiful things, if you study the Old Testament to the New Testament, there is nowhere what God is telling you to take your emotions captive. He’s telling you to take your thoughts captive. Even when you look at a book like Corinthians or Hebrews, when it says “judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” it never says “judges the emotions.” The reality is when I am feeling something in my soul, that is the direct result of what I am thinking in my soul. Therefore, the more I get a handle of my thoughts, my emotions will follow my thoughts. 

The sad part is for many people, they hear that and they say, “Well, are you telling me that it’s wrong to feel?” No, we’re not talking about what you’re experiencing as the emotion, we’re talking about the origin of the emotion and how one can begin to understand them and address them in a God-honoring way. You’re feeling sad. There’s no sin in being sad, but when you move from sadness to a deep disdain and just completely out of it, it’s not that your emotions went out of control, your thought processes and what you were looking at, you stop looking at the sovereignty, the sufficiency, the wisdom of God in your thought processes of sadness and now it’s gone to a different level. Your emotions are exposing the attitudes of the soul that need to be addressed. 

Sam Stephens: I’m sure you probably have already read this, but I would encourage our listeners if they haven’t read A. Craig Troxel’s book With All Your Heart, I’d highly recommend that. It’s an excellent book that’s not necessarily explicitly about emotions, but it is. It’s a book answering the question, “How do we understand the heart biblically?” It’s exactly what you said, Nic. The modern idea of our cognitive life, what we think and our feelings and emotions, those are not enemies. Those are not in conflict. They’re actually one and the same. They are partners together. I think what you said is exactly right; they flow out of that.

I love that in the Scriptures, you hear about what is it that God expects of us. How do we love God? Well, it’s by obeying Him and obedience is submitting our will to Him. It’s all kind of wrapped up together. That’s extremely helpful as we engage with people who are coming in a very vulnerable place—confusion, hurt, anger. There’s a whole spectrum of different emotions. Would you say that for the biblical counselor, is it necessarily important for us to try to categorize a particular emotion? How do we engage people in a helpful way as they’re in the midst of a certain emotional situation?

Nicolas Ellen: I think the key is to learn to evaluate the emotions that a person is experiencing, to begin to look at the window of the belief systems, the window of the desires, the window of disappointments, the devastations—all that’s happening. This isn’t a chance to try to get them to get a hold of their emotions; it’s the check engine light of the soul for us. As a good biblical diagnostic comes together for any biblical counselor, emotions are a wonderful diagnostic of the soul. Not necessarily something to challenge in the moment, but something to explore in the moment so that we can identify, “Do we need to apply encouraging or helping in such a manner where we’re dealing with the sufferer? Or is this something where we need to be confronting one in sin?” We’re going to have to do both/and; emotions helps us to determine—this is a time to be like Job’s friends before they started talking.

Sam Stephens: That’s a good example!

Nic Ellen: Or this is a time for us, with these emotions being revealed, to lovingly confront something given the fact that these emotions are revealing an agenda, or desires that may not be in line with God’s will. Emotions are a wonderful tool of evaluation for a biblical diagnostic.

Sam Stephens: This leads to the next question, and you’ve kind of already touched on this, but obviously we are made in the image of God, as you said, and therefore we are responsible before our Creator. Are we responsible for our emotions? How will God judge emotions and situations in which there’s some sinfulness. There’s some sinful thinking that’s leading to emotional responses that are not glorifying God. Where does all this come into play regarding God’s role in this? 

Nicolas Ellen: When we think about emotions stirring up the heart, emotions don’t do that on their own. The emotions are a by-product of our thoughts. What we’re going to discover is it’s not the emotion that God’s going to judge. It’s the thoughts that created the emotion and our reactions too, is where God is going to hold us accountable. The reality is it’s not that the emotions are standalone in and of themselves, but if I’m feeling hatred towards you my brother, it’s because I’ve got a hatred attitude that needs to be renewed. If I respond to you in that hatred, yes those emotions are there, but the emotions are a by-product of what I’m thinking, which led to my action. I’m going to have to confess and repent of the way I handled you. My thought processes and my emotions again are a check engine light—kind of like the old show, “Danger Will Robinson, danger!” Some people are like, “What is the world he talking about?” Google it! It’s the old show, Lost in Space.

Sam Stephens: That’s helpful. We’re approaching this from a very practical perspective because even a topic like this, everything in the Scriptures is practical. What are some implications for us as biblical counselors as we have now come to understand very simply that emotions are responses of the heart, coming forth from our perspectives, our situations or circumstances in our life. As we seek to understand emotions this way, Nic, what are some of the implications that we can glean as biblical counselors, as we engage people that are struggling with various emotions?

Nicolas Ellen: Well, let me state the positive because again when I teach this (what I’m about to share) I get a lot of hate mail, I get a lot of anger and emotions from people because they’re thinking I’m taking something and I’m going a way that I shouldn’t go. But if my motions are by-product of my thinking, by-product of my conscience bearing witness, and I experience those emotions—if that’s a by-product, then there’s no such thing as damaged emotions. Emotions aren’t damaged, they are doing their job. They are exposing what’s happening in my soul—my desires, my disappointments, my belief systems. Emotions aren’t damaged, so therefore my goal is to evaluate from what’s happening, what’s going on in the process of thinking.

For a lot of people they find that offensive because they think that I’m minimizing emotions. I’m not minimizing emotions, nor am I minimizing the damage that people bring to us by their verbal and physical harm, but the beauty is your emotions aren’t damaged. They’re exposing how you’re processing what’s happened to you. With that implication, we can stop trying to help people fix damaged emotions, because they’re not damaged and help people rethink the process of what happened to them, how to reinterpret, how to embrace the sovereignty of God, how can we encourage them through their pain and support them, and how we can help them be renewed afresh through God’s power. That’s one implication.

Here’s another one that—again, I’m going to get stoned for this one—you can’t hurt my feelings. “Wait a minute. My feelings get hurt all the time.” Yes, your feelings are hurt, but that’s not the person that’s doing that. That’s how you are interpreting what they’ve said. I’m not minimizing that your feelings are hurt because they do get hurt, but I have to take ownership when you “hurt my feelings,” what you’ve done is disappointed my expectations. And because you’ve disappointed my expectations, I have now a response in my own heart to the disappointed expectations, which are the feelings of hurt. But here’s a spoiler alert: Who set the expectations? I did. 

What I tell people is when you lower your expectations and raise your love, you will discover that your emotions, your sense of well-being, it starts to change. Your feelings aren’t hurt as much. Why? Because you changed your expectations because you control that. Now, I get a lot of hate mail about that, but I’m saying if emotions come from our thinking, how can you hurt my feelings? How can you damage my emotions? 

Sam Stephens: Let me ask you this, from your years of pastoral ministry, why is it that we would get pushback from people in bringing this up? Why is it that that feelings and emotions are so central to the way we think as a culture and as a people, do you have any thoughts on that? 

Nicolas Ellen: I think it’s because to hear me say that, you’re assuming that I’m minimizing your pain. Or you’re assuming that I am discarding what someone has done to you. I’m not minimizing your pain or discarding; I’m trying to help you learn how to process it, to understand your emotions are doing their job of exposing your devastation, your desires, your disappointments, what’s happening in the soul, so that we can lovingly help you to work on that which you can control. You can’t control people and circumstances. I can blame my parents. I can blame the past. I can blame people. I can even blame predicaments of life, but none of those things can determine our what’s happening in my heart. How I choose to handle that, which is determined in my emotions.

I think a lot of people who hear that think I’m taking away or saying their emotions aren’t valid, or that what happened to them was not real. No, it’s real. I want to help you work it through in a way that you can have the peace that transcends all understanding. I think that’s a lot of reasons why.

Sam Stephens: I think that’s helpful. And we’ve talked about this on the podcast quite often; I think in tandem with that, we live in this therapeutic culture that puts feelings and emotions first. In fact, that’s what defines who we are as people instead of the other way around. What you’re saying is not that we can’t hurt people with our words, but our responses are not dependent on what other people do or say to us. We are totally free to obey the Lord, serve Him.

I think that’s why someone like Paul, for example, can be content in all circumstances regardless of what happened. He wasn’t victim to what other people said, thought, or did to him. He was submitting his will, his heart, his emotions to the Lord and serving Him. That’s why we can have joy and peace when we aren’t surrounded by peaceful circumstances or joyful circumstances. Because we have this new mind in Christ. And you I know you’ve taught on this before—the idea of renewing the mind and this whole topic of emotions. These are conjoined ideas in the Bible, these are together. 

Nicolas Ellen: Absolutely. One of the things that I like to tell people is this. If you were controlled or if your emotions were determined by other people (and I tell them, “Hear me out because I know right now I’m saying something that seems foreign to you”) but consider this: A person on the street that you don’t know calls you stupid. Not only have you forgotten about it by the time it’s come out of a person’s mouth, you don’t even remember that someone called you stupid on the street. But your wife, your child, someone close to you calls you stupid and all of a sudden this flood of emotions comes. How is it that you forgot about the person on the street, but this person says it and you hold it in your heart.

If emotions were controlled on the outside by people then everything that everyone did would always stir up something in you. You would spend your life trying to control people and circumstances in order for you to feel better. Whereas the reason why that didn’t bother you is because you don’t value what that person thinks. You value what this person thinks, therefore your reactions on the inside, your emotions are exposing just how much you value, what you believe, what you want. 

Then they start to get it. “So you’re not telling me that it’s bad that I have these emotions. You’re trying to help me understand where they come from, the origin, and how to address them.” I’m going, “Yes! Hear my heart on this.”

Sam Stephens: We’re not trying to be uncompassionate. It’s obviously our desire to speak the truth in love. There are people that are suffering and there are people that are thinking wrongly with sinful thinking that needs to be addressed, but regardless, in any of those we approach the same way. That’s with Christlike compassion, but also conviction and teaching and truth.

As we land the plane on this discussion and bring it down to the very practical, do you have any suggestions or general tips for our counselors, our listeners, as they seek to begin to engage people who maybe are very confused about their emotional state, maybe they’re dealing with particular emotional issues? What are some ways that we can equip our counselors to think rightly about this as they engage with these people?

Nicolas Ellen: See emotions as check engine lights to guide us to support and to help people in their sanctification process, to either help them in their suffering or help them grow in their sanctification. Don’t try to, for lack of better words, fix people’s emotions. Help people see that their emotions are coming from something else. Listen to them, embrace them, but yet guide them to show them, “Hey, at the end of the day, I am so glad that you felt comfortable to share this with me. And I think that God has the answer that can help you grow and change through this. We’re going to work through this together.” Then they say, “Okay, so you heard me. You see what I’m feeling, but now you’re going to help me take those feelings to take them back to the attitudes of the heart, the desires of the heart, and my reactions that have followed and show me how to confess, how to repent, how to replace, how to find the peace that transcends all understanding through the practice of embracing the will of God accordingly.” 

I think you will find people that will be encouraged to talk to you versus discouraged because you just got their emotions and you just harping on what they’re feeling versus got to get back to what they’re thinking, desiring, expectations, etc. 

Sam Stephens: All that helps. Nic, as always, you bring so much clarity to demystifying a topic that’s a really big topic. This is a hot topic, pop psychology is always concerned about emotions and stabilizing emotions and things that we talked about. To summarize what you’ve said, we don’t ignore these things, these things are a by-product of us being made in the image of God. It’s a beautiful thing, but they’re also not neutral. They don’t happen unto us, they come forth from our heart. You’ve done such a great job in helping our listeners understand that and giving us some extremely helpful and practical advice. Nic, thank you so much for your ministry and work and for joining us today. 

Nicolas Ellen: Well, thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to be with a brother from another mother.

Sam Stephens: Thanks a lot. I appreciate that.