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Feelings and Faith

Truth in Love 410

How do we begin to define and think about emotions through the lens of Scripture?

Apr 17, 2023

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I’m delighted to have with me, Brian Borgman. He’s a founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Minden, Nevada. He earned a B.A. in biblical studies from Biola University, a Master of Divinity from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and a Doctor of Ministry from Western Seminary located in Escondido, California. He’s also earned a Th.M. from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Historical Theology. Brian and his wife, Ariel been married since 1987, they have three wonderful children, Ashley, Zach, and Alex, four grandsons, a granddaughter, and one that’s on the way. I’m sure that’s really exciting, Brian.

He’s the author of the book Feelings and Faith, along with a number of other books. Brian, I’m so grateful for your work, particularly on this book and other things that you’ve done. But particularly this book, I think in a time where emotions and the ideas of feelings have run rampant in our culture, I think you’re addressing some of these things from a biblical perspective. I know ACBC and many of our contingency have benefited from it, so, I’m so grateful for that. First, welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being with us. 

Brian Borgman: Well, thank you very much for having me. 

Dale Johnson: Now, we’re just going to jump into this and I know “Feelings and Faith” has been around for quite some time now. But I want to recount a little bit of the story. This is always very interesting to me to hear from an author because you can only fit so much in the word count of a book. It’s always interesting to hear sort of the context of that. So, Brian, I want you to work us through. How did this come about? You writing “Feelings and Faith,” how’d that happen? 

Brian Borgman: Yeah, so we planted Grace Community Church in 1994, and we are a confessionally Reformed Baptist Church, so we love reformed theology and our congregation loved theology. And around 2002, I started to think about the fact that we were somewhat neglecting the emotional aspect of the Christian Life from a Scriptural perspective, and I think that the influence of Jonathan Edwards and of course probably John Piper and many of the Puritans who actually did emphasize the affections, kind of felt like maybe there was something lacking in the way that we were approaching things. And so, I started just to dig into Scripture and what started out to be a three-part series turned into a twenty-two-part series. So, I did that around 2002, and the sermons were posted on sermon audio as we do with our sermons. And the response was really overwhelming. I mean I think to date the sermon on depression is over forty thousand downloads. So, it just seemed like there was maybe a little bit of a void out there.

So in 2007, I had a very serious back injury and I was laid up for about three months or so, and a good friend of mine, Dr. Bruce Ware from Southern Seminary, I had him when I was at Western, he and his wife had heard the sermons and he encouraged me to redeem the time during my recovery and put it into a book form. And I did, I think it probably kept me sane during recovery because I’m not the kind of person to just have to lay down all day. That’s how the book came about, and the response to the book has been in a sense of been overwhelming to me, just because I never expected the kind of reaction that we’ve had. But that’s how the book came about. So, in some ways you know, you get your name attached to certain things, I’ll run into people here and there and they’ll say, oh you’re the emotions guy and I don’t know that’s necessarily the way that I want to leave this world being known but it is what it is. 

Dale Johnson: Well, hey, I appreciate maybe we could call you the sermon guy or the exegetical guy because, if you think about how the book came about. I think you’re right. You were touching a pulse of something in our culture that’s absolutely legitimate. It is the way that we talk about personality; it’s the way that we talk about identification. We use the language of emotions in so many different ways. You are talking about the Puritans and it is interesting so often the Puritans are seen and I mean this philosophically but stoic, just non-affective, no emotion, you know, I think what you’re alluding to here with Jonathan Edwards, Piper, and then lumping the Puritans with him. Nothing could be further from the truth about how deeply they felt and how their views of the Scripture drove them in ways that felt things deeply, whether that be joy, sorrow, difficulty, or whatever. And so, that is a misnomer and I’m glad that you’re addressing that.

But yet we still have so much confusion about this issue of emotion and maybe we should start in this particular place because you use the term affection when you were talking about Edwards. In the modern sense, we sort of use a term of emotion. Obviously, there’s some distinction there and what we mean. So let’s try to define it now. So, how do you, Brian, define this issue of emotion? 

Brian Borgman: Yeah, well I mean, I think we could start with using the word “affections” because, in a sense, that’s sort of the classical word. It’s the word that Edwards would have used. Of course, his famous work on a treatise concerning religious affections. For Edwards, the affections were the inclinations in the movements of the soul. And so, it was in a sense, you could say, affections are bigger than what we might categorize as emotions. But you know, just for in a sense simplicity’s sake, I use the term somewhat interchangeable. There are other words that would be let’s say, negative in connotation, for instance, passions. So, Edwards would use the term passions in a way that is far baser than the term affections. And I think sometimes when we use the word emotions, I think maybe we relegate the idea simply to what we would call passions. And in a sense, I want to use the term emotions in sort of a bigger fuller way. But when it comes to actually defining the emotions, this is where things get a little tricky, really. Because on the one hand, you would have contemporary psychologists who would actually look at the emotions as being just inextricably bound to the physical, right? And so, there would be not anything necessarily moral or immoral about the emotions. There are, of course, toxic emotions. And in fact, in 2020 National Geographic devoted an entire edition of their magazine to the emotions and really its sort of neural circuitry and sort of a non-cognitive approach. So one of the examples would be, you see a bear, your heart starts racing, and you interpret that as fear. And so, it’s a physiological manifestation, then you attribute some emotional term to it. And I think that biblically, I don’t think that we can define emotions that way. Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence,” which really has become in a sense of movement on its own. He has a very, very evolutionary perspective on the emotions and I think for us as Bible-believing Christians, we understand the emotions, very, very differently.

Now, there is debate, of course, among Christians, as to the role of emotions. And in fact, we might get to this a little later, I hope. But I would just say, for the sake of our conversation at this point that the emotions are first of all they’re an inherent part of our humanity. There is a connection between body and soul in terms of the emotions but I could say six things that I think would sort of summarize. One, they reflect the image of God in us. I don’t think there’s any way for us to escape the fact that we are emotional beings constitutionally, as we’ve been made in the image of God, but then the other thing I would say is that the emotions end up being indicators. I think John Bloom had said their gauges, not guides, and I think that’s really good because they are indicators of what we believe and what we value. And then I would say they express the inner man, they express the soul, where the heart, or the mind in any of those categories of course overlap biblically, but they are the reflection or the expression of the inner man. I would say also the emotions strongly influence our motive and conduct either rightly or wrongly, and then they’re necessary for us to properly know and relate I would say to God and to each other, and they may be good, they may be bad, they may be neutral, but there is a moral quality to our emotions. 

Dale Johnson: What you’re describing right now is so critical and important in the current framework that we’re living in, so much is being described in terms of our emotions as they relate to a biological determinism, that our biology determines how we respond to these things. And therefore, you can see in that language, especially in terms of trauma and things like that, it divorces us from some form of responsibility. It divorces a moral disposition, as it relates to these things. It divorces, I think the image of God in us as interpreters of our surroundings, what we trust in, and hope in a given moment, no matter how brief or rapid that moment may occur, I think you’re making some really good nuances here that ought to be emphasized in a lot of different ways, and we talk about emotions.

You are describing these not just simply as negative things, I think our culture secularly has built this idea that especially the ones that we would categorize as unwanted, like depression and so on that those things in and of themselves are the bad things, and we’ve built sort of this idea that certain emotions are in and of themselves bad. And I like the way you are framing that first to say, you know what, no, emotions these types of things that we experience that we feel they are innate to us. They’re part of our, as you said constitution, I love the way that you’re framing that. I think that’s the proper way for us to look at it. Now, we’re going to flush this out a little bit more. What I want you to do, is to try and start building, maybe what we would call a biblical or theological framework in how to understand emotion. So we’re going to start putting some meat on the skeleton that you described in those six things. So, help us to understand a biblical theological framework here. 

Brian Borgman: Okay, well, frankly, this is my favorite part of talking about this because, to me, the framework ends up being so important for us as a lens, and I would start with the doctrine of God, and here’s some thing, I mean, I know this is controversial because you know, the confessions typically Westminster Confession, our second London Baptist Confession, God is without passions and parts. And when I read the Scriptures, I think that you see very clearly that God displays what we would call affections or emotions; God rejoices over His people, God has anger, God has wrath, God delights over His people like a bridegroom delights over his bride, and you have this really strong emotional language that’s attributed to God. Now, how we understand that theologically ends up being, I think somewhat challenging because let’s just say the language of emotion attributed to God in Scripture is not strictly the same as our emotions, right? So, there is an analogy, but God is perfect. God is Holy. So, if we could put it this way, God has an emotional life that is qualitatively different than ours because God doesn’t fluctuate; God’s immutable. But I don’t think that we take immutability and impassibility and take those terms to mean that God is an unfeeling being, right? I would prefer to see, in a sense, sort of a mystery between the transcendence of God and then the immanence of God. So God has compassion, for instance, on the brokenhearted. So how does a God who never changes, how does he have compassion on the brokenhearted? Well, I’m not exactly sure. But what I’m unwilling to do is I’m unwilling to neuter that language to say that it simply is an effect or something that I experienced. I want to say these are real things in God if you will, real affections, joy, anger so forth, and so the doctrine of God is where we start. And so we see a God who displays perfect, holy emotion.

From there, I would then move to the incarnation because what we have in the incarnation of course, is Jesus Christ as the God-man. So, Jesus is the perfect reflection of the Father, right? I mean, how many passages do we have? You know, Jesus says to Philip, when you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. He is the exact representation of God’s nature. He is the effulgence of God’s glory, right? And he is the image of the invisible God. And so, Jesus Christ in his Incarnation perfectly, you know, in the language of John, perfectly exegetes the Father to us. So when I see Jesus in his incarnation, I’m seeing the reflection of God, but I’m also seeing man as man ought to be right. Because Jesus Christ is perfect humanity, unfallen, untainted by sin. And so, when I see Jesus in His humanity, I look at the gospels and what I see is a full array of emotional display, and everything from his anger at the Pharisees, as to whether or not He was going to heal on the Sabbath or His grief, or His yearning for Jerusalem or His joy,  Jesus actually delights in Luke 11. And so, you have this full array, and a really important resource here is B.B. Warfield’s classic article, “The Emotional Life of our Lord.” He says that of all the emotion that Jesus displays in the incarnation, that compassion is the preeminent emotion. And so if we move from the person of God, then we move to the person of Christ, what we see as the God-man is we see this full array of perfect emotion. I would say as a reflection of God and then also a reflection of perfect humanity.

Then from there, of course, we could move to the doctrine of man, man being made in the image of God, that ends up being really critical in understanding our emotional constitution. So, if I understand that the emotions are inherent to my humanity as being made in the image and likeness of God, then there’s something that I have to say is positively good about my emotional constitution. It would be sure affected by the fall and all of that. But, you know, at this point, if I could just take a minute to say, there is an interplay, in our humanity between our body and our soul, and one of the things, Dale, that I think is, I don’t know, it’s a little troubling to me, there are things that are far more troubling to me in this world than this, but this is troubling to me. And that is that I see among theologians and Christian writers, sort of a move towards a holism, sort of a psychosomatic unity that actually de-emphasizes the relationship between the body and the soul. And I would say that that ends up having implications for the way that we understand the emotions. Right? So if we move away from what would be called a dualism, that is, man is bipartite, body-soul, physical-spiritual, or material-immaterial. And if we start to just sort of mesh those together, we end up doing something in the way that we understand the emotions. And so, I would affirm in a sense of duality within a Unity, right? So, it may be hard for me as a human being to always differentiate what’s body, what’s soul, right, and there’s an integration to a large degree, but all that means is that my body can affect my soul, my soul can affect my body, which of course, the Proverbs talk about a lot. But at the end of the day my emotions are more than just some sort of neural process or some sort of physical or chemical process. The emotions end up being that reflection of my heart as a person made in the image and the likeness of God.

One of my fears in moving towards more of a holism is that we end up looking at things like, take anxiety, for instance, the more that we connect it to the body and apart from the spiritual aspect of being a human being, the less it becomes something that needs to be controlled. And so, Scripture, I think very directly tells us that we are not to be anxious, right? And so I listened to a lecture by a person that would be more holistic, and they used anxiety as a test case; what was interesting is that there was never any talk about not being anxious. It was basically just using your anxiety as if it was something that was in fact, uncontrollable, I think the Scripture leads us in a totally different direction, but those would be sort of the theological pillars and I throw one more in there, and that’s the doctrine of Scripture. And I don’t mean what the Scripture says about the emotions. I mean, that’s obviously important, but I would talk about Scripture as the self-revelation of God and the way that God communicates. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they communicate, and God uses consistently throughout Scripture affectional language and language that is designed to stir the affections. And so, that says a lot to me about the way that we need to understand the emotions in the Christian life.

Dale Johnson: I appreciate that. And I want to make a mental note here because I think, you know, what you’re pressing on is something we need to dive deeper into, and we don’t have time to do that today. So I want to make a note for you not to talk about this at a time in the future. I think I need even on the podcast as we think about, you know, mind-body or heart-body, how we think about that interplay. Because there is an interplay. Historically what you see, whether it be secular or even in the churches, is reductionism. Reductionism happens because we recognize okay, we have a physical body. The church is always held to idea of some aspect of the inner man, but you see an ebb and flow historically into wanting, I called it explanatory power, is we see something experientially, and we want to explain it in some sort of system, and we have a tendency to reduce that explanation down to an emphasis on one or the other. And then we have a tendency over time to swing that pendulum back to the other side and so on. And you see that happen throughout the history of psychiatry, for example, from biological to what’s called romantic, where they’re psychogenic explanations, which just simply means, you know, a psychological explanation for what drives a person sort of like, if you’re thinking in Freudian psychoanalytic theory versus what we see, now, very chemically, neuronal explanations for the emotions that we have.

So, I think we should talk even more about that at some point because a lot of the issues coming up today that are pressing on biblical counseling, like the issue of trauma and trauma-informed and all that. This is sort of the space that it’s trying to occupy. And I think we have to be biblically clear on humanity, right? And so, let’s press pause on that conversation. I definitely want to bring you back because you’ve thought about this, and I’ve thought about this a considerable amount. I want us to even talk further about that, but I do want to get to maybe fleshing this out a little bit in terms of humanity. One of the last parts that you talked about was specifically related to our humanity, and let’s talk maybe in some practical terms here in terms of how the emotions relate to or affect our humanity, our redemption, the way we think about sin, how are our emotions affected in that way? And maybe we’ll finish here. 

Brian Borgman: Yeah, that is such an important topic, right? Because if we’re going to insist that the emotions are a reflection of the image of God in us then that is that they’re originally good. But then we have to reckon with the fall and the fall affects every part of our humanity, right? I mean, I don’t think anybody would say, well, my mind is untainted by sin, I mean, everybody’s going to acknowledge to one degree or another that sin has deeply impacted our minds, sin has deeply impacted our wills, but sin has also deeply impacted our emotional life. So that what ends up happening in our state of sin, if you will, is that we end up loving things that we should hate; hating things that we should love. We can then think in terms of the way that sin is impacted our emotional life, like on a spectrum. So, you know, you could have a person who is seriously stoic and just seems completely unmoved by anything. Well, I want to say that that is a manifestation of sin’s impact on the emotions just as much as the person who seems to be emotionally out of control. So if we look at the way that sin has impacted the emotions we end up looking at all these different angles. It’s not just like one size fits all, but you can go right back to Cain in Genesis 4, sin is crouching at the door; you have to master it, right? Why is your countenance fallen? Well, you know what, that’s more than emotion, but that’s not less. And so trying to understand that ends up being really critical in terms of the way that we counsel.

But then, I would say that when it comes to redemption, just as sure as sin has impacted every faculty of our being, redemption impacts every faculty of our being. When we began to be drawn by God, He begins to work in us. What does He do? Well, He enlightens our mind. In 2 Corinthians 4, we see the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we were darkened, we were blinded. We start to see He works on our wills; He starts to draw us. I was telling our congregation not too long ago that for God to bend our wills to desire Him and to come to Christ is a greater miracle than parting the Red Sea because I’m not oriented that way by nature. I’m oriented the opposite way. But He works on my will, but He also works on my emotions, and it’s going to look different in different people. It looks different in Scripture, when you see Lydia in Acts 16, it’s a very quiet thing, but God opens her heart to believe what was spoken by Paul and changes her heart. The Philippian jailer, we have to admit, that was a little more dramatic, right? And so, I think that there’s probably an array of emotional response to the gospel, emotional reaction, if you will, to the work of the Spirit. But here’s the thing, is that no matter where our starting point is, sanctification is conformity to the image of Christ. And so, that means that my emotions are involved in my growth and grace and the sanctification process that’s making me more like Jesus. 

Dale Johnson: I love that. And just for time like we’re going to have to stop here, but I want to have you back and talk about some of these things because I think the noetic effect of sin on our emotions is legitimate. And what we see is it’s not so much our emotions that are the bad thing. It’s what we’re interpreting often in the moment that we’re not seeing reality even clearly. We’re responding emotionally to what we believe to be true in a given moment. There’s a lot more right that we can flesh out. And so this is an unbelievable conversation, Brian. I really appreciate this. And I think you’re helping to give some clarity on how we think about emotions. And I love the way that we started this in talking specifically about how to understand these ideas rooted in God because man can never understand themselves fully without first understanding God. And as we think in terms like that, that’s how we’re going to come to some legitimized understanding of what we experience in real-time with our feelings, with our emotions. And so, I appreciate the way you’re directing this conversation. I think it’s super-valuable to where we are right now in the broader culture, particularly in biblical counseling. So, thank you, brother. I appreciate your time. 

Brian Borgman: Thank you.

Helpful Resources:

Counseling and the Emotions.

You can find the Journal for Biblical Soul Care here.